What is Sexual Trauma: Terms, Symptoms, Effects, and Treatment

Sexual Trauma

Sexual trauma is a general term that covers a broad category of things and experiences. Primarily it refers to mental and physical challenges endured by sexual assault survivors. The term sexual trauma is also used based on clinical observations. That’s because some survivors of sexual violence don’t want to label their traumatic experience as rape or assault. 

Sexual trauma inevitably causes a wide spectrum of short-term and long-term physical and psychological effects. In this article, we will tell you more about them and present essential options for further treatment.

Roles of Abuse

Unfortunately, the majority of the perpetrators are someone known to the victim. Statistics show that approximately 8 out of 10 sexual assaults are committed by someone familiar to the victims. This refers to the term acquaintance rape. 

In this case, perpetrators can be anyone, from a classmate or a neighbor to even a friend or lover. So, even in close relationships, any form of physical contact or sexual act that doesn’t involve consent can be considered sexual harassment or physical abuse. 

Also, many victims often feel the absence of force and even denial of their own experiences. This happens because they blame themselves for acting in a way that provoked or encouraged the perpetrator to engage in unwanted sexual activity. So it’s highly important to remember that in all circumstances, the victim is never to blame for the actions of a sex offender.

Many sexually abused women and sexual assault survivors often remain silenced by feelings of shame and guilt, fear for their safety, and that they won’t be believed. That’s why they don’t seek help from police or mental health professionals right after the incident. And that’s why a safe environment is crucial to support disclosure and cure trauma symptoms. 


Personal responses to sexual trauma can be very diverse and individual. Some women who experience sexual abuse are gripped by fear and shock to the extent they lose control over their bodies and emotions. 

Yet, there are sexual assault survivors among women with little to no response to the sexual violence that has taken place. Instead, they simply choose to move on, trying to avoid additional damage to their bodies and mental health. 

Luckily, in both cases, it’s still possible to differentiate the main trauma symptoms of sexual abuse, which involve psychological, emotional, and physical responses. 

Physical responses 

  • Changes in sleep patterns;
  • Poor hygiene;
  • Difficulties with concentration;
  • Traumatic memories;
  • Substance abuse;
  • Self-injurious behaviors;
  • Obvious changes in work or school performance.

Emotional responses

  • Frequent and sharp mood swings;
  • Intrusive thoughts and constant traumatizing flashbacks;
  • Avoidance of social situations.

Psychological responses

  • Fear and anxiety disorders;
  • Depression;
  • PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder);
  • Sexual dysfunction. 

Traumatic stress may lead to a drastic shift in personality. So if a previously sociable and easy-going person begins to withdraw into themselves following the assault, this could be a reaction to sexual violence.

Effects of Sexual Trauma

A broad variety of short-term and long-term consequences may be related to specific assault characteristics, survivor personal traits, environmental conditions, and availability of certain health care resources and social support services. 

Those who seek health care or support system services while experiencing sexual trauma after sexual abuse may present with a wide range of medical conditions that significantly decrease their quality of life. In some way, sexual trauma can be compared to any chronic disease that impairs normal daily functioning and impacts the quality of social interactions.  

Effects of sexual assault on children

Childhood sexual trauma is directly related to PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) and includes such trauma symptoms as intense fear, depression, self-harm, nonfatal suicidal behavior, and eating disorders. Childhood sexual abuse may also cause relationship and socialization difficulties and further involve extreme and unhealthy coping strategies in children. 

Sexually assaulted children may experience a wide range of physical symptoms and mental health problems, urogynaecological issues as well as standing avoidance of preventive health examinations.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much information about the consequences of childhood sexual victimization among children from understudied ethnic, religious, and cultural communities or those from poor and homeless groups. This aspect requires additional clinical observations and equally applies to sexual victimization among adult women. 

Effects of sexual assault on adults

As mentioned above, sexual trauma in adult women causes short-term and long-term psychological and physical effects. The list of short ones includes intense fear, anxiety, shock, and self-isolation. In some cases, victims may experience a relief of symptoms within a few months, while other women could suffer from severe distress for years. 

Long-term consequences of sexual violence include depression, PTSD, substance abuse, self-harm, suicidal behavior, eating disorders, and certain physical symptoms in the absence of medical conditions. There is a higher risk of developing mental health issues when recurring and severe cases of assault take place. 

Military Sexual Trauma

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs defines military sexual trauma as incidents of sexual assault, sexual abuse, or repeated threatening sexual harassment that happened while a person was in the United States Armed Forces. 

Military sexual trauma is unique in its difficulty because it implies that service members, while in the military, have to continue working and living with their offender. In some cases, a victim even has to rely on their offender for such essential things as food or basic health care. 

Also, because of constant anxiety and fear, most service members don’t tell anyone about their traumatic experience, even their family members. They believe that they would lose respect for them and start seeing them as weak and vulnerable. For this reason, many service members suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder and depression.

Military sexual trauma can put victims in a bind. As veterans, it still can be emotionally difficult for sexually assaulted service members to report the abuse or other severe cases of unwanted sexual acts. 


Living with sexual trauma can be unbearably hard. Being engaged in sexual activity without consent can subsequently impact every aspect of life, taking away mental and emotional well-being and physical strength. 

Although the effects of sexual assault and sexual abuse cannot be minimized, they can still be managed with proper treatment. For example, this can be cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), primarily focused on the tools for navigating negative thoughts and traumatic memories. The CBT model is equally suitable for children and adults. 

Alternatively, sexual violence survivors may find a safe space among other survivors during group therapy. Psychodynamic therapy, in turn, can help to reconstruct self-image and healthily tackle emotional reactions.

Final Thoughts

Recovering from sexual trauma can be extremely difficult. This condition involves a wide range of mental health problems and physical symptoms. However, it’s still necessary to continue seeking help and not be afraid to ask for it. 

Speaking of treatment, unfortunately, there are no short-term options. A victim should be constantly involved in the process of therapy and be ready to do the work assigned by a mental health specialist. 

In order to help children who became victims of child molestation, it’s essential to provide them with a safe and nonjudgemental environment in which they can openly talk about their feelings and experiences. Likewise, it’s necessary to seek psychological help, trust the professionals and never pressure the child.