Effects & Trauma After Sexual Abuse

There are many effects that are caused from the experience of Sexual Assault.  The trauma of this experience can cause many symptoms.  This section is here to provide information on the impacts, effects, and truama after sexual abuse.  There is also a list of questions that you can ask yourself to see what effects this experience has had on you. Click the following link A Note to Male Survivors, When to Seek a Mental Health Professional, Impacts on Female Survivors, What are the Effects of Sexual Abuse to give yourself a quick assesment. For more information on select this hyperlink.

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Impact on Survivors

The experience of sexual assault is different for each person. Because each of us cope with stress in our own way, it is not possible to predict exactly how you will feel or react. It may be helpful, however, for you to learn about the reactions that are common. This information will help you to sort out and understand what you may be feeling right now or what you may feel in the future. You may experience all or some of these feelings and reactions at different points in your recovery. It is important to remember that these feelings and reactions are part of the healing process.



Victims of sexual assault are:

  • 3 times more likely to suffer from depression

  • 6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder

  • 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol

  • 26 times more likely to abuse drugs

  • 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide

(Source: World Health Organization, 2002)






Your mind/body has experienced tremendous stress. You may feel a lack of energy and a general feeling of tiredness for several days following the assault.


Discomfort and pain

You may feel sore all over and experience physical pain that was not apparent immediately after the assault. It is common for muscular aches and bruises to develop a day or two later. If pain persists or becomes severe, contact the Emergency Room or your private physician.



Because of the shock your system has experienced, you may have difficulty focusing or concentrating on routine activities. You may lose your train of thought while talking, or you may experience difficulty remembering what you were going to do next.


Change in appetite

You may experience a loss of appetite and feelings of nausea.


Sleep disturbance

You may have difficulty going to sleep or you may have nightmares about the sexual assault. You may find yourself awakening at the exact time the assault took place.


Menstrual problems

Your monthly period may become shorter or longer, or you may not have a period at all. An increased number of vaginal infections may occur. It is important to check with your doctor if you experience any of these changes.


Difficulties with sexual relationships

You may feel uncomfortable with sexual activity following the assault. Images of the assault may occur during sex with your partner.



You may experience vivid visual recall (flashbacks) of specific events of the assault. These may be triggered by certain smells, sights, or sounds that are linked in the brain with the assault.


Startle reactions

You may feel jumpy. Loud noises or people coming up from behind you may startle you.





Shock and disbelief

Initially, you may feel numb or as though this didn’t really happen to you. You may experience a sense of detachment from normal daily routines and events.


Shame and embarrassment

You may feel dirty and humiliated by being forced by the assailant to participate in certain acts. Showering and bathing may increase in response to your need to “get clean.” You may worry that your friends and loved ones will think less of you or that you are somehow different and less worthy since the assault.



Feelings of guilt are a common reaction. Because of the many myths about rape, you may blame yourself for the assault, doubt your own judgment or wonder if you were in some way responsible for the assault. You may feel preoccupied with thoughts of what you could have done to prevent it or you may wonder if the assault was a type of punishment for something you did. Trying to find reasons for the assault is a way of trying to regain control over the situation.


Powerlessness and fear

Because the assailant took control of you during the assault, you may have feared you would be killed or seriously injured. As a result, you may feel extremely vulnerable and fearful. Here are some common fears:

  • Fear of being alone

  • Fear of the opposite sex

  • Fear of going outside

  • Fear of night-time

  • Fear of sleeping

  • Fear the assailant will return


Isolation and aloneness

You may think no one could possibly understand what you’ve gone through or what you’re feeling. Often, you may feel like you’re the only one to whom this has happened.


Mood swings

You may feel you’re on an emotional roller coaster. You may find yourself getting angry or irritated over things that wouldn’t have bothered you before. You may cry for no apparent reason.


Anger and revenge

You may fantasize of getting even with your assailant or seeking revenge. These feelings may be disturbing and frightening to you.





In our society, men are generally taught that sexual assault only happens to women. As a result, male victims may experience rage, self-loathing, self-blame, guilt, and other familiar reactions, but they may also develop concerns about their own sexuality. This may keep them from seeking help.


It’s important to remember that:

  • Men can be and are victims of sexual assault, regardless of their sexual orientation.

  • Though women can sexually assault men, usually the perpetrator is another man. Men who sexually assault other men may be heterosexual or homosexual.

  • Being sexually assaulted by another man does not make a male victim homosexual.


Sometimes male victims may experience an erection or ejaculation during the assault. This is a physiological response; it only means the body is functioning normally. It does not mean the victim “wanted” it or is homosexual.

(Source: Military Sexual Trauma. North Carolina National Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program, 2009.)





  • Sense of self and concept of “reality” are disrupted.

  • Profound anxiety, depression, fearfulness.

  • Concern about sexual orientation.

  • Development of phobias related to the assault setting.

  • Fear of the worst happening and having a sense of a shortened future.

  • Withdrawal from interpersonal contact and a heightened sense of alienation.

  • Stress-induced reactions (problems sleeping, increased startle response, being unable to relax).

  • Psychological outcomes can be severe for men because men are socialized to believe that they are immune to sexual assault and because societal reactions to these assaults can be more isolating.


Heterosexual Male Survivors

  • May experience a fear that the assault will make them gay.

  • May feel that they are “less of a man.”


Homosexual Male Survivors

  • May feel the crime is “punishment” for their sexual orientation.

  • May worry that the assault affected their sexual orientation.

  • May fear they were targeted because they are gay. This fear may lead to withdrawal from the community.

  • May develop self-loathing related to their sexual orientation.



  • Relationships may be disrupted by the assault.

  • Relationships may be disrupted by others’ reactions to the assault, such as a lack of belief/support.

  • Relationships may be disrupted by the survivor’s reaction to or coping with the assault.



  • Anger about the assault, leading to outward- and inward-focused hostility.

  • Avoidance of emotions or emotional situations, stemming from the overwhelming feelings that come with surviving a sexual assault.






The pain of sexual assault is often described as an invisible wound. It is a violation of one’s inner self. The grief and sadness that a person feels after a sexual assault can be likened to the grief and pain a person feels when someone they care about dies. Feelings of betrayal and loss of trust and innocence can result in down days or feeling depressed. Symptoms of depression that should be addressed by a mental health professional include depressed feelings that linger, a continued loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy or poor concentration. These problems can become chronic or recurrent and lead to substantial impairments in an individual’s ability to take care of his or her everyday responsibilities.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping for a while. But with time and taking care of yourself, such traumatic reactions usually get better. In some cases, though, the symptoms can get worse or last for months or even years. Sometimes they may completely shake up your life. In a case such as this, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms typically start within three months of a traumatic event. In a small number of cases, though, PTSD symptoms may not appear until years after the event.

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are generally grouped into three types: intrusive memories, avoidance and numbing, and increased anxiety or emotional arousal (hyperarousal).


Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:

  • Flashbacks, or reliving the traumatic event for minutes or even days at a time

  • Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event


Symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing may include:

  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event

  • Feeling emotionally numb

  • Avoiding activities you once enjoyed

  • Hopelessness about the future

  • Memory problems

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships


Symptoms of anxiety and increased emotional arousal may include:

  • Irritability or anger

  • Overwhelming guilt or shame

  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Being easily startled or frightened

  • Hearing or seeing things that aren’t there


Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms can come and go. You may have more post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms when things are stressful in general, or when you run into reminders of what you went through. You may hear a report on the news about a rape and feel overcome by memories of your own assault.



When to See a Doctor

It’s normal to have a wide range of feelings and emotions after a traumatic event. You might experience fear and anxiety, a lack of focus, sadness, changes in how well you sleep or how much you eat, or crying spells that catch you off guard. You may have nightmares or be unable to stop thinking about the event. This doesn’t mean you have post-traumatic stress disorder.

But if you have these disturbing thoughts and feelings for more than a month, if they’re severe, or if you feel you’re having trouble getting your life back under control, talk to your health care professional or seek therapy at The Healing Place. Getting treatment as soon as possible can help prevent PTSD symptoms from getting worse.

In some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may be so severe that you need emergency help, especially if you’re thinking about harming yourself or someone else. If this happens, call 911 or other emergency medical service, The Healing Place crisis line at (828) 692-3931, or ask a supportive family member or friend for help.





Impacts on Female Survivors


Any woman who has been sexually abused or assaulted suffers emotional pain and may experience lasting effects. Your loved one may experience some or many of the following impacts immediately or at points along her path to recovery:


  • Pregnancy

  • Feeling unclean or dirty

  • Anger

  • Anxiety

  • Panic attacks

  • Sadness and crying

  • Confusion

  • Headaches

  • Fear (generalized or specific)

  • Flashbacks

  • Numbness

  • Self-blame

  • Guilt

  • Helplessness

  • Shock

  • Sexually transmitted infection

  • Depression

  • Sleep pattern changes

  • Mood swings

  • Hopelessness

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Loss of appetite

  • Substance abuse

  • Suicidal feelings

  • Shame

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Difficult sleeping/nightmares

  • Sexual difficulties

  • Negative self-image

  • Lack of trust


Women who experience sexual assault may also be strongly affected by the reactions of others. In today's world of instantaneous social media, rumours and gossip can spread in a matter of seconds. Peers, especially those of young people, can be especially insensitive about a situation they have few facts about and don't understand.

All cultures minimize or deny sexual abuse and sexual assault. Its survivors are often accused of lying or told that the crime is in some way their own fault.

People will often fault a victim instead of a perpetrator. If they choose to report the crime and charges are laid, survivors may sometimes discover they lack support from family or friends for doing so.

Women from "marginalized" communities, including immigrant or refugee women, elderly women, Aboriginal women, women with disabilities, lesbians, homeless women, women in prison and women from low-income households can face additional obstacles when attempting to report or recover from sexual abuse or sexual assault.



Women who've been sexually assaulted or abused possess the resiliency and strength to heal


Although it's extremely important to recognize the hurt and pain of the sexual assault and its aftermath, it's equally important that your loved one hear you recognizing her strengths and her courage. Everyone who's been assaulted had their own unique blend of knowledge, talents, skills and aspects of character and virtue prior to the assault, and these are not diminished by their experience.

It's important to remember that, yes, this is a life-altering event, but it doesn't have to dominate your loved one's life. It certainly does not diminish who she is. As your loved one embarks on her process of healing, remind yourself that she has many qualities that will support her recovery. Tell her that you can see these qualities, and that you have faith in her ability to heal.


What Are The Effects Of Sexual Abuse?


Being in your body

  • Do you feel at home in your body?

  • Do you feel comfortable expressing yourself sexually with another?

  • Do you feel that you are a part of your body or does your body feel like a separate entity?

  • Have you ever intentionally and physically hurt yourself?

  • Do you find it difficult to listen to your body?



  • Do you feel out of control of your feelings?

  • Do you feel you sometimes don't understand all the feelings you are experiencing?

  • Are you overwhelmed by the wide range of feelings you have?



  • What are your expectations of your partner in a relationship?

  • Do you find it easy to trust others?

  • Do you find difficulty in making commitments?

  • Even though you're in a relationship, are you still lonely?

  • Is it hard for you to allow others to get close to you?

  • Do you find yourself in relationships with people who remind you of your abuser, or you know is no good for you?



  • Do you find it difficult to love yourself?

  • Do you have a hard time accepting yourself?

  • Are you ashamed of yourself?

  • Do you have expectations of yourself that aren't realistic?



  • Do you enjoy sex?

  • Do you find it difficult to express yourself sexually?

  • Do you find yourself using sex to get close to someone?

  • Does sex make you feel dirty?

  • Are you "present" during sex?


What Problems are Caused by Sexual Abuse?


Major Sexual Symptoms of Sexual Abuse

  • Difficulty with becoming aroused and feeling sensations

  • Sex feels like an obligation

  • Sexual thoughts and images that are disturbing

  • Inappropriate sexual behaviors or sexual compulsivity

  • Vaginal pain

  • Inability to achieve orgasm or other orgasmic difficulties

  • Erections problems or ejaculatory difficulty

  • Feeling dissociated while having sex

  • Detachment or emotional distance while having sex

  • Being afraid of sex or avoiding sex

  • Guilt, fear, anger, disgust or other negative feelings when being touched


Major Long-Term Medical Symptoms of Sexual Abuse

  • Insomnia

  • Vaginal or Pelvic Pain

  • Eating Disorders

  • Headaches

  • TMJ syndrome

  • Low back pain, chest pressure

  • Erection problems or ejaculatory difficulty

  • Asthma

  • Dizziness/fainting

  • Self harming/self-mutilation

  • Chronic physical complaints


Major Long-Term Psychological Symptoms of Sexual Abuse

  • Anxiety

  • Panic Attacks

  • Low self-esteem

  • Stress disorders - PTSD

  • Personality disorders

  • Substance abuse

  • Self-abuse behaviors



Copyright ©1998 - 2006 Carol Boulware, Ph.D.


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