How Do People React to Sexual Violence?

Sexual violence can include unwanted sexual comments, physical or emotional assault and coercive control of a person’s sexuality. It can occur in any setting, including homes, schools, workplaces and neighborhoods. Many perpetrators are people known to the victim, such as intimate partners or acquaintances. In fact, eight out of 10 sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.

Physically, sexual violence can be accompanied by injury and/or the risk of infection. Emotionally, survivors often feel numbness, shock and fear. They may have difficulty trusting others or feeling safe in social situations. They may not remember the assault, or they may recall details but be unable to talk about them. They can also experience thoughts of guilt and shame.

Dissociation is another common coping mechanism. It is when a survivor experiences a disconnect from their body and senses during an attack, or in other situations that remind them of the assault. Survivors often describe feelings of being outside their own bodies or floating above their own heads, and they may have flashbacks.

Survivors of sexual violence are at risk for developing a variety of mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. They may also have difficulties in their relationships with family, friends, and lovers. Some experience substance abuse and other maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as eating disorders or self-harm.

There are many ways to help prevent sexual violence, and it is everyone’s responsibility. Individuals can promote healthy behaviors and relationships, speak out against disrespectful attitudes and actions, and intervene when they see something that is wrong. Schools, businesses and community settings can create proactive policies to foster a safer environment and offer trainings on bystander intervention.

While a person who has experienced sexual assault and/or rape will react differently to the trauma, some common reactions are:

Everyone’s life is affected by sexual violence in some way. The impact can be felt by family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and other community members. It can affect children, men, women, people of all ages, races and sexual identities. Almost all victims know their attacker, and most of these attacks are not reported.

A sex crime occurs every five minutes in the United States. In addition, more than half of all sexual assaults are underreported. Sexual violence happens to people of all ages, from all walks of life, regardless of their economic status, race, education or religious beliefs. It can happen to anyone, and it is never a victim’s fault.

Sexual violence impacts everyone in some way, and it can have long-term effects on the physical, psychological and social health of survivors. Physical impacts can include personal injuries, concerns about pregnancy or the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. The psychological and social impacts can include feelings of fear, guilt, self-blame, anger, isolation and depression. The economic impacts can include medical and other expenses.