How Sexual Violence Affects People

Sexual violence is a serious human rights abuse that impacts people across all cultures, social classes and communities. It can happen in a variety of settings including at home, in work or school and in the community and can involve any gender. People who have been impacted by sexual violence can experience physical, emotional and psychological harm. This harm can have long-term consequences for their overall health and wellbeing, including psychiatric and mental health problems. Sexual assault can also impact people’s closest relationships, and their families, friends, and communities.

The most immediate effects of sexual violence can be a sense of being unsafe and a fear of being attacked again. It can lead to anxiety, depression and a range of other mental health issues. These can impact a person’s ability to function in their day-to-day life and can cause difficulty with their work, studies, and other daily activities. It can also lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment.

Most victims of sexual violence are coerced or manipulated into non-consensual sex. This can be done with physical force or by means of emotional and psychological pressure. Victims may be told to have sex or to engage in sexual activity and can be threatened with loss of family, employment, and other benefits they receive or might be able to access. They might also be deprived of food and water to increase their vulnerability to sexual violence. Perpetrators can also encourage the consumption of alcohol to make people more intoxicated, which increases their likelihood of being sexually assaulted.

In many cases, the person who perpetrates sexual violence is someone that the victim knows – this is often known as intimate partner or acquaintance sex. Eight out of ten male perpetrators are known to their victims, while only about one-in-10 is a stranger.

Sexual assault can also occur within on-going intimate relationships, both heterosexual and same sex, and some victims may continue to live in a situation of sexual violence for a long period of time. It can be difficult for victims to recognize this as they may think that the sex they are experiencing is consensual. Research has found that cultural factors and values influence the way in which a victim experiences this type of harm. Hofstede has found that sociocentric cultures place a greater emphasis on the dignity of family and others, while ego-centric cultures value more individualism. This has a direct impact on how a victim is perceived and how they feel about themselves in relation to other people.

If you have a friend or loved one who has experienced sexual assault, don’t push them to talk about their trauma. Instead, offer a judgment-free, compassionate space where they can share. It can be difficult to speak about sexual trauma, but the most important thing is that they know you believe them and that they are not alone. Also, avoid asking questions that imply blame such as “Why did this happen?” or “Who is to blame”. These types of statements can make victims and survivors feel shamed and blamed for their own experiences.