Sexual Violence and Its Impact on Family and Friends

Sexual violence is a serious crime that can affect anyone. It can impact a person physically, emotionally, economically and socially. It can cause a wide variety of mental health issues, from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder and self-blame. Sexual violence can also have an impact on family and friends, including children.

Sexual assault is not just a physical act, but it is about control, power and dominance. In most cases, the perpetrators use some form of coercion. This is not just about physical force, but can involve psychological intimidation or blackmail – for example, threats to hurt a family member, threat to get a job, etc. In some cases, a victim is unable to give consent – they may be drunk or drugged or asleep or mentally incapable of understanding what is happening to them.

Perpetrators of sexual violence often find meaning in their actions. Often, they view themselves as victims or oppressed in society and are seeking to reclaim their own power and dominance. Many perpetrators are known to their victims – about eight out of ten sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. This is called intimate partner rape or acquaintance rape.

Whether or not a person chooses to report their experience of sexual violence, they are likely to have immediate and long-term impacts from the event. They may need to seek medical care, be tested for STIs and have treatment for any injuries that occurred. Survivors can have significant emotional, social and economic problems as they try to come to terms with what happened to them. They can be overwhelmed with feelings of shame, guilt and fear, including anger, anxiety, depression and self-blame.

They may feel that what happened was their fault or they could have prevented it if only they had been more careful, more attentive or better dressed. They may find it hard to trust others, and have difficulty forming relationships or maintaining employment. The trauma from sexual violence can have a ripple effect, affecting their friends, family, children and workplaces as they try to cope with what has happened.

There is a need for research on the links between the various factors that lead to sexual violence. Some researchers suggest that culture plays a role, but there is also a need to look at individual level and relationship levels of risk. Examples of these risks include alcohol and drugs; attitudes and beliefs that support sexual violence; a desire for impersonal sex; impulsive behaviours; childhood experiences of abuse or witnessing family abuse; and hostility towards women (PREVENT, 2005c).

Everybody can play a part in preventing sexual violence. Everyone can help stop sexual assault and abuse from occurring by letting others know that they do not accept a person’s violence against them; by taking steps to protect people, for example driving a friend home after they have had too much to drink; by explaining that sex offenders should not be treated with humour or jokes; and by getting security involved when threatening behaviour is being exhibited in public.