What Is Sexual Violence?
Sexual violence is a serious and widespread problem that impacts both children and adults. Sexual violence includes any kind of unwanted physical contact, manipulation or assault that involves the genital area and other body parts. Sexual violence is often a part of child abuse or neglect and may also be the result of domestic or dating abuse, trafficking or sexual exploitation. It can even be used as a weapon of war, or employed as a means to torture, extract information or degrade civilians.
A thorough definition is essential to understanding the magnitude of sexual violence and monitoring its trends over time. The use of a consistent definition also helps inform prevention and intervention efforts.
There are many different types of sexual violence, but all involve a violation of a person’s right to be free of aggression and coercion. Coercion can occur in a variety of ways, including physical force, psychological intimidation or blackmail, and threats to harm others or to hurt oneself. Coercion can also include denial of access to contraception or protection against sexually transmitted diseases.
Victims of sexual violence may experience a wide range of physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms as a result of their experiences. These symptoms can include somatic (body) complaints, a lack of energy or difficulty concentrating, dissociation or numbing, and feelings of anger or sadness. Some survivors experience suicidal thoughts or self-injury.
Survivors of sexual violence frequently experience a sense of betrayal and guilt as a result of the trauma. They can feel as if they deserve what happened to them or that their attacker was somehow at fault. They may also feel shame about reporting the assault to police or other social workers, or have difficulty trusting others. Survivors may have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships as a result of their experience.
Sexual assaults can be especially dangerous when alcohol and/or drugs are involved. In addition to taking away a victim’s ability to give consent, alcohol and other drugs can impair a person’s judgment. This can lead to a situation where a person is attacked because they are alone, drunk or asleep and not fully aware of what is happening to them.
Sexual assaults can be more common in certain cultures. For example, men from sexually conservative cultures are more likely to interpret nonsexual behaviors and platonic interests as sexual in nature, resulting in sexual violence against women. Cultural differences in perceptions of shame also impact the incidence of rape and other sexual violence. Sociocentric cultures place relations with others at the core and tend to produce a more social feeling of shame than ego-centric cultures which are characterized by personal feelings of guilt and self-esteem. Those from sociocentric cultures may be less likely to report their experiences of sexual violence as a result of this cultural influence.