Long-Term Effects of Sexual Abuse


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One in five women in the US are victims of completed or attempted rape. Of those women, one in three of them experienced sexual assault between the ages of 11 and 17. These statistics aren’t just staggering, they’re indicative of millions of women who are experiencing the long-term effects of sexual abuse. 

Sexual abuse, no matter what age the victim is, has a lifelong effect that can devastate a person’s entire life. Read on to learn the ways that sexual abuse can change a survivor’s life forever. 

Defining Sexual Abuse 

When some people think of sexual abuse, they assume it means rape. However, sexual abuse is an umbrella term that covers a whole host of actions. Sexual abuse is any unwanted sexual activity involving force, threats, or lack of consent. 

Sexual abuse comes in many forms. It could be inappropriate comments, taking or distributing pictures of a sexual nature without consent, or coercing a person into sex through incessant badgering. 

It isn’t always violent and it isn’t always obvious. But the aftermath of sexual abuse is lifelong and it goes far beyond psychological issues. 

How Does Sexual Abuse Happen?

There are so many nuanced reasons why sexual violence occurs. You must remember one thing: the fault is always, 100% of the time, on the perpetrator. It is never the victim’s fault that they were sexually abused. 

Sexual abuse happens because a perpetrator makes a decision. Even if the victim was wearing revealing clothing, drinking alcohol, being flirtatious, or had consented to sex previously, they are not at fault for their assault. 

Signs of Sexual Abuse 

If you suspect that someone you love has been sexually abused, there are some signs you can look for before asking them about it. These signs can also be considered the short-term effects of sexual abuse. 

The first thing you should look for is a change in emotion. If the person is quiet or more distant than usual, if they cry for no reason, or if they start wetting the bed, it could be a sign that they are being sexually abused. Aggression, nightmares, and clinginess are also some indicators that there is something wrong. 

Remind your children that there is never a good reason to keep secrets from an adult and that adults won’t ask them to keep secrets. 

Some behaviors to watch out for are a loss of interest in playing, avoiding places or people, trouble sleeping, or issues at school. Most troubling, if your child starts to show problematic sexual behavior, it’s a good indication that something isn’t right. 

Lastly, the physical signs of sexual abuse are swelling or redness in the genital area, pain when using the bathroom, difficulty walking or sitting, or bruising on soft parts of the body. They may develop signs of urinary tract infection or have discharge from their genitals. 

Long-Term Effects of Sexual Abuse 

The long-term effects of sexual abuse may not be so obvious. They stem from simple depression and anxiety to drug abuse and suicide. 

Depression and Anxiety 

Depression and anxiety are the two most common long-term effects of sexual abuse. Survivors might have a hard time expressing the way they think and feel, particularly about their experience. They may develop feelings of worthlessness and long periods of sadness. 

Eating Disorders and Body Dysmorphia 

After experiencing sexual assault, many victims describe feeling unsatisfied with the way they look. They have a high chance of disordered eating, leading to them being overweight or underweight. 

Restricting or overeating food can give survivors of sexual assault a feeling of control over their lives and the way they look. 

Sexual Dysfunction

Many survivors also report having a hard time engaging in consensual sexual activities. Not only do they face reliving the trauma of their assault, but they may also have to deal with long-lasting physical pain. They may also be disinterested in sex, disconnected from their partners emotionally, and have a hard time becoming aroused. 

Damaged Relationships and Fear of Intimacy 

Difficulty becoming close with others and a fear of intimacy, whether it’s romantic or platonic, is common among sexual assault survivors as well. Flashbacks and reminders of their assault can make it difficult for them to get close to others. Maintaining a healthy relationship becomes difficult. 

Memory Loss

In many cases, depending on the severity of the assault, some survivors report memory loss surrounding the incident. Our bodies do their best to protect us by not forming memories during some of the most traumatic points in our lives. Some survivors may have no memory of their sexual assault. 

Sleep Disorders and Substance Abuse 

Sleeping is the time our brains and bodies use to recover and heal. Due to nightmares, flashbacks, and anxiety, sleep becomes something that can be incredibly difficult for a survivor. 

As you can imagine, dealing with all of the mental trauma surrounding sexual assault can get overwhelming. Some survivors turn to drugs and alcohol to help them cope with their memories. 

What may start as an occasional habit to help them loosen up could turn into a lifelong and deadly addiction

Treatments for Childhood Sexual Abuse 

As you can see, the effects of sexual abuse are widespread and long-lasting. Recovering from sexual assault is a lifelong process that takes time, energy, and commitment from the victim who may not have those resources to give. If someone you know has experienced sexual abuse, the best thing you can give to them is your compassion and understanding. 

Therapy is the most effective way to deal with all the trauma surrounding sexual abuse. For more information about how therapy can help you heal, contact us today