Sexual trauma is an umbrella term used to describe the negative lasting effects linked to any sexual act imposed on someone without their consent. “Sexual assault” is the term often used to describe an isolated event, whereas “sexual abuse” is often used to describe ongoing or long-term violence. Examples include: childhood sexual abuse, incest, sex trafficking, and rape. Rape refers to any unwanted sexual act, whether it be with a stranger or spouse.
Was I sexually assaulted?
You get to decide how you feel about any sexual experience, and you get to decide whether to confront your abuser. Certain situations are traumatic for some, but not others. There could be isolated incidents in your past that you are just now realizing were violations that caused lasting effects. Or, you could be battling the repercussions of long-term abuse. If so, it is likely you have complicated emotions surrounding the issue and are burdened by shame and silence. Your abuser might be someone with whom you also have positive memories, such as a family member, complicating things further. It might be someone with seniority over you, such as a boss, coach or pastor who coerced you into silence. Or, you could be suffering in silence simply because you don’t want to admit you are a victim.
Symptoms manifest in many ways
Our bodies and brains have developed many ways to process the pain and shame caused by sexual trauma, which is why seemingly unrelated symptoms manifest as a means to cope. Depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders and promiscuity are symptoms the survivor might develop in order to avoid the trauma and feel a sense of control. A traumatic event is essentially a situation marked by fear and loss of control, which triggers “fight, flight or freeze” responses. These responses register at conscious cognitive levels, as well as unconscious physiological levels.
As with combat-related PTSD, sexual trauma victims often avoid the pain by dissociating from their body, which can lead to a drastic mind/body disconnection. A survivor might struggle to achieve orgasm because of this disconnect, or avoid intimacy in general. Certain triggers can “flash” the victim back to the traumatic experience, with or without the cognitive awareness to accompany the automatic physical response.
Treating mind and body in order to heal
As a clinical counselor and registered nurse (with 20-plus years of medical expertise), Kim is uniquely qualified to treat sexual trauma survivors. She is trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which has proven effective for treating the physiological symptoms associated with sexual trauma. This approach is sometimes preferred to forms of treatment that require the survivor to relive the narrative of the traumatic event, at least at first. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), and Prolonged-Exposure Therapy (PE), are also highly effective. Working with a skilled therapist is essential for processing sexual trauma in a productive way, in hopes of reestablishing a healthy mind-body connection.