Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD
The statistics on levels of sexual abuse are deeply shocking. One in three women and one in six men are reported to have experienced sexually motivated abuse or violence in their lifetime.
High incidences of childhood sexual abuse paint a harrowing picture. In the United States, every nine minutes, America’s child protection services find evidence for a claim of child sexual abuse.1 America’s National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that one in four girls and one in six boys will be raped before they turn 18.2
Bear in mind these statistics are just for America. Let that sink in.
In some Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries, that figure is even higher. In Europe too, statistics are equally troublesome. In Germany, for example, 10-15% of girls, and almost 6% of boys experience some form of sexual abuse in childhood.
Sexual abuse and incidents of sexual violence are happening everywhere, and it cuts across the class divide. Sexual abuse is a worldwide epidemic in all walks of life. And let’s not forget, the stats speak only of known or reported violations. How many more sexual abuse incidences are kept under wraps?
All traumas, but particularly those of a sexual and violent nature, have devastating and lasting consequences on individuals. Seeking help isn’t easy, and in the case of sexual abuse, many victims are afraid to speak out.
Thanks to campaigns like #MeToo, and #ItsNotOk, that landscape is changing. The development of many programs to treat trauma are also helping sexual abuse victims to break the silence and seek help. This blog puts sexual abuse into context and explores some of the ways in which sexual abuse survivors can find support.
What is sexual abuse or sexual violence?
A definition of sexual abuse may seem unnecessary, but the low conviction rate of rapists shows the perception of consent to be a very grey area. Consent for sex is a huge topic, so won’t be discussed in this blog, but it needs to be mentioned to put into context why sexual abuse needs to be concretely defined.
Sexual abuse or sexual violence is any kind of unwanted behavior of a sexual nature which takes place without consent, or without understanding. It refers to any action that pressures or coerces someone to do something sexually that they don’t want to do.
Examples of sexual assault and abuse include:
- Unwanted kissing or touching
- Unwanted rough or violent sexual activity
- Rape or attempted rape
- Refusing to use condoms or restricting someone’s access to birth control
- Preventing someone from protecting themselves from sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Sexual contact with someone who is very drunk, drugged, unconscious or otherwise unable to give a clear and informed “yes” or “no”
- Threatening or pressuring someone into unwanted sexual activity3
The health consequences of sexual abuse
Sexual abuse has many detrimental effects from psychological and emotional to physical. There is a complex permutation of outcomes. Research shows, for example, that child neglect and physical and sexual abuse are associated with increased risk of premature mortality in mid-adulthood.4
Such an assault leaves significant indelible imprints on a person’s psychology and personality. It’s important to understand that while there may be common reactions to sexual abuse, not all victims will act or feel the same way. Crucially, there is no wrong or right way to feel or react. Trauma, including one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, affects everyone differently.
Trauma of this nature is complex, and the health consequences can be severe. Forced sexual activity can cause physical damage, such as genital injuries and may have gynecological implications – for example, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), repeated urinary tract infections, or sexually transmitted diseases.
The trauma also exposes victims to a wide range of psychological and emotional disorders, such as shock, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or rape trauma syndrome. Everyone responds differently to trauma, so the impact can be subtle, insidious or overtly destructive.
More recent research shows childhood sexual abuse is an important risk factor for borderline personality disorder (BPD). And adult sexual abuse rates are significantly higher in BPD patients compared with other personality disorders (PDs).5 BPD affects how a person thinks, feels, and interacts with other people. Those with BPD may experience intense and changeable moods, chronic feelings of emptiness, and have difficulty controlling anger.
It is common for sexual abuse victims to blame themselves. Following experiences of sexual abuse, many people suffer from disassociation – a defense mechanism the brain uses to cope with trauma. Disassociation exists on a spectrum, which may be experienced as something like daydreaming, or at the other end of the spectrum presents as extreme difficulty coping in the real world.
Other sequalae include self-harming, addictive behaviors (substance and alcohol abuse), eating disorders, sleeping disorders, and even suicide. Survivors may also struggle with relationships, and in particular with sexual intimacy.
Rape and sexual assault are mostly carried out by someone known to the victim. Experiencing such trauma at the hands of someone trusted is devastating. The experience leaves the victim feeling confused, scared, alone and often ashamed.
It’s not uncommon for the abuse survivor to blame themselves, or to feel dirty and weak. Such abuse can make a person question their own judgements. For these reasons, it can be extremely difficult for a person to seek help, when all sense of safety and trust has been broken.
But for a sexual abuse victim to do nothing means they will never live life fully. It is likely they will feel suppressed and emotionally disconnected. Shutting down and suppressing emotions not only has physiological impacts, but it also limits capacity for joy.
The first step in healing from sexual trauma is to speak out. It can be extraordinarily difficult for sexual abuse victims to admit what has happened to them. But this is a critical step. It starts by reaching out to someone who is trusted. This could be a family member or friend.
If talking to friends or family results in a negative response, there are still other avenues that can help, such as a counsellor, or therapist, or even a rape or sexual abuse helpline. For some people, it may be beneficial to join a support group. Google support services in your area.
The second step is to seek psychiatric support. Working through feelings that arise from opening up can be extremely difficult to deal with alone. Even if the victim intellectually understands they are not at fault, feelings of guilt and shame are still common. It arises from misconceptions such as not being cautious enough, trusting someone too much, or even not stopping the assault from happening.
Importantly, recovery from sexual trauma takes time and the healing journey can be emotionally painful. During the therapeutic process the victim may experience flashbacks, nightmares and upsetting memories. It is important to seek help from a therapist who is experienced in dealing with trauma and sexual abuse. Getting the right help as soon as you can is essential.
The CALDA Clinic program
At CALDA Clinic we use a combination of trauma-specific therapies to ensure successful integration and recovery of self. Enactive trauma therapy is used for the treatment of complex trauma-related dissociation of personality. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) uses eye movement to promote cognitive restructuring. These methods have been proven highly successful in treating complex trauma, including sexual abuse.
The CALDA Full Program is based on our unique CALDA Concept, which is implemented by our successful, international medical team, supported by our highly qualified network of experts. The treatment includes psychiatry and psychotherapy, orthomolecular medicine, as well as a personalized combination of alternative and complementary therapies.
The sexual abuse epidemic
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that one in three (30%) of women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.6 Alarmingly, this stat has remained largely unchanged over the past decade.7
The impact of negative childhood sexual experiences on the lives of adult men is also one of many under-recognized aspects of sexual abuse. Evidence suggests that at least one in six men have experienced sexual abuse or assault, whether in childhood or as adults.8 While a UK study suggests this figure could be higher, revealing that half of the male adults who took part in the research had encountered unwanted sexual experiences.9
A meta-analysis of 22 American-based studies, suggested that 30-40% of girls and 13% of boys experience sexual abuse during childhood.10 A systematic review of research in 2016 found that globally over half of all children – that’s 1 billion children (ages 2–17 years) experienced some form of violence.11
Yet statistics and research only reveal part of the true picture. What about the victims who don’t speak out? How many more men and women are there trying to live out their lives as secret survivors of this appalling crime?
The increasing incidence of mental health disorders, particularly PTSD and/or addiction are perhaps more revealing of the facts. Of course, not everyone with a mental health disorder, PTSD or addiction will have a sexual abuse experience in their past, but it is likely that many will.
There are many sexual abuse trauma stories that are yet to be told.
If you would like to know more about the CALDA treatment program for sexual abuse trauma, please get in touch. We are happy to answer any questions you may have. Our clients are self-payers, which ensures that absolute discretion and secrecy are possible.
- RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network – America’s largest anti-sexual violence organization). Website. Sexual Violence Children and Teens Statistics.
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center. 2015. Media Pack. Statistics about Sexual Violence
- org Pdf. What is Sexual Abuse?
- Rogers N. T. et al. Nov2019. The Lancet. V394. Supp2. pS81. Premature mortality in adult survivors of child abuse and neglect: a nationwide birth cohort study
- Ferreira L.F et al. Apr2018. Psychiatry Res. 262:70-77. Borderline personality disorder and sexual abuse: A systematic review
- World Health Organization. 9Mar2021. Fact Sheets. Violence against women.
- World Health Organization. News. 9Mar2021. Devastatingly pervasive: 1 in 3 women globally experience violence.
- US non-profit support group for men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences. About Us page.
- Savanta: ComRes. Poll on behalf of Mankind. Feb2021. Mankind – Sexual Consent Poll February 2021.
- N. et al. 21Mar2020. Mental Health and Illness of Women. pp305-327. Mental Health Consequences of Sexual Assault.
- Hillis S. et al. 01Mar2016. Review article in Pediatrics. Vol 137. Issue 3. Global Prevalence of Past-year Violence Against Children: A Systematic Review and Minimum Estimates Borderline personality disorder and sexual abuse: A systematic review