The Medical Minute: Sexual abuse can have long-term effects

April 16, 2012 By Martha Peaslee Levine, M.D.

April has been designated as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Sexual assault is, unfortunately, a rampant issue. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every two minutes. Approximately two-thirds of these assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. As a community, we need to recognize the devastating effects of sexual abuse. The impact is not just at the time of the event, but also long-term.

Working in the Eating Disorders Clinic at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, I have witnessed how sexual assaults can essentially destroy victims’ lives. Many factors determine the impact. These include how early the (assault) began, how long it continued, whether it was perpetrated by someone the individual knew, and whether others know about the assault and intervened.

Consider if a family member or close friend started abusing a child when she/he was young and this activity continued for years, and a parent was told about the abuse but denied that it was happening: How could this not yield long-term destruction on the individual’s life?

For instance, women struggling with eating disorders who have been victims of abuse often describe that they need to make themselves smaller so that they “won’t attract attention.” Their eating disorder becomes linked with their past trauma. If they can be smaller and smaller, they can disappear and leave the lingering effects of the sexual trauma. Other women use food to numb the residual pain. But having that food inside of themselves feels disgusting. They use their symptoms to get rid of the food and their negative view of themselves. Individuals who have been subject to assaults find it difficult to trust others. They often blame and berate themselves. They shoulder responsibility when they themselves were the victims.

Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common long after the abuse. If suffering from PTSD, individuals have nightmares or flashbacks related to the event. These events can be triggered by sensory experiences that rekindle vivid memories of the abuse. Imagine going through your day and perhaps a smell or sound puts you back into the exact moment of your childhood when a parent or another close individual sexually assaulted you. The ongoing insecurity an abuse victim experiences is understandable.

Abuse victims also can experience ongoing, disabling pain, which affects their life. They are at higher risk of suicide and can overdose just by virtue of trying to dull the physical and emotional pain. They are often under-employed based on these ongoing struggles.

Sexual assault and abuse has serious and severe impacts. We as a community need to recognize not only the number of people affected but also the destructive effects on these individuals’ lives. We need to acknowledge the prevalence of abuse in our society, accept victims’ stories and understand the long-term effects as we work to aid those who have been subject to these assaults.

Explore further: Study examines how women label abuse

More information: To learn more about sexual abuse or assault, visit www.rainn.org/. If you believe you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse or assault, call 800-4ACHILD or visit www.rainn.org/get-help/national-sexual-assault-hotline .

Related Stories

Study examines how women label abuse

December 12, 2007

U.S. social scientists have found women assaulted by those known to them are less likely to label the experience as abusive violence.

Sexual abuse: Faith can silence victims or provide solace

December 8, 2008

Childhood sexual abuse victims with a strong religious upbringing often report feeling terrible guilt about their assault, which doesn't surprise Jean-Guy Nadon. A professor of theology and religious sciences at the Université ...

Disclosing sexual abuse is critical

January 19, 2010

Half of sexual abuse survivors wait up to five years before disclosing they were victimized, according to a collaborative study from the Université de Montréal, the Université du Québec √† Montréal ...

Sexually abused boys engage in more unsafe sex

March 6, 2012

Boys who are victims of sexual abuse are far more likely to engage in unsafe sexual behavior as teenagers, finds a new review in the current Journal of Adolescent Health. Sexually abused boys were twice as likely to engage ...

Recommended for you

Why we fall prey to misinformation

August 23, 2016

Even when we know better, we often rely on inaccurate or misleading information to make future decisions. But why are we so easily influenced by false statements such as "vaccinations cause autism" or "30 million illegal ...

Sleep makes relearning faster and longer-lasting

August 22, 2016

Getting some sleep in between study sessions may make it easier to recall what you studied and relearn what you've forgotten, even 6 months later, according to new findings from Psychological Science, a journal of the Association ...

Have we misunderstood post-traumatic stress disorder?

August 22, 2016

In understanding war-related post-traumatic stress disorder, a person's cultural and professional context is just as important as how they cope with witnessing wartime events, which could change the way mental health experts ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.