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Sexual Trauma: What is it?

A topic that has been considered taboo for centuries is finally starting to gain some attention in the public sphere. With the #MeToo movement and the painful succession of celebrities, politicians, and coaches indicted for harassment or abuse, stories of sexual trauma are being told more than ever before.

While we as a society are slowly becoming a bit more open to the discussion of sexual trauma, it is still widely considered taboo, and still widely misunderstood. This post is the first in what will be a short series on sexual trauma, where we will be looking at some questions like:

How can sexual trauma affect you?

How can you care for yourself after experiencing sexual trauma?

How can you take steps towards healing?

What are some signals parents can look for in their children, and what are some steps you can take to keep them safe?

For this post, however, we will be starting with the basics:

What is sexual trauma, and has it happened to me?

When it comes to sexual trauma, there is no shortage of related buzzwords. Sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual violence, rape, incest… Some are often used interchangeably, but the definitions do vary. Sexual trauma is a term often used as an umbrella over any event or events sexual in nature that was traumatic to the individual. The usage of the word, ‘traumatic,’ here is specifically defined as physically, mentally, or emotionally distressing because the event was unexpected and the individual was unprepared and unable to stop it. It could be childhood sexual abuse or sexual harassment in the workplace. It could be a one-time rape or continuous marital rape. It could be physical assault or mental and emotional manipulation. Sexual trauma can come in countless forms, and it’s time we talk about it.

All kinds of trauma and abuse are devastating in unique ways. One of the reasons sexual trauma can be so harmful is that it often involves a physical and emotional violation, betrayal, and or loss. Sexual assault or abuse seems to touch every part of one’s life, and the aftermath can feel overwhelming and hopeless.

Effects from a traumatic sexual event can be far-reaching and long-lasting and can be as varied and as different as each individual survivor. We cannot make a blanket statement on what qualifies as traumatic because it differs person to person. What was traumatic to me may not have been experienced as traumatic to you. It is not so much the nature of an event that makes it traumatic, but rather the way that it affects the individual.

Symptoms of Trauma

So how do you know if you’ve been sexually traumatized? Again, the effects of a trauma are not uniform across the board. There are not blanket statements here, either. But after such an event, it’s helpful to look out for the following symptoms so that you can take the necessary steps to care for yourself. Bear in mind: these symptoms are normal reactions to a distressing event! They come in waves and can swell until they threaten to overcome you, or they can just crash relentlessly against your knees. But if you feel like you can’t shake these symptoms or that you are having a hard time moving forward from the event, it may be time to seek out some help. Here are just a few things to look out for in the months following an event:

  • Initial shock and denial of the event
  • Emotional lability (easily fluctuating, unpredictable waves of emotions)
  • Irritability and difficulty concentrating
  • Intrusive thoughts or memories around the event
  • Hypervigilance, always feeling extremely alert and/or easily startled
  • Flashbacks or nightmares
  • Depressive symptoms, like feeling alone or losing interest in pleasurable activities
  • Intense upset when confronted with reminders of the trauma
  • Avoidance of possible reminders
  • Consistent feelings of intense guilt or shame around the event
  • Pervasive feelings of numbness and/or detachment from oneself

Recovery is Real

Again, there is no “one-size-fits-all” definition of a trauma or long-lasting traumatic symptoms, but the above list offers just a few examples of ways sexual trauma, (or other forms of trauma), could affect someone. If you or a loved one is experiencing these kinds of symptoms, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Those symptoms can feel overwhelming and scary, and can even make you feel like you will never recover, but there is so much research suggesting that recovery is very possible. There is so much hope for you.

Written by therapist Clair Miller

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