As a therapist specializing in the treatment of Trauma and PTSD, I have had many patients recently opening up about their histories since the #MeToo movement began. With cases such as Larry Nasser and Harvey Weinstein being present in the media, there has been a lot more talk around sexual abuse. As more survivors come forward, it is becoming clearer that there is a greater need for education around sexual abuse and assault.
What is Sexual Abuse?
So what is sexual assault? Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual act or behavior which is violent, forced, or coercive and to which a person has not given consent or was unable to give consent. Examples of sexual abuse include being forced to give or receive oral sex, unwanted sexual touching, voyeurism (someone exposing themselves to you), putting a penis inside someone’s mouth, anus, or vagina without consent, or making someone watch sexual acts or pornography against their will.
Sexual abuse can involve someone in a position of power or authority taking advantage of a person’s trust and respect. This can involve a child and an adult, a patient and a doctor, a student and a teacher, or a parishioner and a priest.
Common Reactions to Sexual Assault
As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, trauma can have long term and extensive reactions to our brains and bodies. While people may feel “crazy” or “broken” because of their reactions, I always tell people they are having an appropriate reaction to an abnormal and traumatizing situation. Some common symptoms people may experience include shock or disbelief, shame and embarrassment, fear, worthlessness, anger, guilt and self blame, and anxiety. Other reactions may include intrusive thoughts about the event, inability to concentrate, hyper or hypo sexuality, feeling uncomfortable being touched, and issues with trusting others. People can experience a wide range of emotions following an assault.
Myths Around Sexual Violence
There are a number of myths out there around sexual assault. I have listed some of them below…
- They bought me dinner so I must have sex with them…
- I hear this one a lot. Buying someone dinner or a drink is not related to them owing someone sexual activity. It doesn’t work that way.
- Maybe you shouldn’t have worn that…
- Unfortunately this is common myth out there and one that survivors will often use to blame themselves. Rape is a crime where someone chooses to exercise power and control over someone else. Being forced into sexual activity against ones will is sexual assault regardless of where they were or what they were wearing.
- If you wouldn’t have been drinking…
- Being under the influence is not an invitation for non-consensual sex. This is another common myth out there that survivors will often use to blame themselves. The reality is, millions of people ingest drugs and alcohol every day and are not assaulted. Being under the influence does not give someone the right to take advantage of you.
- We had been intimate before…
- Having a previous history with someone does not give them the right to have sex with you against your will anytime they please. Previous consent does not mean current consent.
- But I kissed him/her…
- There is a misconception out there that if you begin being intimate with someone, you do not have the right to change your mind. The truth is you can change your mind whenever you want and as many times as you want. When someone changes their mind or says no and someone continues to proceed, this is sexual assault.
- You can avoid being assaulted by not going out at night
- Unfortunately, rape and sexual assault can occur anywhere at any time. Also, stranger rapes are actually fairly rare. Most sexual assaults are committed by someone the survivor knows.
- But I didn’t fight back…
- This is another big myth that we hear often. The reality is, people do what they need to do to attempt to survive. Our body’s fight/flight/freeze response is a physiological reaction based on survival. Often when people do not fight back, they are either consciously or unconsciously aware that resisting may cause more danger.
- It was just a miscommunication…
- Sexual assault is a crime involving power and control. It is not a miscommunication. People do not accidentally force others to be intimate with them. As stated previously, sexual assault is any unwanted or non-consensual touching or sexual activity.
- My spouse can’t rape me right?
- While the law can be slow to catch up, in 1993 marital rape became a crime in all 50 states. I’ve had countless patients come into therapy who have been in domestic violence relationships. Almost none of them report spousal or partner rape due to not realizing this is a crime.
- Men cannot be sexually assaulted….
- Unfortunately, men who are assaulted rarely report for fear of not being believed or shame that they “should have been able to stop it”. Men can be and are sexually assaulted. In fact, researchers have found that 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime
- When women say no, they really mean yes…
- Unfortunately this is a myth that rape culture continues to reinforce. No and silence do not equal consent. It is the responsibility of the person initiating sexual activity to check in and receive active consent. If someone is unsure, this is a no. No is also a no.
- But my body responded…
- This myth can be particularly challenging for children who are being assaulted because it can be extremely confusing. Perpetrators will sometimes use this as a means of manipulating their victim and justifying their actions. Physical arousal is a normal physiological reaction and does not have anything to do with consent.
If you have experienced sexual abuse or assault, it can be helpful to work with a trauma specialist who can help you understand and work through your trauma. Group therapy for sexual trauma can be particularly helpful to address isolation and shame. While trauma work can be challenging and difficult, it is possible to experience healing from sexual trauma.
If you are struggling with recovery after a sexual assault and would like to know more about Shannon’s services, contact her today for a free consultation.
Bio: Shannon McHenry is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a specialty focus in childhood trauma, rape and battering, and PTSD. She is a trauma therapist in Los Angeles and works with clients in her offices in Los Feliz and Torrance. Combining clinical experience with a passion to support women in repairing their relationships with themselves and others, she has supported many to create a long-lasting recovery from destructive behaviors. Call Shannon today to book your first appointment.