There are 321,500 sexual assault survivors in the United States. An estimated 50 to 90 percent of them develop PTSD. Other health effects of sexual assault that victims face include depression, high blood pressure, anxiety, kidney disease, aneurysms, and diabetes, among other illnesses.
Physical Consequences of Sexual Victimhood
A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with a history of sexual harassment had “higher systolic and diastolic blood pressure and a higher likelihood of Stage 1 or 2 hypertension.”
As reported by Medium, the study showed a forty percent increase in sleeping issues among women who endured sexual harassment in comparison to those who did not. The majority of these victims also experienced symptoms of depression and clinical anxiety.
Results pointing to an increased likelihood of high blood pressure are particularly concerning since cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for women in the US. Gone unaddressed, these symptoms of trauma associated with sexual victimhood may have a long-lasting physical toll on the body.
PTSD After Sexual Assault
Another recent discovery related to the impact of sexual harassment and assault was made by German researchers who studied rape and trauma survivors from World War II. Their research revealed that female rape victims had more severe PTSD than women who had suffered non-sexual trauma. Given that the PTSD assessed stems from experiences endured over sixty years ago, this study’s findings exemplify the long-lasting effects of sexual violence.
According to the Foundations Recovery Network, when one’s general sense of security is shattered by an incredibly stressful event like sexual assault, the body and mind can react in unpredictable ways. Psychologist Nekeishia Hammond explains that the body quite literally becomes “overwhelmed,” often to the point of numbness or incapacity to accept what happened as reality.
Consequently, victims might find another explanation for the source of their health issues and attempts at relief may be left to painkillers and antihistamines. These drugs, however, cannot heal deep-seated emotional trauma which will continue to plague the body.
For many victims, physical consequences include stressors, migraines, insomnia, and eating disorders. Other symptoms of untreated PTSD in female rape victims are sexual dysfunction, chronic pelvic pain, and loss of desire. To properly treat these ails, victims must first come to terms with what is causing them. Unfortunately, those victims who do not may face worsening symptoms over the years.
Impacts on Sex Life
As mentioned, loss of sexual desire is a common symptom of rape-induced PTSD. Many are forever altered in their relationship to sex. While before, the act may have been pleasurable and stimulating, harsh physical responses or trauma-based identity issues may make physical intimacy challenging for victims of sexual assault.
Some victims of sexual assault may be unable to engage in intercourse. Others are able to have sex, but suffer from flashbacks or body memories triggered by certain positions, interactions, situations, or environments. Partners of victims who have suffered sexual violence often experience secondary trauma in which they may cope with intrusive thoughts and a general sense of helplessness surrounding their partner’s mental conditions.
It’s important to keep in mind that trauma manifests in different ways for different people. There are no black and whites when it comes to healing which can make the process far more challenging to navigate.
Speaking Up and Healing
While assault is the primary cause of PTSD responses, victim-blaming and denial by people of authority may also severely impact a victim’s capacity to recover from their trauma. One can only imagine the mental toll on victims in cases of clergy abuse, where victims’ stories are brushed under the table as higher levels of power simply ignore accusations. Feelings of shame, guilt, depression, anxiety, distrust, and reluctance to seek help are various factors that occur in later years.
Horrifying allegations like those made in the R. Kelly case reflect these effects as victims refused to come forward out of fear for their life and doubt that others would trust them. Statistically speaking, only one in eight rape cases come to trial. Sadly, it’s no surprise that silence from sexual assault victims is common.
With movements like #MeToo generating greater awareness and global transparency surrounding sexual harassment, women are coming forward and sharing their stories more than ever. This public dialogue surrounding the topic and its radical effects can propel societal change in the way these matters are prevented, recovered from, and addressed.
If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault, you can find support on the National Sexual Assault Hotline. Dial 800-656-HOPE(4673). You can also visit online.rainn.org to receive support via confidential online chat.