Facts and Healing After Sexual Trauma

Sexual assault is an event that involves unwanted, non-consensual sexual conduct or behavior toward someone. This includes sexual behaviors toward those who cannot give consent, such as children and those with disabilities. Sexual assaults can be some of the most psychologically damaging forms of trauma and can significantly harm mental well-being.

This article will define sexual trauma, provide statistics for various populations, and discuss short and long-term impacts and ways to heal.

A scared, depressed woman is hiding in the closet, ashamed and frightened.


If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member at a local RAINN affiliate.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Definition of Sexual Trauma

Broadly defined, sexual assault is any unwanted sexual contact or behavior performed without consent or permission, including non-consent due to age or disability.

Rape is a form of sexual assault, defined by unwanted sexual penetration forced through threats or physical means.

Sexual trauma refers to the lasting adverse effects on the survivor due to sexual assault. This includes effects on physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.

Statistics by Population

Research shows that females aged 12 to 34 are most likely to experience sexual assault. Specific statistics for different subgroups vary within the broader group of sexual assault survivors. In all cases, men are most likely to be the perpetrators of sexual assaults.

In Children

In children, most sexual assaults happen by someone the child or adolescent knows. The perpetrator is usually a family member or acquaintance. For older adolescents, assaults most commonly occur in social situations, such as on a date.

One research survey showed that 18% of high school girls and 12% of high school boys say they experienced an unwanted sexual experience. The prevalence of sexual assaults drastically increases in children with disabilities.


Sexual trauma within the military has received increased attention in recent years. A 2014 study looked at unwanted sexual behavior, which included sexual assault, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination.

In this study, a large-scale survey found that between 18,200 and 22,400 active-duty service members experienced a sexual assault within the prior year, which equates to about 1% of active-duty men and about 5% of active-duty women.

Those who reported being assaulted indicated an average of more than two such incidents in the previous years. Junior enlisted military personnel with a rank between E1 and E4 have the highest rates of sexual assault, both for men and women.


By some estimates, 17% to 25% of women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Similar to children, women are likely to be acquainted with the perpetrator. Some research shows that around 20% of women attending college will experience sexual assault or misconduct.

Sexually assaulted women are more likely to develop PTSD than men, and their symptoms are likely to last much longer than they do for men.

Women are more likely to become emotionally numb and to psychologically distance themselves from the traumatic experience. These behaviors may come across to others as the survivor not remembering aspects of the event or not wanting to get support or report the incident.


Although men are much less likely to experience sexual assault than women, it still occurs. By some estimates, around 1% to 3% of men are sexually assaulted. The perpetrator is also male for most men who are raped.

Sexual Assault and Demographics

Although mixed, some research has shown that there isn't a significant difference in the level of psychological distress caused by sexual assault based on the person's age, gender, race, and ethnicity.

The Limitations of Generalizing Trauma As PTSD

Most people who experience trauma like sexual assault do not go on to develop full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If a person is experiencing significant emotional, physical, and functional issues after trauma, a PTSD diagnosis may provide some relief and direction for treatment. However, it might not offer a complete understanding of a person's experience, especially if the person is experiencing something broader or in addition to PTSD, like depression.

Survivors of sexual assault may also be affected by the social support they receive and societal and cultural factors at play.

It's essential to be open and honest with a mental health professional to receive the proper treatment for you.

Trauma Treatment Method

Trauma treatment should never be re-traumatizing. There are many treatments for trauma that can help you optimally deal with your experience. Be sure that the mental health professional you work with has training and experience in treating trauma.

Symptoms, Short, and Long-Term Effects

Sexual assault is often highly traumatic for an individual. In the short term, it is common to experience strong emotional reactions such as:

  • Anger
  • Shock
  • Fear
  • Hyper-alertness
  • Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
  • Reliving the experience

As time passes, the initial shock might fade. Still, there may be ongoing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and hypervigilance (always being on high alert).

Other cognitive symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Preoccupation
  • Ruminating or constantly thinking about the experience and what could have been done differently
  • Minimizing or denying what happened to cope
  • Feeling a sense of betrayal

Additional behavioral issues may include isolation from others, a need to be in control, and avoidance of specific people or places that remind the survivor of the assault.

Sexual Assault and PTSD

One study found that around 12% to 24% of those who experienced a non-sexual assault trauma developed PTSD. However, for survivors of sexual trauma, that number increases to 80%.

Dealing With Intimacy Issues

It's normal to have changes in sexual desire after a sexual assault. Intimacy will differ for each person and can range from not wanting to be intimate to being more sexual than was typical before the incident.

Sexual assault can also cause a person to decrease safer-sex practices. Following sexual trauma, a person may have difficulty becoming aroused, not find sex enjoyable, or experience distressing physical, emotional, or mental responses during sex.

Giving yourself time to slowly figure out what you are comfortable with and what is enjoyable is essential. Then, communicate your needs with your partner, and clarify if you want to stop. Talking about intimacy issues with a mental health professional may be helpful.

Steps to Address and Overcome Sexual Trauma

Experiencing sexual trauma can have a significant impact on a survivor's life. In addition to PTSD, people who have experienced sexual assault are at an increased risk of developing mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and substance use disorder. Though it may be challenging, there are treatment options available.

On Your Own

Experiencing something as traumatic as a sexual assault often causes the survivor to feel alone. As a result, it's common not to want to tell anyone what happened and feel shame about it. It can also be challenging to think or talk about the incident.

Finding ways to build safety and trust can be a helpful place to start. This might include talking to a reliable person, doing something that offers a sense of control, and engaging in activities that bring enjoyment and a feeling of safety.

Support for Someone Else

Knowing someone has experienced a sexual assault can be very difficult and might bring up feelings such as anger or helplessness. Here are some ways to show support for someone after they've been through a trauma:

  • Remind the person that you are there for them when they need you. You can check in occasionally, but don't pressure them to open up to you.
  • Offer practical help. If the person wants to get an exam or make a report, offer to give them a ride. If they'd like to find a support group, offer to help them do the research.
  • If they want to open up, show them that you are listening, that you can handle whatever they tell you, and that you believe them.
  • Be patient with the person, and remember that each person's experience and needs differ.


Working with a mental health professional allows you to move at your own pace, receive support in a nonjudgmental and safe environment, and learn tools to promote healing.

When looking for a therapist, find someone trained in trauma with experience working with sexual assault survivors. Remember that a trauma-trained therapist will not ask a person to talk about the details of the traumatic experience or relive the trauma in an overwhelming way.

Find a Support System

Peer support can be a great way to feel less alone, learn about resources, and help others. Try connecting with others who had similar experiences by joining a support group. Support groups are available in person and online, such as through Sexual Assault Support Services.

Hotlines and Other Resources

For 24/7 confidential and free support, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. You can also chat with a trained staff member to receive crisis support through the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) website. Many other resources and support organizations are on the RAINN website.


Sexual assault is when someone experiences unwanted and non-consensual sexual contact or behavior. Anyone can experience sexual assault, including women, men, children, and service members.

The symptoms of sexual assault vary from person to person but can include initial shock, anger, fear, self-blame, and hyper-alertness. Long-term symptoms can consist of rumination, emotional numbness, and isolation. It's also common to experience intimacy issues following a sexual assault.

Many types of support are available to sexual assault survivors, including peer support groups, crisis hotlines, and trauma therapy.

A Word From Verywell

If you or a loved one have experienced sexual assault, it's normal to feel helpless, alone, numb, or unable to remember details of what happened. Know that it wasn't your fault; there isn't anything more you should or could have done to make things go differently. It may be difficult to talk about what happened, but try not to isolate yourself from others altogether. Connect with those you can trust, and seek support. Remember that you are not alone; there is help to get you through your trauma.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What’s the psychology behind hypersexuality after sexual trauma?

    Hypersexuality is when a person has elevated libido and sexual desire and difficulty controlling sexual impulses. Hypersexuality sometimes occurs after a traumatic experience as the person struggles to come to terms with the incident and tries to cope with deep feelings of shame, guilt, sadness, helplessness, and fear. Hypersexuality after sexual assault doesn't mean something is wrong with the survivor. It is a symptom of psychological pain.

  • How do you start treatment for sexual trauma symptoms?

    Treatment after a sexually traumatic experience will look different for different people. For some, the process might start with an exam at the hospital, while others may seek a peer support group. Psychotherapy with a trauma-trained mental health professional may be best for others. Whether you call a crisis hotline, talk to a close friend, or hire a therapist, treatment should go at your pace and help you start taking small steps toward healing.

  • Does asexuality stem from sexual trauma?

    Asexuality is when someone experiences little or no sexual attraction to others. Asexuality is not caused by sexual assault. For some people, experiencing a sexual trauma will cause a decreased interest in sex or lowered libido. This is not the same as being asexual.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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