December 7, 2023 Dec 07, 2023 8 min read
Traumatic experiences like sexual assault and abuse create intense emotional, physical, and psychological effects in the short term. The body’s fear-response system is engaged, promoting the production of certain chemicals in the brain and nervous system. We may feel a great deal of fear or stress, or we may enter into a state of shock or dissociation. Many of these responses happen within minutes or seconds.
But for many people, the effects of sexual abuse or assault last for months or even years after a traumatic experience has ended. Long-term effects are often referred to simply as “trauma” or “post-traumatic stress,” but how trauma manifests for each survivor can vary dramatically. In this article, we will paint a broad picture of how sexual assault and abuse affects survivors in the long term.
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The long-term effects of sexual abuse can include a wide range of symptoms impacting a survivor’s body, relationships, and mental health. The sections below will examine common symptoms associated with the emotional, psychological, physical, and social effects of sexual trauma.
Although the emotional effects of sexual trauma may lessen over time, many survivors experience long-term symptoms. These symptoms may range in severity or frequency for each survivor.
Some long-term emotional effects of sexual trauma include:
Sexual trauma can impact almost every area of our lives, but most of the symptoms of sexual trauma manifest as psychological symptoms.
Some of the long-term mental health effects of sexual trauma include:
According to researchers at the University of Washington, over 80% of sexual assault survivors experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within one week of an assault. One year later, nearly half of all study participants continued to experience PTSD-related symptoms. The majority of recovery occurred within the first three months, indicating that those still experiencing symptoms after one year were far more likely to experience lasting long-term symptoms.
For survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), the overall rate of PTSD is approximately 90%, and many of these cases go undiagnosed, leading to longer-lasting PTSD symptoms for CSA survivors. Sexual trauma survivors overall are more likely to develop PTSD than survivors of other traumas, particularly non-relational traumas.
For more information on this topic, check out our article “How Sexual Trauma Impacts Mental Health.”
While most symptoms of sexual trauma deal with mental health, trauma can also have lasting effects on one’s physical body.
Some potential long-term physical effects a survivor of sexual trauma may experience include:
Finally, sexual trauma can have serious effects on our social lives, relationships, and even our careers over the long term.
Survivors of sexual trauma may experience:
Now that we have an idea of how sexual trauma can impact our health over the long term, let’s take a look at how and why long-term trauma symptoms develop.
Many factors influence an individual’s risk of developing long-term post-traumatic stress symptoms. These include pre-existing mental and physical health factors, social support, education, and access to resources. The stronger a survivor’s overall picture of health preceding sexual abuse or assault, the lower their likelihood is of developing lasting PTSD symptoms. Regardless of a survivor’s pre-existing circumstances, however, receiving meaningful social support and resources soon after a traumatic sexual experience can drastically reduce the survivor’s likelihood of struggling with PTSD over the long term.
According to psychiatrist and researcher Kaitlin A. Chivers-Wilson, “perceived positive regard and early social support is…important to successful recovery” from sexual trauma. Further, the idea that social support can strongly determine a survivor’s likelihood of developing PTSD symptoms has been supported by an abundance of research in recent decades. Put simply, survivors who feel believed and supported by their communities are less likely to develop long-term PTSD symptoms than those who experience a lack of social support. Outcomes are notably worse for survivors who are explicitly disbelieved, blamed, shamed, or ignored.
With this in mind, it’s clear that the single most accessible solution for reducing the long-term effects of PTSD for any sexual trauma survivor is to bolster the survivor’s access to meaningful social support. If you recently experienced sexual abuse or assault of any kind, reaching out to trusted friends or family, joining a survivor support group, developing a relationship with a skilled therapist or counselor, or spending time with people who believe and support you are all practical strategies for reducing your risk of experiencing long-term trauma symptoms.
While sexual trauma has the capacity to create a wide range of lasting health effects, there are also practical ways to reduce the risk of these effects for survivors. Even if a survivor is actively struggling with the long-term effects of abuse, healing is always possible.
Long-term effects of sexual assault and abuse can impact a survivor’s emotional, psychological, physical, and social health. While the majority of sexual assault survivors recover from post-traumatic symptoms within a year of a traumatic experience, over 40% continue to struggle with negative health effects for one year or more. Instances of PTSD, particularly those involving long-term symptoms, are even more pronounced for those who experience sexual abuse in childhood. The factors influencing whether or not a survivor experiences long-term PTSD symptoms vary widely, but one of the most important determiners is a survivor’s access to meaningful social support soon after the traumatic experience. Survivors who are disbelieved, blamed, or rejected by their communities after sexual assault or abuse (or those who do not have access to social support networks at all) are more likely to develop long-term PTSD symptoms.
Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work. Learn more at www.danaanastasia.com.