According to the American Psychological Association, sexual abuse is unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent. Sexual abuse can also be referred to as molestation, rape and sexual assault. It involves behavior that is sexual in nature, unwanted, unwelcomed and forced upon one person by an attacker or assailant. Typically, when the abuse occurs as an isolated incident or one that occurs randomly or infrequently, the incident is classified as sexual assault. When the abuse is prolonged, predatory, ongoing and repetitive in nature, the classification is sexual abuse or molestation. The person who is being abused is known as the victim, while the person who inflicts the abuse, is known as the perpetrator, offender or molester.
Sexual abuse spans all demographics, and can happen at any time. Sexual abuse is not limited to the stereotype of older perpetrators preying on younger victims. Abusers can be the same age, older or even younger than the victim. It is estimated that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be sexually assaulted at some point during the average lifetime. However, there are an overwhelming number of cases occurring in the U.S. where abuse is happening more frequently. Statistics show that 1 in every 4 girls and 1 in every 7 boys will be molested before turning 18 years old.
Additional Sexual Assault Statistics
- Nearly 91% of sexual assaults are perpetrated against women with 9% being perpetrated against men.
- Roughly 1 in 10 women report being raped by a close or intimate partner at some point during the relationship.
- Nearly 8 out of every 10 rape cases are reportedly carried out by a person the victim knew and is presumably comfortable around.
- It is estimated that 1 in 45 men were unwillingly forced to penetrate a partner.
- 8% of incidents take place while a victim is at work.
- Approximately one-third of sexual assault victims who reported the occurrences before the age of 18 were attacked again during adulthood.
Types of Sexual Abuse
There are various categories of sexual abuse, ranging from sexual harassment to physical abuse. Understanding the type of abuse a victim has suffered involves having a firm grasp on the various categories of abuse. While the following list may be extensive, it is by no means inclusive. It is important to note that abuse or sexual harassment occurs anytime a victim is made to feel uncomfortable or ashamed because of the actions and behavior of the abuser.
- Rape occurs when there is a forced sexual intercourse against the victim’s will. This can happen to female and male victims, and the abuser can be either male or female.
- Molestation occurs when there are unwanted, unwelcome and annoying sexual advances toward another person. The victim as well as the abuser can be a child or an adult.
- Child molestation occurs under the exact circumstances as molestation, except the victim is under 18 years of age. This also extends to abuse that is verbal and/or emotional and can include touching, forcing or allowing a child to view pornography, taking pornographic, naked or indecent pictures of the child, peeping or spying on the child during the child’s private or personal moments, exposing genitals to a child and either attempting or performing any oral, anal or vaginal penetration on the child.
- Forcible sodomy involves any forced penetration, either anal or oral, without consent and against a victim’s will.
- Forcible object penetration takes place when a victim’s vagina, anus or mouth is penetrated by an abuser’s genitals or by another foreign object. Forcible object penetration also includes forced self-penetration with an abuser’s genitals or a foreign object.
- Marital rape/intimate rape is a type of assault that occurs between husband and wife (or ex-husband and ex-wife). While this type of incident may not seem very likely, it is quite common and most countries criminalized marital rape by the late 20th
- Unwanted sexual touching includes any unwanted and unwelcome physical contact that is sexual in nature.
- Sexual contact with minors is considered assault whether it is consensual or not.
- Incest refers to sexual contact, consensual or otherwise, between blood relatives.
- Any unwanted or coerced sexual contact can include any physical attack that is sexual in nature. Coercion refers to an attack that is perpetrated under the pretense of extreme pressure or threats to the victim or to the safety of the victim’s family.
- Statutory rape is a type of assault that may not involve actual physical violence. In most cases, one of the participants is of consenting age and one is not. It is presumed that the underage party has been emotionally or mentally coerced into participating in a sexual act. Statutory rape also extends to situations where one of the parties is mentally challenged or developmentally disabled.
- Sexual harassment consists of any unwelcome advances, requests for sexual favors, promises of work-related rewards in exchange for favors or any other physical, emotional and verbal harassment deemed sexual in nature. This form of harassment also extends to offensive remarks regarding a person’s gender or sexual preferences. Men and women can be both victims and perpetrators of sexual harassment.
- Acquaintance rape can happen in any relationship and is often perpetrated by someone the victim knows and trusts including: boyfriends/girlfriends, classmates, co-workers, doctors, neighbors, religious leaders, casual acquaintances, law enforcement, etc. Acquaintance rape is the most common form of sexual assault and is responsible for more than 80% of all rapes with 50% occurring while the victim is on a “date” with the abuser.
- Drug-assisted sexual assaults occur in a social setting such as a bar, club, restaurant or party. The term “drug assisted” refers to the use of “date rape” drugs such as Rohypnols, GHB (gamma hydroxybutyric acid), or Ketamine that are secretly laced into a victim’s beverage. The drugs are typically colorless, odorless and tasteless making it nearly impossible to detect any presence of the drug. Ingesting any of these drugs can cause serious side effects including: extreme drowsiness, confusion, slurred or temporary loss of speech, impaired judgement and confusion and in extreme cases, amnesia can occur in the victim. In many cases, alcohol is used to intoxicate or subdue a victim. Any person that is under the influence of drugs or alcohol is considered incapable of giving legal consent for sexual activity.
Sexual Assault Injuries
Long after the physical injuries of an assault heal, victims are often left with emotional injuries that are slower to heal. In many cases, these emotional injuries follow the victims around indefinitely.
Common physical injuries of sexual assault include:
- STDs (sexually transmitted diseases)
- Chronic pain from forceful injuries
- Frequent migraines or other frequent headaches
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Issues with conception and/or carrying a child full-term as well as other gynecological complications
- Cervical cancer caused by severe internal injuries
- Internal and external genital injuries
Common psychological injuries that can occur immediately following an assault include:
Common long-term or chronic psychological injuries that can occur following an assault include:
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- An overall emotional detachment from loved ones
- Sleep disorders
- Flashbacks/re-living or mentally re-playing the abuse
- Depression often with thoughts of suicide or attempts at suicide
- Avoidance of intimacy including sexual intercourse
- Lowered self-esteem
- Self-destructive behaviors often leading to strain within personal relationships
- Self-isolation from friends and loved ones
Places Where Sexual Abuse Occurs
Since incidents of sexual assaults are so abhorrent, it’s easy to see why many would believe such acts could only take place in dark, secretive hideouts. However, the reality is much different and incidents occur anywhere and at any time. In many cases, assaults occur in the places people have been taught to respect most.
- Schools would be one place where we should be able to safely leave our children without worry, but the truth is children (under 18 years old) can be very easily manipulated and abused by a trusted teacher, faculty member or even another student.
- Workplace sexual abuse is also common, especially where sexual harassment is concerned. A co-worker may say and do inappropriate things to another co-worker or a boss or supervisor may promise rewards in exchange for sexual favors. These are all considered to be abusive in nature.
- Churches/Religious institutions and organizations have long been in the spotlight when it comes to sexual assaults. People tend to trust religious and authoritative figures and this trust often turns to an abuse of power by the perpetrator. This type of abuse can happen to both adults and children.
- A doctor or therapist’s office is another place where people are vulnerable and looking for guidance and trust. Many times this trust is violated by health care and mental health care professionals.
- Residential care facilities for the elderly and those with special needs is an especially heartbreaking place to be abused since patients and family members look to the caretakers and healthcare professionals to provide care and comfort, not pain and abuse.
- Foster care homes are synonymous with troubled children and many of the workers charged with the care of the children use this fact to exploit and often bribe or convince the children to stay quiet about the abuse.
- Nursing homes can be extremely helpful and provide superb care for patients and residents, yet many nursing homes are charged each year with abusing patients both physically and emotionally.
- Youth group homes, like foster homes, are intended to be safe havens where children can escape the perils of the streets or a troubled home life. Yet, it is quite common for the trusted caretakers to prey on children’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
- A trusted friend/relative or neighbor’s home should seem like the next best thing to home, but sometimes that trust is breached and exploited when the trusted caretaker uses the opportunity to abuse an unsuspecting child.
What to do if You Suspect You or Someone You Love is Being Sexually Abused
There are many stigmas that are attached to sexual assaults. Often, the victim feels shame for the attack and believes there is some self-blame or responsibility for the assault. This shame can affect and alter intimate or personal relationships as well as platonic and work relationships. Experts understand that these types of assault are not the victim’s fault, but the fault of the attacker. There is help and hope available to the victims and the families of the victims. The following steps may also be helpful for victims of abuse.
- Immediately seek a safe shelter far away from the attacker (hospital, police station or anywhere where trusted adults may be).
- Call 911 or contact proper authorities immediately.
- Call a trusted family member or friend to talk with or comfort you following the assault.
- Be sure to seek medical attention immediately to be examined and screened for potential sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or pregnancy.
- Even though it may be instinct, do NOT comb your hair or clean any part of your body following the assault. Police will be collecting hairs and fibers from your clothing and fingernails as well as reviewing results from semen or bodily fluid samples. Also remember not to touch or move anything if you are still at the scene of the attack. Everything needs to remain as-is as anything may be used as potential evidence.
Being the victim of an assault can be devastating to the victim and the victim’s loved ones; however, there is hope and help available. Don’t hesitate to ask for help at the hospital or police station. There are dedicated survivor groups trained to specifically help victims make sense of the attack and move on in the healthiest way possible.
Some links that may help the healing process after a sexual assault include:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-SAFE (7233) or 800-787-3224 (TDD)
- National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-HOPE (4673)
Quick Tips to Help Lower Your Risk of an Attack
- Always be aware of your surroundings. Notice where groups of people are or where possible emergency exit points may be located.
- Avoid using headphones or earbuds that may drown out important environmental or surrounding sounds while walking and/or jogging.
- Walk confidently and briskly to your destination and try to avoid walking alone at night or in dimly lit areas. Try to pair with a walking buddy or a friend heading in the same general direction when possible. If you are alone, try to walk as closely as possible to other groups of walkers.
- When in social settings including dates and parties, know your limits when it comes to alcohol use, and refrain from all illicit drug use.
- Lock all of your doors and windows regardless of how quickly you will be returning.
- Always trust your initial instinct. If you feel like you may be in danger, flee the area as soon as possible.
- Keep your keys handy and utilize your car’s ‘panic’ button, if possible. Also attach a whistle and/or pepper spray to your key ring.
- Never open your door to a stranger and keep doors and windows locked at all times. It is also helpful to hang curtains or blinds on windows so that they may be drawn at night or anytime for additional privacy.
- Avoid large empty spaces, especially at night, including: parking garages, laundry rooms or covered catwalks or tunnels.
- Always have your keys in hand as you are walking to your car or your door. Also, remember to park and walk in well-lit areas.
- Always lock car doors and never open them to for anyone.
- Never hitchhike or pick a hitchhiker up.
- Always have enough gas in your car and be sure your cell phone is always adequately charged in case you need to use it in an emergency.