Sexual assault is a crime and can happen to anyone of any age. It’s an act that is carried out without the victim’s consent and is a form of sexual violence. Here, we take a look at consent, some mental health issues that can result from sexual assault, and how counselling can help.
What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault happens when a person is forced or pressured into a non-consensual sexual act in a way that’s either immediate, infrequent or of short duration. This includes being forced to have sex (rape), attempted rape, and non-consensual sexual contact. Sexual contact can be with any part of the body and doesn’t have to involve physical force or leave the victim with injuries. Sexual abuse happens when a person is forced or pressured into taking part in any type of non-consensual sexual behaviour over a period of time.
Sexual assault can be carried out by a stranger or by someone the victim already knows. It can happen within families or romantic relationships. Anyone can be affected by sexual assault and everyone has the right to say “no”. Women are more likely to experience sexual assault. According to Rape Crisis, 6.5 million women in England and Wales have been raped since the age of 16.
The legal definition of sexual assault is when a person intentionally touches another person in a sexual manner without that person’s consent. Before the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the legal term was ‘indecent assault’. You may still hear people use this, but sexual assault is the correct term. People who have been sexually assaulted may prefer to use different terminology depending on what they feel most comfortable with.
Sexual assault and marginalised groups
Sexual assault is more prevalent in marginalised groups. The rates of sexual assault for the LGBTQ+ community are higher than the rates for heterosexual people. Bisexual women and transgender people are the most affected by sexual violence.
Racism can put ethnic minorities at an increased risk of sexual assault. The discrimination people of colour face may make it more intimidating to seek help from the police.
If you would like to know more about why women (and especially women of colour) are less likely to report cases of sexual harassment or sexual assault, you can take a look at our article, Why are 96% of women not reporting sexual harassment?
Sexual assault and men
Although women are more likely to experience sexual assault, we recognise that men and those assigned male at birth (AMAB) also experience sexual assault, resulting in serious mental health consequences. Approximately 25% of women and 5% of men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, and less than 2% of rapes recorded by the police will result in a charge or conviction. Unfortunately, men find it difficult to open up about sexual assault. Some of the reasons why men don’t talk to others are humiliation, shame, and feeling undeserving of support. There are support groups to help male survivors of sex abuse, including Survivors UK.
If you’re in danger or need immediate medical advice, please call 999. If you’ve just been sexually assaulted, remember the blame always lies with the perpetrator and that there’s help available. The Rape Crisis website has step-by-step advice on how to report sexual violence to the police.
What is consent?
Giving consent to sex means that everyone taking part has given their permission and fully realises what’s involved. A person must have the capacity to make that choice to understand precisely what they’re consenting to. In English and Welsh law, it’s a crime to cause another person to engage in any form of sexual activity without their consent.
Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault regardless of how that person was dressed, whether they were under the influence of drugs/alcohol, or felt unable to voice their non-consent due to shock. Someone may have given their initial consent to sex but decided to stop or changed their mind. Consent is never simply the absence of “no”; it needs to be active and ‘enthusiastic’. Someone also may have said “yes” to one thing, but not another. Consent can be withdrawn by anyone at any stage. If sexual activity continues after this point of non-consent, it is sexual assault. Being married to someone or having an intimate relationship with someone is not consent. If you didn’t give your consent or couldn't say “no” for any reason whatsoever, it’s sexual assault and isn’t your fault.
Physiological responses of arousal are involuntary during sexual assault and are in no way a sign of consent.
In her article, The journey after sexual abuse, counsellor Beverley Chambers (MBACP) talks about the cycle of self-blame that can occur after sexual violence. She shares the importance of speaking out and holding the perpetrator responsible.
Maybe it is guilt because you didn’t speak up sooner, or you blame yourself for the actions you took, but you should know that the person that hurt you should be held responsible for their actions, not you.
Supporting a victim of sexual assault
If you’re a friend or family member of someone who has been sexually assaulted, you may find the following ideas helpful when it comes to supporting them:
- Listen with empathy and try not to ask for more details than they’re willing to give you.
- Be mindful of their physical space and boundaries in case they find being touched uncomfortable or unsafe.
- Be patient with the time it takes for the victim to process the effects of sexual assault.
- Do some online research with Rape Crisis or the NHS to find out practical ways to help them.
- Believe what they’re telling you.
Sexual assault and mental health
Sexual assault can have lasting negative effects. If you’re a victim of sexual assault, you may experience some or all of the following:
- Shame - you may think it’s your fault, even when it isn’t.
- Numbness - the shock of sexual assault can lead to feeling detached or numb, and can even result in addiction problems as a way to detach from the pain.
- Relationship difficulties - you may find it difficult to form intimate relationships or develop secure attachments.
- Depression - the loss of control and body integrity can create feelings of hopelessness.
- Anxiety - you may be concerned that an attack can happen again, feeling anxious about going out on your own.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - the trauma may remain ‘alive’ in your thoughts, causing you to have flashbacks or nightmares.
Sexual assault can also have physical health consequences such as pain, injuries, sexual dysfunction, and sexually transmitted infections - to name a few.
In her article, Seeking counselling after sexual violence, counsellor and social worker Nicola Griffiths (MBACP DIPSW BAHons) talks about the shame associated with sexual assault and the fear of being rejected by future partners. She also shares some of the mental health issues that can result from sexual violence, such as “nightmares, anxiety, dissociation, depression, eating disorders, low self-confidence, low self-worth, hyper-vigilance, and body conditions”.
Counselling and sexual assault
Understandably, your mental health may have been impacted by sexual assault and you might need support to help you process what’s happened. Speaking with a qualified counsellor can be a helpful way to express and work through your feelings.
It can be an unsettling thought to talk to someone, especially if you’ve never opened up about the incident(s) before, but your therapist will only work at your pace and will always remain non-judgemental. Counsellor Nicola calls this your “window of tolerance”, which means the therapist will help you talk things through in a way that isn’t re-traumatising. It’s not necessary to talk about triggering details; the focus will be on developing coping skills to reduce the emotional impacts.
Sexual violence doesn’t need to have happened recently for you to seek out help. You can talk things through with a counsellor even if it happened a long time ago. Talking about the ongoing effects of sexual assault can help you process past feelings and move into a place where you can cope with day-to-day life more easily.
Psychodynamic psychotherapy, trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitisation reprocessing therapy (EMDR) are some of the evidence-based therapeutic interventions that can help with the aftereffects of sexual assault.
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