What is sexual trauma?
The term “sexual trauma” is often used to describe the distressing psychological consequences of experiencing sexual assault. While sexual trauma is not a diagnosable mental health condition in itself, it is a helpful way of describing and acknowledging the effect the act of sexual assault has had on a person’s wellbeing.
Sexual assault is any kind of unwanted sexual activity and can take on many different forms. It’s common to experience shock, fear, or anxiety in the time immediately following the event. In addition, those who have experienced sexual assault are also vulnerable to experiencing mental health problems including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, addictions, or eating disorders.
While some survivors of sexual assault experience psychological symptoms, it’s important to note that others may experience little or no distress. For those who do experience symptoms, it’s essential to be aware that it bears no reflection on any personal weakness. It’s important to seek help, and the good news is that effective treatments are available to help people recover from sexual trauma.
Types of sexual trauma
The types of sexual events that can lead to a psychological trauma response can vary greatly. Types of sexual assault may include the following nonconsensual contact and non-contact acts:
- Attempted rape
- Sexual assault other than rape or attempted rape
- Verbal threat of rape or threat of sexual assault other than rape
- Unwanted sexual contact, with or without force
- Childhood sexual abuse
Prevalence of sexual trauma
It is estimate that nearly 1 in 5 women, and 1 in 71 men, have experienced rape at some point in their lives.
Of those respondents, 22% of women and 5% of men reported experiencing symptoms of PTSD. 
Additionally, research suggests that women who have experienced childhood sexual abuse may be five times more likely to develop PTSD symptoms compared to those who have not.
It’s difficult, however, to build an accurate picture of just how prevalent sexual assault – and any associated mental health problems – actually are, because they tend to be underreported. This is due at least in part to the stigma which can, unfortunately, still surround it.
Symptoms of sexual trauma
People who are victims of sexual assault react in complex and often very different ways over the short and long term. Reactions can be influenced by different variables, including individual factors, the type of trauma experienced, and support resources available.
Those who have experienced sexual assault may:
- Experience relationship difficulties
- Have reduced interest in sexual activities, or sexual difficulties
- Engage in high-risk sexual behavior
In the weeks following the experience of sexual assault, it’s common to experience trauma symptoms, such as:
- Intrusive recollections, flashbacks or nightmares related to the event
- Avoidance of anything that is a reminder of the event
- Increased arousal, feeling anxious or easily startled, or having difficulty sleeping
- Depressed or anxious mood
As with any type of trauma, those who have experienced sexual assault may be at increased risk of mental health conditions.
As such, if any of the above symptoms become severe, interrupt your functioning at work, cause strain in your relationships, or last more than a few weeks, they may be a sign of one of the mental health conditions below, and it’s important to seek treatment.
Ways to heal from sexual trauma
There are several things you can do to help improve your wellbeing following a traumatic event, including:
- Giving yourself time to adjust
- Asking for support from people who care about you and who will listen to you
- Communicating your experience
- Finding a local support group led by appropriately trained and experienced professionals
- Engaging in healthy behaviors to enhance your ability to cope with excessive stress
- Establishing or re-establishing routines
- Avoiding making major life decisions
- Calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or visit online.rainn.org to receive support via confidential online chat.
It is important to seek mental health assistance to heal from sexual trauma, as there is potential for more distress if you attempt to heal yourself without professional guidance.
Several types of therapy have been found to be effective in the treatment of trauma, discussed in more detail below.
Sexual trauma treatment: Therapy types to consider
Several types of therapy have been found to be effective in reducing trauma symptoms or even preventing long term difficulties, including:
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Group Therapy
- Trauma-informed Therapy, which uses a combination of cognitive-behavioral, relational, emotion regulation, and mindfulness strategies
What to look for in a therapist for sexual trauma
Determine which approach appeals to you
Start with one or a few of the above approaches that think would be best for your situation, and look for therapists who specialize in it.
Prioritize personal fit
One of the most important things to look for in a therapist is the potential for developing a great working alliance. Addressing sexual trauma through therapy is an important, but difficult process, and so you want to be sure that you are working with someone you feel comfortable with and trust.
In order to judge this, see if your prospective therapists will agree to a phone call. This can help you to figure out whether you’d feel comfortable discussing difficult issues with the person, as well as to help get a sense of what their approach is like.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the therapist’s qualifications and experience, and particularly whether they specialize in the treatment of sexual trauma. You might also ask about what therapy with them is like, costs and participation in insurance plans, or anything else that might help you to decide whether this is the right match for you. Try to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.
Find therapists specializing in sexual trauma near you
Find therapists who specialize in healing from trauma on Zencare, below. Search by insurance, fees, and location; watch therapist introductory videos; and book free initial calls to find the right therapist for you!
- Therapists for trauma in NYC
- Therapists for trauma in Boston
- Therapists for trauma in Providence
- Therapists for trauma in Chicago