Causes of PTSD: Sexual violence

Causes of PTSD: Sexual violence

Any kind of traumatic life event can cause post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One of the deeply traumatic experiences that can lead to PTSD is being the victim of sexual violence.

Sexual Violence is a term used to encompass any type of unwanted sexual act or activity, including rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse and many others and can involve strangers, family, friends, colleagues and partners. It’s an issue that can affect anyone, whatever their gender, age, social background, sexuality, or lifestyle.

Statistics on sexual violence

According to figures from the Office of National Statistics, “the volume of sexual offences recorded by the police has almost tripled in recent years.”

According to a leading charity, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men in England and Wales are victims of rape or sexual assault. That breaks down to around 618,000 women and 155,000 men who’ve experienced rape or sexual assault in one year.

These sobering statistics concern sexual violence against adults. The figures for sexual abuse against children in England and Wales is estimated to be 1 in 20. But it’s thought that up to 80% of incidents in children and adults go unreported.

The lasting impact of sexual violence

Being the victim of sexual violence has commonly been associated with rape, attempted rape, assault by penetration, sexual assault and indecent exposure. However, there has been a growing understanding that unwanted sexual acts can also include activities such as ‘upskirting’, non-consensual image sharing and prolonged sexual harassment. Also, stalking behaviours can include a threat of sexual violence. 

Any of these things can create a trauma response and therefore result in PTSD or C-PTSD and it’s often debilitating symptoms. Statistics from the UK are limited, but in the USA, close to 30% of cases of PTSD are due to sexual violence alone.

It’s estimated that up to 94% of survivors of rape or sexual assault develop symptoms of PTSD in the first two weeks after the event, leading to around 50% of victims suffering long-term symptoms. This is even more pronounced with child victims, who often don’t know how to seek the help needed, often resulting in a lifetime of PTSD, anxiety and depression.

Many survivors of non-consensual image sharing (sometimes called revenge porn or NCIS) ‘experience shock and feel overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath of the event. In the longer term, victims often exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety, abnormally high suicidality and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) —effects also common among survivors of physical sexual assault. In fact, 93 percent of victims of NCIS report suffering “significant emotional distress.”

One major factor in the development of PTSD for victims of sexual assault is the feeling of shame and guilt. It can be difficult to reconcile what happened and blaming yourself is another common factor for many survivors.

Many survivors of rape and sexual violence find it difficult to move past the violation that occurred to them and experience hypervigilance, a key symptom of PTSD. “Whenever I’m going to the supermarket, every man that I see, I have to come up with some plan incase he tries to attack me or how I will save myself.” said Chrissy Chambers developed PTSD after experiencing NCIS. 

Dissociation can be one way victims handle the violence as it takes place and this process is often linked strongly to instances of PTSD after the event.

PTSD is far more common for survivors who thought their life was in danger throughout the assault. Some of the other risk factors that can lead to the development of PTSD include not having a viable support network of friends and family in place and a history of mental health issues, like depression and anxiety.

Sexual violence that happens while someone is young can often result in them ‘pressing it deep into their subconscious’. This is one of the leading causes of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).  In many cases of childhood sexual violence, the first indication that it has occurred is when symptoms of C-PTSD are identified, or when an adult seeks help with severe mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, self-harming and eating disorders.

Tackling misinformation and stigma

One of the biggest obstacles to getting help is people don’t always want to acknowledge that the incident ever happened. They may feel numb, shocked or confused. Some people feel guilt and shame that they ‘brought it on themselves’, or a deep embarrassment that they ended up in a vulnerable position.

Also, there is an incorrect misconception that you can’t be raped or assaulted if the person was your partner or a date.

Some people keep quiet for fear of being judged, or to avoid being questioned and asked to relive the trauma.

The stigma they fear is not helped by myths. Such as, how someone acts or dresses lessens an offence, or that not fighting back indicates acceptance of a sexual act.

No matter the circumstance, consent is always needed, and can be withdrawn at any stage. ‘Whether someone experienced sexual violence a long time ago, recently or aren’t sure what happened, it is important to remember, it is never a survivors fault. The responsibility lies solely with their perpetrator.’

Understanding this is central to changing behaviours and attitudes. Including the fact that someone can’t give their consent to a sexual act if they are:

  • Coerced
  • Asleep
  • Affected by drugs or alcohol
  • Scared

From improved awareness, discussion and education, hopefully, more people will feel able to access the help they need to recover from sexual violence and the effects of PTSD.

What can be done to help?

The links between sexual assault, rape and the onset of PTSD have been increasingly recognised by the NHS in England and it was announced in June 2018 that victims will be entitled to a lifetime of care to help them cope with all associated trauma.

Sexual assault referral centres are also to be integrated into community settings, and greater care provision is to be allocated to male victims of sexual assault.

If you have experienced sexual violence, it’s worthwhile knowing what symptoms to look out for in the case of PTSD. PTSD symptoms include flashbacks, emotional distress, physical reactions to upsetting memories, forgetting key parts of the traumatic event, emotional numbness, trouble focusing, and physical distress like sweating, trembling or nausea.  In most cases, PTSD is very treatable, so it’s important to seek help if you are experiencing symptoms.

Why you need to seek help

If you – or someone you know – has experienced any form of sexual violence, it is important to speak out. Alongside the Police, there are trained professionals in many communities and charities who can signpost sources of help too.

If you’re experiencing any symptoms of PTSD such as flashbacks, nightmares, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, talking to your GP is the first step to getting help and treatment.

NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).



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Treatments for PTSD

It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.