Sexual violence is defined as any unwanted sexual contact. Sexual violence can be carried out by someone with whom we are in an intimate relationship, a friend, a family member, or a complete stranger. Sexual violence can take many forms, including rape, assault, or domestic violence and is is often underreported due to the fear the survivor has of the potential retaliation, compounded by the shame they often carry. Cultural norms or preexposure to abusive behavior may skew the survivor's perception of the sexual violence that occurred, which can also lead to the offense going unreported.
Therefore, recent numbers reported by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center report from their survey that 81% of women and 43% of men report experiences with sexual violence. These survey results, while shocking, are most likely only a snapshot of the amount of people impacted by sexual violence.
Although someone can experience sexual violence or abuse by a stranger, studies show that most offenses are committed at the hands of someone that the survivor knows. This heightens the survivor's level of anger and feeling of betrayal because the survivor may have previously trusted the individual who abused them. This can send them down an unhealthy spiral of self-blame, where they question why they did not see the signs or if they could have done something to prevent the incident from taking place. Survivors must recognize that no matter what took place leading up to the sexual assault, it is never their fault.
The Impact of Sexual Violence
The impact of sexual violence doesn’t stop at the end of the inciting incident. After is when the impact begins. Some victims of sexual violence report struggling with depression, insomnia, addictions, trust issues, or have trouble with sexual intimacy as a result of this trauma. Others divert to living a sexually promiscuous lifestyle, that poses additional threats to the survivor's emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. Shame is also a common struggle of someone who has experienced sexual violence. Although the abuse was not their fault, some survivors of sexual trauma survivors struggle with a believe that they are dirty or not worthy of love from God or others. This is a lie and could not be further from the truth. Although this terrible experience happened to you, it in no way defines who you are. God still considers you his beloved child who He has chosen, adopted, and predestined for a greater purpose. Part of your healing process requires you to separate your identity from the trauma that you experienced. This process takes time. However, accepting who God says you are doesn’t mean that the memory of the abuse is suddenly washed away. Trauma is remembered not only in the mind, but in the body. Certain smells, touches, sounds, or places can easily trigger a traumatic memory of the event that places the survivor right back to the moment of the offense, leaving them in a state of panic. This could be a sign that the survivor is struggling with PTSD; however, that is not always the case.
Types of Sexual Violence
Anytime someone pressures you physically or emotionally to pleasure them sexually, that is considered sexual abuse or assault. Rape, often recognized as penetrative intercourse, involves a form of violence, control, and/or manipulation to take place. This can take place when someone is unconscious, such as if they were drugged and then taken advantage of, or it can happen to someone who is conscious and forced to engage in sexual acts against their will. Sexual violence impacts all genders, backgrounds, and sexual orientations.
When someone experiences sexual violence, there is a violation that takes place. Someone has stolen and denied that individual's right to say “no” to a sexual interaction and autonomy over their body. This can take form in the case of fondling, forcing the survivor to kiss against their will or participate in other sexual acts. When someone is forced to have sexual intercourse, that is considered rape.
In the case of rape, it is strongly recommended that survivors go to the hospital immediately after the incident to allow trained professionals to administer a rape kit test. Sadly, survivors often feel so shaken and dirty by the incident that they just want to go home and take a shower. Unfortunately, when this occurs, an important piece of evidence that would be needed to convict the offender has been washed away. However, even without the medical examination and rape kit, a survivor can still pursue legal action against the abuser at a later date. A sexual violence survivor can consult a sexual violence advocacy hotline or organization in their region for additional support to help them determine their next steps.
Emotional Abuse Leading to Sexual Violence
It is often easier for a victim to recognize that they experienced sexual violence or rape when the offender used physical restraint to force the victim to engage in intercourse. However, emotional abuse utilized to commit sexual violence too. Emotional abuse is harder to discern, particularly when it’s done at the hands of a romantic partner. In the case of sexual intercourse, if one of the partners clearly states that they do not want to have sex, but the other partner emotionally wears them down by nagging, berating, giving them ultimatums, using a form of manipulation by shaming them, or stating that this is their obligation, this is emotionally abusive behavior that transcends into the bedroom as sexual abuse. In this case, the survivor might eventually give in to the fervent demands of the abuser but is left feeling violated because it was not something that the victim truly wants to engage in. This leaves the survivor feeling confused, guilty, and worn down. Depending on the level of manipulation exhibited by the person committing the offense, they might even convince the survivor that they consented or wanted to have sex, even if they only acquiesced to stop the emotional abuse.
Sexual Violence By a Family Member
Sexual violence committed by a relative also referred to as incest, adds another layer of pain to an already traumatic experience. The abuser often attempts to convince or coerce the survivor to keep the abuse a secret, forcing them to navigate an already painful experience alone and isolated from support. If or when the survivor musters up enough courage to tell someone about their abuse, their truth is often met with questions, dismissal, and even allegations.
Sharon Ellis Davis, a childhood sexual violence survivor who authored the book the Trauma of Sexual and Domestic Violence, wrote in her memoir that this is what kept her abuse a secret from her family for decades. She described how the survivor “is often accused of attempting to bring damage to a particular family member by offering ‘false accusations.” Essentially, Davis argues that the survivor's motives of sharing their truth about the abuse might be called into question. However, even amidst Davis’ fears, she determined that it was necessary for her to come forward and tell her story.
“Telling the truth is not an attempt to hurt. Rather, it is an attempt to heal,” said Davis. She went on to say that “Truth-telling is my way of coming to terms with the totality of my experiences without romanticizing or justifying the pain.”
It wasn’t easy for her to share her experiences with others, but when she did finally tell her story, it was a critical part of her healing process. The effects of sexual violence vary from person to person, but those who are surrounded by a supportive community tend to navigate their way toward a place of recovery a lot sooner. This is why it is important that someone who has been abused tells someone about it to receive the support and resources for healing that they deserve.
How to tell someone you’ve been sexually abused?
Although speaking about what happened to you is incredibly scary and painful, it will also be a relief if you share your story in a safe environment. Not everyone is equipped to honor the sacredness of your story, and sharing your traumatic abuse experience with the wrong person can cause more damage in your journey to healing. However, don’t let the worry of sharing with the wrong person hinder you from getting the support that you need. Finding someone you can confide in who is not judgmental, is trustworthy, and desires to support you is a critical part of your trauma recovery process. Initially, depending on who the abuser is, you might seek the emotional support you need outside of your family such as a friend, pastor, or significant other. Sharing what happened to you with someone you trust can be a major first step to healing. However, you must remember that those you love are often not trained, mental health professionals. Therefore, they might not respond to your confiding in them in a way that you need them to at that moment in order for you to feel safe and supported. This is why it is helpful to identify what you need from the person that you choose to confide in.
Are you looking for them to be a listening ear, or do you want them to give advice? Do you need them to help you find additional resources? Do you want them to go with you to the police to press charges? Do you just want them to pray for you? Do you want them to revisit this situation with you again or do you prefer that they follow your lead as to when to talk about what happened? Although this might feel like a lot to consider, going into an initial conversation with your needs in mind can help you feel more equipped to navigate an emotionally charged conversation. Ask God to give you discernment regarding who to share your story with. He will direct your path.
How do I recover from sexual abuse?
If you don’t feel comfortable starting with people you know, a trained Christian counselor can help you discern your next steps towards your recovery. In addition, plugging into healing groups or support groups of any kind can also provide you with the space you need to begin to tell your story in a way that brings healing.
Recovering from sexual violence requires time, attention to one's needs, external support, and lots of prayer and personal time with God. Although the healing process will require you to wrestle with some big and often painful emotions, working through the pain will prevent you from being consumed by it. Remember, what happened to you is not who you are. You are a survivor, you are God’s beloved, you are resilient, and past traumatic experiences will not define you. With the right support and commitment toward your healing, post-traumatic growth can take place.
About the Author
Rev Jocelyn J. Jones
Rev. Jocelyn J. Jones is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in journalism. After earning her B.A., Jocelyn worked for channel 20, WYCC. She left the television industry to serve as the Executive Director of the ARK of St. Sabina, a youth center on Chicago’s Southside. While at the ARK, Jocelyn earned her master’s degree from the University of Chicago in social work. Tragically, the lives of several families she served were shattered due to gun violence. Those experiences and her own quest for emotional healing inspired her to establish her company, Faith on the Journey Counseling. Jocelyn earned her master’s degree in theological studies from McCormick Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister, a training facilitator with the Trauma Healing Institute, and the author of the book Breaking the Power of the Mask.