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Understanding the Effects of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is a crime that cuts across gender, race, religion, and class. It can be committed against children, adults, and vulnerable individuals who lack the legal or mental capacity to consent, such as inmates in jails or prisons or people with disabilities. And it can occur in any setting at the hands of nearly anyone – including the people and places we trust most, such as churches, schools, and youth organizations.

No matter how abuse occurs, understanding its short- and long-term effects is a critical step in helping victims heal from their trauma. It’s also important when it comes to calculating and conveying the damages survivors have endured when pursuing a financial recovery through settlement negotiations or trial.

At Levy Konigsberg, our sexual abuse team knows our clients face challenging consequences because of their abuse. We are caring and compassionate in helping them address their physical and mental health needs, and aggressive in helping them hold the responsible parties accountable.

The Psychological and Mental Impact of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse and sexual violence can have profound psychological and emotional effects on survivors, many of which stem from the brain’s biological response to trauma. Some of these effects include:

  • Depression. Depression is a mood disorder characterized by sadness or hopelessness that last for long periods of time and interrupt regular thought patterns. Depression can significantly impact behavior, relationships, and a person’s daily life.
  • Flashbacks. Sexual abuse survivors may experience flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive memories of past trauma that can feel as if they are taking place in the current moment, or that the abuse or violence are happening all over again. They may feel random or triggered by certain experiences or senses that remind a person of the trauma they experienced. Breathing and focusing on your five senses (what you see, smell, hear, taste, and feel) in the current moment can help you stay calm during a flashback and grounded in the present moment.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a condition triggered by a traumatic event. It is most associated with severe anxiety and intrusive memories, but can also result in avoidance (i.e. avoiding thinking or talking about the event or places and activities that remind you of the event), negative changes in mood, arousal symptoms (such as irritability, being easily startled, or feeling tense or on guard), self-destructive behavior, and feelings of guilt or shame.

Sexual abuse survivors can also experience other psychological and emotional issues that impact their physical well-being. Examples include:

  • Self-harm
  • Substance abuse
  • Panic attacks
  • Eating disorders
  • Pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • Sleep disorders
  • Dissociation
  • Suicide

While the psychological and emotional effects of sexual abuse can be life-altering, there are resources that can help survivors cope. This includes the support of friends and family, a trusted therapist or counselor, and various public services and non-profit organizations. For example, RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, operates a hotline that connects survivors with needed support and professionals.

Adult Survivors & Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse can and does happen to adults of all ages. Often, it’s perpetrated by individuals in positions of power and trust, and in settings where victims may be pressured, coerced, or even threatened to engage in sexual conduct and have few people or places to turn to for help. Examples include:

  • Sexual abuse by physicians
  • Sexual abuse in colleges and universities
  • Abuse in collegiate, semi-professional, or professional athletics
  • Clergy abuse
  • Abuse in jails and prisons, including sexual abuse of female inmates
  • Sexual abuse in the entertainment industry

Adults can experience the same types of emotional, physical, and psychological repercussions of abuse as children, as well as some unique issues. This includes difficulties in making complaints, speaking out against offenders, and getting support from those in charge. Often, these issues stem from the failures of supervisors, employers, and others in positions of authority and oversight when it comes to appropriately handling allegations, conducting investigations, and responding promptly.

Barriers that prevent survivors from making their voices heard can greatly hinder the reporting of abuse and the ability to stop offenders and prevent them from abusing others. Moreover, it can add further insult to injury for survivors who are already dealing with so much.

Fortunately, lawmakers are beginning to recognize the need for change. In New York, for example, the grounding breaking NY Adult Survivor’s Act creates a temporary one-year lookback window for individuals who were sexually abused as adults to file claims – no matter how long ago their abuse occurred. The ASA also permits claims to be brought against abusers and the institutions that failed to prevent the abuse.

Read more about the NY Adult Survivors Act or female inmate sexual abuse in NY jails or prisons.

The Impact of Child Sexual Abuse

Individuals who have been sexually abused as children may display various emotional and behavioral responses, many of which are common in children who have experienced other types of trauma. These responses may include:

  • Nightmares or sleeping difficulties.
  • Withdrawn behavior / social isolation
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Not wanting to be left alone with certain individuals

Short-Term Effects. The short-term effects of sexual abuse vary depending on the age of the child. For example:

  • Young children may engage in traumatic play in which they re-enact some parts of their abuse, exhibit signs of stress, withdrawn behavior, and tantrums, or engage in age-inappropriate sexual behavior, such as trying to engage other children in real or simulated sexual acts.
  • As children grow into adolescence, they can experience greater difficulties. Teens may be more likely to abuse substances and engage in risk-taking behaviors. Social isolation, self-harm, and suicidal behaviors.

Long-Term Effects. A growing body of research has shown that sexual abuse in childhood can significantly impact a person’s long-term physical and mental health and their sexual development. These include:

  • The development of PTSD, depression, and anxiety
  • Difficulties trusting others
  • Social and behavioral problems
  • Substance abuse issues
  • Self-harm and suicide
  • Problems with intimacy, trust, and sexual functioning
  • Higher rates of re-victimization (subsequent sexual assault)

Statistics Show Long-Terms Effects of Sexual Abuse

Statistics from RAINN illustrate just how significantly sexual abuse can impact survivors. For example:

  • 94% of women who are raped experience PTSD symptoms in the initial weeks following the assault, and 30% report PTSD symptoms 9 months after the rape.
  • 33% of women who are raped contemplate suicide, and 13% attempt suicide.
  • Roughly 70% of rape and sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress.
  • People who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to use drugs than the general public (6 times more likely to use cocaine and 10 times more likely to use other major drugs).
  • 38% of sexual violence victims experience problems at work or school, including problems with a superiors or coworkers.
  • 37% of survivors experience problems with friends or families, including more frequent arguments and relationships that are not as strong as they were before their abuse.

Seeking Justice & Compensation for Sexual Abuse

While sexual abuse can be devastating for both adults and children, seeking treatment and counseling can be effective tools for mitigating the effects of abuse. For many victims, the opportunity to speak out about abuse and pursue justice in a court of law can also provide an opportunity for redress and healing.

At Levy Konigsberg, our nationally recognized trial lawyers leverage decades of experience and extensive resources to help abuse survivors navigate their emotional and legal journeys. If you have questions about your legal rights and options, call (800) 315-3806 or contact us online for a FREE consultation.


Find out whether you have a case by speaking to one of our experienced lawyers via our 24/7 toll-free hotline or by submitting an email inquiry. Our attorneys will be quick to respond to you and happy to answer all of your questions.

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