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Understanding the Effects of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is a crime that cuts across gender, race, religion and class. The statistics on sexual abuse are alarming. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped in their lives. Among children, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted by the time they turn 18 years old. And one in five female students and one in 16 male students are sexually assaulted during their time in university.

Even these startling numbers do not begin to reveal the profound and long-term mental, emotional, psychological and physical devastation suffered by many victims of sexual abuse. The impact of sexual abuse varies significantly from one individual to the next, and every case is unique. However, there are some general trends in how victims of sexual assault view themselves, cope with their environment and personal relationships, and struggle with mental and psychological health following an attack. These trends paint a devastating picture of the reverberating effects of sexual violence in both children and adults.

The Psychological and Mental Impact of Sexual Abuse

The psychological and mental effects experienced by victims of sexual abuse stem in large part from the brain’s biological response to trauma. These effects often include post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition involving symptoms of extreme stress, fear, anxiety and difficulty conducting daily activities following a traumatic experience like sexual assault. Some victims engage in self-mutilation and substance abuse or attempt suicide, and it is not uncommon for sexual abuse survivors to experience dissociation (detachment from reality) as they struggle to cope with their trauma. Many victims report sleep disorders, eating disorders, anxiety and depression, symptoms of which can persist for years. Victims frequently also experience significant behavioral changes, including social isolation, strained relationships with family, and risk–taking behavior. The impact of sexual abuse is not limited to mental and emotional health. Many sufferers are at greater risk of adverse physical health conditions including high blood pressure, chronic pain and prolonged patterns of poor sleep.

Sexual Abuse in Children

While the effects of sexual abuse are similar in both adults and children, individuals who have been sexually abused as children may experience additional psychological and emotional problems. Depression, stress and anxiety are some of the most common long-term symptoms for children who have been sexually abused. Individuals abused as children often have difficulty externalizing their abuse and as a result experience low self-esteem and extreme distortions in their sense of self-worth well into adulthood. Thus, many survivors develop feelings of worthlessness, avoid relationships with others, and experience persistent feelings of severe guilt, shame and self-blame, often leading to further self-destructive behavior. Abused children frequently feel responsible for their abuse, especially when the perpetrator is a trusted adult, such as a teacher or clergyman. In the short term, victims may exhibit developmentally inappropriate sexualization, poor performance in school, and feelings of powerlessness, anger and withdrawal. In the long term, many survivors of childhood abuse experience life-long difficulty establishing healthy interpersonal relationships. Problems with intimacy, trust, and sexual functioning are magnified when sexual abuse is perpetrated by a figure that the child loved, trusted, or depended upon to ensure his or her safety, and victims of childhood sexual abuse have higher rates of re-victimization (subsequent sexual assault) than non-victims.

Attention: New York and New Jersey Law Provides Additional Time for Sexual Abuse Survivors to Bring Action

Help and Justice for Sexual Abuse Victims

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.

Levy Konigsberg LLP is a nationally recognized law firm that has handled all types of negligence cases for more than three decades. If you or a member of your family has been the victim of sexual abuse, please contact our lawyers for a free consultation by calling (800) 315-3806 or submit an email inquiry.

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