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How Sexual Abuse Affects the Brain

Nobody wants to be the first to discuss it, but victims deserve to know: sexual abuse happens. Over 33 percent of women and nearly one in four men experience sexual assault or abuse at some point in their lives—and almost one in five women report experiencing completed or attempted rape in their lifetimes. Sexual abuse is real; and, unfortunately, it seems to be pervasive. What can be done to support the victims of this abuse?

Attorney John Gomez
Sexual Abuse Attorney, John Gomez

Despite a plethora of nationally-sanctioned prevention resources, the fact remains that millions of sexual abuse victims need their communities’ support each year. That encompasses a range of professionals and loved ones who are equipped to assist the victim in the healing process. Medical doctors and psychologists, friends and family, legal advisors and industry professionals, all come together to form the backbone of movement forward.

One of the most critical aspects of understanding sexual abuse—and supporting sexual abuse victims—is a working knowledge of how sexual abuse impacts the brain. Sexual abuse takes many, many forms; and sexual abuse and assault claim the emotional well-being of victims on a daily basis. Many victims’ communities fail to understand that the impacts of abuse can be both acute and long-lasting into adulthood. Trauma impacts the brain long after an event occurs.


What Is Sexual Abuse?

One of the most nefarious aspects of sexual abuse may seem like a simple problem: Many of us struggle to define it. Chances are that everyone has a good idea of what could qualify as sexual abuse, but can you honestly say that you know exactly what constitutes sexual abuse or assault? If not, you may have trouble identifying it.

The American Psychological Association defines sexual abuse as “abusive sexual behavior by one person upon another…often perpetrated using force or by taking advantage of another”

Some readers may wonder whether any wanted sexual behavior or contact qualifies as sexual abuse. Under these cut-and-dry definitions, yes. Unfortunately, much of the public (and yes—even some individuals within the legal system) do not necessarily agree with these definitions.

It’s just one reason why sexual abuse victims are often left uncertain of:

  • The validity of their experiences
  • Their chances of success in court
  • The social stigma they may face if they openly speak the truth

Sexual abuse is often utilized to describe events that have occurred to children and minors. This is not always the case. Colloquially, it’s not uncommon to hear both of these terms utilized to describe occurrences concerning children and adults. If you are an adult and you elect to partner with an attorney or bring a case in court, you can likely expect to hear “sexual assault” more than “sexual abuse.”

What Differentiates Sexual Abuse From Sexual Assault?

The terms “sexual abuse” and “sexual assault” are often used interchangeably. Whether this is technically correct might be a question for the linguistics professionals—but the bulk of us, these days, see little difference between the two. Merriam-Webster does offer a separate definition for sexual assault:

Illegal sexual contact that usually involves force upon a person without consent or is inflicted upon a person who is incapable of giving consent…or who places the assailant…in a position of trust or authority.

As stated above, “sexual assault” is also often the preferred terminology for cases that involve the sexual abuse of adults. Keep in mind that you have likely heard of numerous cases that concern the sexual assault of children—this is because there is no official rule that dictates what terminology to use when.

The short answer to questions concerning the differences between sexual abuse and sexual assault is: No cut-and-dry behaviors or occurrences delineate the two. Much of the confusion that surrounds this topic stems from this exact issue.

One thing is incredibly important to make clear: Empathetic, seasoned legal professionals understand that unwanted sexual contact can have lasting mental and physical implications for victims. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve suffered sexual abuse, sexual assault, or both—help is available regardless of whether somebody experienced sexual abuse or sexual assault

Why Do So Many Victims Wait Before Reporting Sexual Abuse?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions when any sexual abuse case is publicized. Whether it’s a personal case that involves someone close to you or a star-studded lawsuit involving celebrities or public figures, someone always seems to ask “If it really happened, why wait to report it?”

The question does a little more than just opening a can of worms. If you have experienced sexual assault or abuse and are faced with questions like these, it can be difficult to find the right way to answer. It’s difficult to explain the range of factors that can press a person to hold off on reporting abuse.

Perhaps one of the best ways to begin to answer this question is to turn to an expert in the field. David Schwartz, a Professor of Psychology and director of clinical training at the University of Southern California, shares just a few reasons for the prevalence of delayed reporting:

  • The dynamics of trauma and sexual violence:
    • Fear, pain, shame, and self-doubt on the part of the victim
    • The victim may also be surrounded by a culture that excuses their assailant’s behavior or discounts their own experiences
    • Some victims fear for their safety if they report; and plenty do face real, tangible dangers if they come forward

These few short bullet points will never totally explain the complex reasons why so many sexual abuse victims never report (or wait to report) their experiences. The process also often forces them to re-live trauma that, understandably, they are desperate to forget. This issue is so prevalent that the National Center for State Courts published an article entitled “What Judges Need to Know About the Neurobiology of Sexual Assault.”

This piece sheds light on how to view the behaviors of sexual assault and abuse survivors in the proper context. It offers insight into how to respond—and what to believe—when a victim’s behavior may not align with what a judge expects of them. Author Deborah Smith details the various ways in which our brains and bodies can be set off course by sexual abuse—and it reminds judges to never discount a case just because of delayed reporting.

Types of Sexual Abuse

Just one factor that makes sexual abuse such a dangerous and prominent issue is the fact that it can take on so many forms. Unfortunately, societal stigmas lead many abuse victims to believe that their traumas are invalid. The truth is that any and all forms of unwanted sexual contact constitutes abuse—and any form of abuse can traumatize any victim at any time.

Where Can Sexual Abuse Occur?

Some abuse victims are led to believe that their treatment does not constitute abuse if it occurs in certain places or with certain parties present. A schoolteacher, for example, may convince his or her young student that the abuse is part of some curriculum.

The truth is that sexual abuse can and does happen absolutely anywhere. If you believe that you suffered sexual abuse but were lead to believe that your treatment was just, please do not hesitate to seek emotional, legal, and medical support.

All of the acts below, and thousands more, constitute sexual abuse:

  • Forcing somebody to view pornographic videos
  • Forcing somebody to engage in performing oral sex (or to be forced to receive oral sex)
  • Forced penetration
  • Exposing the genitalia
  • Making unwanted sexual requests

How Sexual Abuse Affects the Brain: The Neuroscience of Trauma

Some of the most basic—but not by any means the least impactful—remnants that sexual abuse can leave on victims’ brains involve fear. One study published by The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association noted that 62 percent of female and 18 percent of male sexual abuse victims reported feeling considerable fear after the event. This, alone, opens up enormous potential for a range of thoughts:

  • Fear that the event may occur again
  • Fear that another individual may perpetrate similar acts
  • Fear that the assailant may want to find, harm, or even deal fatal damage to the victim
  • Fear of retaliation, stalking, etc.

It’s easy to see why, then, our brains also automatically push us towards concern for our safety after sexual abuse. Nearly 60 percent of women and more than 15 percent of men reported feeling concern for their safety following instances of sexual abuse. Nearly as many—more than 50 percent of women and over 15 percent of men—even experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (or PTSD). Greater abuse severity is generally believed to predict higher levels of PTSD symptoms.

Sexual Abuse Can Impact the Body, Too

The same study linked above compiled research findings that identified numerous long-lasting physical effects of sexual assault, too. Some of those named include:

  • Asthma
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Chronic pain
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Limitations in daily activities

Many victims face a slew of acute symptoms in the time that follows sexual abuse. For some, this could be a direct consequence of the abuse that occurred (i.e. some physical response to an injury). For others, it’s often a physical manifestation of anxiety and fear. It’s crucial to note that this does not mitigate symptom severity.

Gastrointestinal symptoms are some of the most commonly experienced aftereffects of sexual abuse and assault. For some, this manifests as stomach discomfort, nausea, and vomiting. Others may experience diarrhea, loss of appetite, or even an increase in appetite. This is one reason why so many people find it difficult to identify with victims of sexual abuse—because everybody’s experience is so unique, there’s no blueprint for how to best support those who have undergone trauma.

Some people even begin to display cardiopulmonary and neurologic symptoms in response to their experiences. Women, in particular, must also grapple with a host of potential genital and reproductive symptoms such as:

  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Infections
  • Genital irritation
  • Lack of sexual drive or pleasure
  • Painful intercourse
  • Urinary tract infections (also known as UTIs)

Perpetrators and Trauma

Unfortunately, much of the sexual abuse that occurs involves abusers that are seen as trustworthy or in positions of authority. Because of this, they often deeply manipulate their victims. The level of emotional and psychological trauma that sexual abuse victims in these circumstances must endure can often cause new issues to arise. Victims may feel torn between their loyalty, love, or sympathy towards their abuser and their own suffering.

Many victims may struggle additionally during and after the sexual abuse due to repeated exposure to their abusers. If somebody that you come into regular contact with is perpetrating abuse, it can drastically intensify an already deeply traumatic experience.

A Sexual Abuse Lawyer Can Empower and Support Survivors

If you or a loved one have fallen victim to sexual abuse, you absolutely deserve protection and support—including legally. A trusted attorney can help you understand your options for moving forward, and how to pursue an effective recovery following sexual abuse.

655 West Broadway, Suite 1700
San Diego, CA 92101
Phone: (619)-237-3490

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