What is Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual act or behaviour to which a person has not consented. It may be that the individual was forced, coerced or threatened into engaging in sexual activity with another person, or it could be that the individual was not able to consent.
An individual may be unable to consent due to his or her:
Being under 16 (or 18 if perpetrator in position of power)
Level of intoxication with drugs or alcohol
Being asleep, unconscious or drugged at time of assault
Cognitive impairment or disability
Inability to make decisions because of a psychiatric issue
A range of sexual acts or sexual behaviour can constitute sexual assault. It is important to understand that sexual assault involves any sexual event that is unwanted by the individual. Anyone can change their mind about sexual activity at any time even once sexual activity has commenced, and can also consent to some sexual activities and not others. If the victim has not consented to the sexual activity, a crime has been committed. Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault.
Sexual assault is often a very unexpected and very frightening event. This crime can be perpetrated by a stranger but more often it is committed by someone known to the individual. Sexual assault can happen to anyone, regardless of the person’s age, gender, sexuality, culture or background. It occurs when the perpetrator wants power and control over another individual, places their needs above the victim and does not respect others.
Sexual Assault vs. Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse occurs when the perpetrator has a position of power or authority over the individual and then chooses to abuse this position of trust to manipulate the victim to engage sexual acts. Examples of this include an adult and a child, a teacher and a student or a health provider and a patient. In this way a sexual assault can also be considered sexually abusive if the perpetrator holds a position of trust.
Childhood sexual abuse is a term that often refers to the ongoing sexual abuse of a child by an adult, adolescent or older child. This often occurs on more than one occasion and frequently involves grooming. Grooming is the process by which a child is slowly manipulated into sexualized behaviour by an adult by methods such as gifts, rewards or special attention.
Should I Involve the Police?
Reporting the incident to the police can be a difficult decision. The victim may blame him or herself and may worry that the police or others will not believe them. They may fear retaliation by the perpetrator or feel guilty about reporting the event. The individual may know the perpetrator and may be concerned about the consequences of reporting. They may not feel ready or want to talk about what happened to them. The person is likely to be overwhelmed and confused about this big decision and may need some time or the opportunity to talk to a counsellor about the decision. At the same time the sooner the person reports to the police, the more chance they have of obtaining DNA evidence from their clothing or body.
Many survivors of sexual abuse and abuse have testified that the process of reporting to police has been important to their recovery and offered some small sense of closure regarding the event. Unfortunately though, sexual assault and abuse can be very difficult to prove in court due to there often being few witnesses or difficulties demonstrating consent was not provided. Sometimes the individual can go through the police reporting process and then the case does not make it to court or the perpetrator is not given a guilty verdict. Sometimes this process can take up to two years and can be very stressful, upsetting and disruptive for the victim.
The most important thing is that the person who experienced the event is the one to make the decision. This is critical, as this person has had all power and control taken away from them when they were abused.
The Impact of Sexual Assault
The effects of sexual assault are varied, but many people notice signs of recovery in the first weeks and months following the assault. Some of the impacts include:
Feeling overwhelmed with negative emotions
Emotional reactions such as shame, guilt, anger, fear and rage
Trouble sleeping or eating as per usual
Being unable to stop thinking about the assault
Experiencing nightmares or visual images of the assault
Not wanting others to touch you
Fearfulness when leaving the house or when alone
Avoiding anything that triggers you to remember the assault
Feeling alone, scared and confused
Feeling empty, numb, in shock or disbelief
Blaming oneself or having thoughts you are disgusting or dirty
Feeling shaking, jumpy, nervous or anxious
Finding it difficult to trust others or relax during sex
Developing a negative view of the world and others
An increase in alcohol or other drug use
The presence of self-harm or suicidal thoughts
Sexualized behaviour or changes in sexual activity
Trouble socialising or attending to studies and work commitments
Counselling and Recovery
Counselling can be an important part of the recovery process. Sometimes people can recover from sexual assault with the support of their loved ones and their usual coping strategies, however sometimes people need professional support. Many symptoms of trauma can subside or disappear within the initial weeks or months after the sexual assault. Other times, especially if the individual has experienced other sexual assaults/abuse, other mental health issues, substance use difficulties or other stressors, trauma symptoms can develop into Acute Stress Disorder or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Counselling can offer the individual:
A safe and non-judgmental space to discuss their thoughts and feelings
Support in understanding sexual assault and abuse
Assistance challenging self blaming thoughts
Therapy to reduce nightmares, visual flashbacks and intrusive thoughts
Support to return to normal routine and self-care
Assistance with family and relationship issues
Counselling to reduce anxiety, fear, shame and other emotions
Help in increasing supports and positive coping strategies
Support with making decisions regarding police reporting
Information and support regarding the court process
Adolescents and Young Adults
Adolescents and young adults can experience unique issues as result of their age and developmental stage. They can benefit from the presence of someone outside the family with which to discuss their difficulties due to:
Additional embarrassment and shame when discussing the event
Poor peer support as it may not be appropriate to discuss the issue
A loss of independence and freedom due to others’ safety concerns
Family conflict around issues related to the sexual assault
School/University refusal, avoidance or reduced performance
Withdrawal from social activities
A loss of confidence and self-esteem
Confusion about sexuality and relationships
A higher chance of alcohol and other drug use
Difficulties with stress management
An increased risk of self-harm and suicidal thoughts
Being in the highest risk group for sexual assaults
How Family and Friends Can Assist
Take care of yourself
Believe your loved one
Ensure they are safe from the perpetrator
Learn more about sexual assault
Let them know you are available for support when they need it
Listen to them and allow them a non-judgmental space to talk
Do not pressure them to go to the police if they do not want to
Encourage them to return to their normal life activities (with support)
Remind them it is not their fault, be careful of blaming statements
Support them to link into counselling when they are ready
Do not pressure them to talk about the assault
Ensure they know you are angry at the perpetrator and not them
For further information about sexual assault and recovery or to make an appointment for counselling, please feel free to use the contact details below.