Sexual Assault

by Gary Pike, Clinical Director

Some countries list as many as one out of every three females and one out of every five males will be victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18. Disturbingly, perpetrators are more likely to be family members or others considered close trustworthy adults.

Sexual abuse often leads to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In young children it is particularly sinister with victims often too young to find the appropriate channels to express themselves or seek help.

Sexual assault remains highly stigmatised with an overwhelming sense of shame and self-blame. Victims are often unable to report the abuse to even their closest friends or family members and as such the phenomena remains widely unreported.

Many victims wait years to find the courage or supportive environment to release their burden. Practicing as a psychologist I experienced a number of occasions when 40 to 50-year’olds would tell me that they had been sexually assaulted and or raped when they were in their early teens.

Most commonly they would also report that this was the first time that they had spoken openly about their ordeal. Many were visiting to discuss other issues like their anxiety or depression and the challenges they face around gambling, alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, or their ruined lives that they felt powerless to stop.

Research like the ACE study highlight the devastating consequences adverse childhood experiences can have well into a person’s life – when almost all else is forgotten or cleverly concealed the body remembers. In an article Health appraisal and the adverse childhood experiences study: National implications for health care, cost, and utilization, author Vincent Felitti illustrated the strong dose-response relationship decades later between traumatic early-life experiences and adult emotional states, social malfunction, biomedical disease, and premature death.

He further reports it may be easier to deal with every medical issue as though it were a purely biomedical problem rather than seeking underlying causality, a comprehensive biopsychosocial medical history might require a physician to understand and address the distant psychodynamic underpinnings of diseases such as cancer being related to immunosuppression caused by unspeakable stressors such as childhood sexual abuse and other traumatic events.

Sexual abuse along with its stigmatising, secrecy and shame make it difficult for the victim to move forward. Felinti has indicated that although we might put our sexual abuse to the side, learn to cover and cope as best we can, there can be very serious long term consequences. list a number of series’ by world leading trauma specialists that can offer insight and understanding to both clinicians and interested people alike.

Dr Bessel van der Kolk lists three sessions specifically on Sexual Assault from his PTSD Relief Therapy Series. They include Sexual Assault; Understanding and Healing, Drug and Alcohol Abuse and Pathways to Recovery.

Dr Janina Fisher offers 29 sessions in her Advanced Trauma Therapy Series that can help offer understanding and relief from sexual assault and abuse. We would recommend that with this series you start with the first session on Recognising Trauma and work through all her sessions to Retraining the Brain.

Dr Pat Ogden in her Body Wisdom Series offers ways our bodies can heal from these difficult situations. Three sessions that standout for me would be her Dealing with Rape, Building Resilience and Healing your Shame.

There is also the ACE study questionnaire where you can check your own exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences.