Impacts and effects

Contributed by Penny Pestano and Chrystina Stanford and current to January 2018

The impacts and effects of sexual assault can be broad-ranging, and will depend on a range of factors, including the age of the person at the time of the abuse, the number and types of incidents, whether other forms of abuse may have taken place, the relationship to and tactics of the perpetrator, responses to disclosures and the amount and type of support received, whether that be from friends, family and/or professionals.

Social Impacts

There is potential to experience a range of social impacts as a result of an experience of sexual assault. Many survivors may have known the person or people who sexually assaulted them, and after disclosure, others around may have rallied in support or alternatively responded with disbelief or had other negative responses. If the perpetrator was a family member or relative, there is often a disconnection with or less frequent contact with other members of the family (Golding, Wilsnack, & Cooper 2002) and there may also be challenges around family gatherings, such as birthdays, Christmases, weddings, marriages and funerals.

If the perpetrator was a partner, there may have been some friends who cannot be spoken with any more because of their continuing association with the perpetrator. Some of the psychological and emotional impacts may affect how comfortable an individual may feel in social situations. There may also be occasions where consideration is given on who to trust with knowledge of your experiences and depending on how the disclosures were made, there may be some people at school, within your family, family friends, colleagues at work or people within your community who you did not want to know, but who have found out inadvertently, perhaps by someone sharing the information without first asking you for permission. All of these social impacts may have put strain on your relationships and also have emotional and psychological impacts. Trying to manage the multi-faceted social impacts can be difficult and exhausting. Nobody should have to deal with the social or any other impacts of sexual assault alone. If you are experiencing any of the social impacts resulting from the experience of trauma, please speak with your counsellor about it and if you are not receiving counselling, we encourage you to speak with some people you trust, or consider contacting CRCC for crisis support or to access counselling.

Emotional Impacts

Being sexually assaulted, sexually abused, harassed or stalked can leave you feeling overwhelmed and struggling with something that has pushed you outside your normal coping abilities. Following sexual assault or abuse, it is normal to experience a range of emotions, which may include fear, anguish, numbness, anger, sadness, anxiety, shame or embarrassment. Many survivors also express feelings of humiliation and hopelessness and it is not uncommon for survivors to say they feel “dirty” and that they need to wash themselves constantly. You may find yourself wanting to isolate, or alternatively, be with people all the time. There is no right and wrong way to feel, everyone has different reactions and if you find yourself struggling to cope or the emotional impacts are affecting your relationships with those you are closest to, help is available from CRCC for both you and those who are supporting you.

You may also experience fluctuating moods from day to day and even hour to hour, or feel depressed and struggle to pull yourself from an overwhelming or constant state of sadness. Depression is a common effect of sexual assault and abuse. It is not something a person can ‘snap out of,’ it can take time, counselling and sometimes medication to help manage or resolve. If you find yourself experiencing these emotions, or prolonged sadness, worthlessness, indifference, long or unexplained crying spells, low energy or persistent fatigue and a loss of interest and pleasure in activities you previously enjoyed, it is important that you get help and support.

Physical and Behavioural Impacts

Following the sexual assault or abuse, you may have experienced physical or medical concerns which needed to or still need to be addressed. Survivors may have to decide what to do about unwanted pregnancy (Holmes, Resnick, & Kilpatrick, 1996) or have tests and intervention for STIs or injuries resulting from the assault(s). All physical impacts are incredibly important to address as soon as possible. Other impacts may include amongst others, pelvic pain, gastrointestinal issues, gynecological and pregnancy complications, migraines, frequent headaches and back pain (Jewkes & Garcia-Moreno, 2002). It is also common for survivors to experience body memories in which physical sensations related to the abuse are triggered or re-experienced.

Since the sexual assault or abuse happened, you may have found your appetite has been effected in the short or longer-term, you may not want to eat as much as before or at all, or you may find yourself binging or ‘comfort eating’ which in the longer-term may affect your physical health and self-esteem. If you find yourself becoming preoccupied with food, binge eating or abusing diet pills, you can ask for help.

Some survivors of sexual assault and abuse choose to ‘self-medicate’ by using drugs, alcohol or other substances to numb the memory of the experiences or feelings of hopelessness or depression. Substance misuse can affect a survivor’s interest in healthy activities and hobbies, may have a detrimental effect on work or school performance and can have longer-term negative health impacts. Alcohol and non-prescription drugs and other substances generally only work temporarily and are not a long-term solution to managing the impacts of trauma. Withdrawing from alcohol and some other substances which a person’s body has become dependent on, can be dangerous if attempted without adequate medical supervision and support. If you are using drugs, alcohol or other substances to help deal with the impacts of your experience of sexual assault or abuse, please access support for yourself. You can contact CRCC for counselling and support or referral to an appropriate drug and alcohol counsellor or service.

Since the sexual assault or abuse tooK place, you may have found that the relationship with your body and how you view yourself has changed. Because they feel so bad about themselves, some survivors find themselves making decisions about their body that may have harmful impacts, such as engaging in unprotected or risky sexual activity or engaging with unhealthy sexual partners. Often some of the unhealthy decisions are based on very low self-esteem and issues with body image which are common impacts of trauma. If you find yourself engaging in activities which are risky or unhealthy for yourself, you can speak with your counsellor about these, and if you don’t have a counsellor, we encourage you to discuss your concerns with someone you trust who can help, or consider contacting CRCC or another agency for support.

Psychological Impacts

You may find that the experience of sexual assault or abuse has affected your ability to concentrate and make decisions. It takes time to recover from the impacts of sexual assault and abuse and if you are in crisis, it is suggested you hold off making any big decisions. At CRCC we recognise sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and stalking as traumatic, and that they may result in some people developing a range of post-traumatic stress symptoms. Not everyone will experience the same impacts and effects, but the sooner any of the emotional and psychological impacts can be addressed the less likely they will cause long-term problems.

Many of the survivors who have come to the CRCC have talked about their struggles with thoughts such as “Why me?”, “If only…”, “What if…”, “How could this happen…”, “What did I do wrong?” Survivors can find themselves trying to find a reason to explain what has happened, something to explain why they were sexually assaulted or why the person did what they did. It is normal to be thinking these types of thoughts, a lot of people do because they are trying to understand and rationalise the abuse because it is so difficult to handle.

Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about sexual assault in the community which can make a survivor feel as though they were somehow responsible or could have prevented what happened. Often offenders use tactics to try and place responsibility for what has happened onto the victim/survivor, or try and minimise what has happened, convince them that it was something the victim/survivor did or something they were wearing or said that caused the abuse or made it okay. It is important to know that sexual assault and abuse are never justified under any circumstances. If the perpetrator chose to respect you and not to violate, abuse, trick, coerce or manipulate you, the assault or abuse would never have happened. Perpetrators can control their actions and decisions. It is important to remember that you are not to blame for what happened. The perpetrator chose to sexually assault you, nothing you did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say, gave anyone the right to sexually assault or abuse you.

You own your body and you should have the right to choose who touches it and when!

Some other common psychological impacts many survivors struggle with include thoughts of self-harm and/or suicide. The effects of sexual assault can be very emotionally, mentally and/or physically painful and sadly many survivors think about hurting themselves or suicide.

It is important to remember you do not have to go through this alone. We encourage you to try talking to people about your thoughts, if you cannot or do not want to talk to your friends and/ or family, you can contact CRCC or other services that may be helpful. If you are thinking about suicide please put your safety and wellbeing first and ask for help. Try and share your thoughts with someone you trust or a professional who understands the impacts of trauma. We encourage you to dispose of anything which you have obtained to hurt yourself with. Always remember there are other options, and as hard as it is to keep going sometimes, you can get through this, and we are here to help you. If you have found yourself struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can contact us on our crisis line, and we can offer you crisis phone support and we can discuss counselling if you are not already receiving it.

Over the last ten years, there has been more community awareness about the use of substances by perpetrators which are given to victims without their knowledge to create vulnerability in order to sexually assault them. This form of abuse is sometimes called ‘drug facilitated sexual assault’ or ‘drink spiking’. Some perpetrators will add drugs or purposefully increase the amount of alcohol in a person’s drinks or encourage the victim to continue drinking with the purpose of sexually assaulting them. If you are a survivor of drug facilitated sexual assault, it is important to know that when a person is under the influence of alcohol or substances, they can no longer give consent to have sex, so anyone who has been sexual with you has committed a sexual offence. You may find that you have experienced a range of psychological impacts, including some of the ones mentioned in this information; you may also have additional impacts resulting from having little or no memory of the assault occurring, or on the other hand, having memories of what happened, but not being able to react due to the drugs or alcohol in your system. It can be overwhelming to find out that someone has done something to your body when you were not fully conscious, or to have been conscious of what was happening but unable to do anything about it. It is important that you get the support you need and deserve to process the impacts you have experienced. If you do not already have support, please speak with a trusted friend or family member who you feel will be able to offer you support and understanding, and/or contact us at the CRCC or another agency

Whilst there are a range of other psychological impacts that victims/survivors can face, it is worth mentioning one more in this section. It is not uncommon for victims/survivors to form an unhealthy emotional bond towards their perpetrator that is based in trauma, especially if the abuse occurred over a long period of time. In its extreme form, some victims/survivors can develop what has been called ‘Stockholm syndrome’, which gets its name from a hostage situation in Stockholm where victims who were held captive ended up supporting their captors. There are many reasons for its occurrence, including psychological tactics used by the perpetrator and psychological capacities employed by the victim/survivor to cope with the overwhelming situation. If the survivor was held by the perpetrator for an extended period of time, the survivor may start to “normalise” the experience in order to help them process such an inhuman connection.

It can be very confusing for the survivor as well as their loved ones and supporters if the survivor goes back to the abusive relationship, expresses good feelings towards the perpetrator. It can be very difficult for some people to break a trauma bond, no matter how abusive the relationship was or is, especially when threats of violence, or loss of family, money or status are made. It is important to remember that victims in this situation can genuinely feel they are in an appropriate ‘relationship’. It can be very difficult for them to see otherwise, and some people are never able to do so. The CRCC can support anyone who has experienced sexual assault in the context of being in a captive situation or where the dynamics between the perpetrator and the victim/survivor were blurred into an unhealthy bond. If you are a survivor or family member of someone who has experienced sexual abuse in this context, please ask for support.

Sleep Disruption

Sexual assault can affect your sleep patterns. In order to sleep properly, you need to feel safe and secure. When you have been assaulted, your ability to trust and feel safe can be effected, which can result in insomnia of fitful sleep. Constantly thinking about what happened, being fearful of your safety, worrying about what other people think or concern about the future can also keep you awake at night. Sleep is also a time where the brain’s normal defences are weakened. This means you can experience nightmares which hold the same emotions you felt at the time of being assaulted. Nightmares can occur if you are living in fear of being assaulted again. Any disruption to sleep can affect your ability to function during the day, it can cause you to become lethargic, have poor concentration, irritable and anxious. It can also reduce your ability to cope with other stresses you are trying to manage. Sleep disruption is experienced by almost all survivors of sexual assault and abuse, it is a normal reaction to trauma, and with time and support, these impacts can be mitigated. If you are struggling with sleep disruption, you can speak with your counsellor or ring the CRCC crisis line to discuss some strategies that assist in creating more internal and external safety as well as strategies to increase sleep and help manage the impacts which are causing the disrupted sleep.


A flashback is a memory of past trauma which appears and feels as though it is currently happening. Flashbacks affect all the senses, even making you believe you smell the same smells, and feel the same contact on your body. They can be just as terrifying and traumatic as the sexual assault. Flashbacks are usually ‘triggered’ by stimuli similar to an occurrence in the original trauma, such as a certain smell, sound, sensation or sight that reminds you of the trauma. Flashbacks range in length and severity, with some sufferers feeling flashback is just as real as the original trauma. Flashbacks are the minds way of trying to make sense of what has happened. Flashbacks can cause overwhelming distress to survivors, learning skills to help manage them is important for your recovery. You can speak with a worker at the CRCC or another professional with experience in working with survivors of trauma to assist with developing strategies to help manage flashbacks.

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