By Kathryn Millán, LPC, MHSP
Sexual trauma can include sexual abuse, sexual assault, intense or ongoing sexual harassment and abuse due to a person’s sexual orientation, maturity or experiences. Sexual trauma can happen to anyone. It isn’t limited to one particular gender identity, group of people or risk category. It can happen to a person of any age, from newborn to the elderly.
If you or a person you love has experienced this type of trauma at some point in life, you are not alone.
The physical effects of sexual trauma may vary depending on the traumatic experience and how often the experience happened. The emotional effects of these traumas often last much longer and can be harder to detect than the physical effects, which makes it important to seek emotional support for these experiences as soon as possible.
How Long Does It Take to Heal?
Many people ask, “How long does it take to recover from sexual trauma?” Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer on this. Everyone recovers in their own way, and most people have different visions about how they want their own recovery to look.
If you’ve been a victim of a traumatic sexual incident, you may benefit greatly from the support of an experienced counselor and a peer support group. Both are safe, comfortable places where you can talk openly or simply listen to others and gain support and information at your own pace. If you take time to surround yourself with strong survivors and trained counselors, even for just a little while, your chances of feeling relief and inner peace will increase rapidly.
Recovery from sexual trauma looks different for everyone. The goal of healing, in these cases, is not to blindly forget what happened. The goal is to go beyond that to reach a place where fear does not control everyday life, where hope and optimism can be felt again and where trust and compassion can return, even in small ways.
One person may find recovery through activism and talking with others, while another person may find a quiet recovery where the simple sensation of peace is healing enough. In some ways, we never truly recover from sexual trauma, but we do adapt to a “new normal.” And we can take our experiences and use them to understand how strong we truly are.
If someone you care about has experienced sexual trauma, you can act as an ally and supporter. But it’s important to understand that people recover at different rates and that sexual trauma may take years to overcome and will likely impact your loved one for a long time.
Want to hear more about how trauma is stored at the cellular level and how it can be released? Listen to the full interview with Kat Cross from Spirit2Spirit Healing on the Recovery Unscripted podcast.
What Should I Do If Someone Tells Me About Their Trauma?
It’s okay if you don’t know what to say when someone first tells you about their sexual trauma. You might feel a number of emotions, ranging from surprise to anger at the attacker to sorrow. You may even feel a resurgence of emotion related to any past trauma you’ve survived.
Emily Eckstein, PsyD, LMFT, clinical director for The Canyon at Peace Park, offers the following tip. If someone mentions a sexual trauma that occurred in their personal history, it’s always a good idea to follow up on that discussion in the very near future. You might say something like: “I know you took a risk last week and shared something difficult with me. I wanted to follow up and see how you are. Is there anything I can do to support you this week?”
It’s important to let your loved one know that you’re a safe person to talk to. Recognize that discussing trauma like this requires bravery, so refrain from asking too many questions. Dr. Eckstein states, “By asking too many questions, it is easy to come off as judging the individual or the situation. Individuals that experience sexual trauma might also feel comfort in hearing that now they are safe, in this moment, and in their relationship with you, while highlighting how brave they are to ask for support.”1
It’s also important to check in periodically with a survivor. You don’t need to mention the trauma to check in with that person, as he or she may not be in the best place to relive those memories. Just ask that person how they are feeling once in a while. Ask how you can be a support, but allow that person to determine the best way for you to help. A simple statement of “I’m here for you” can go a long way.
There is one special-case scenario: If someone tells you about previously unreported abuse that happened to anyone under the age of 18 or abuse that happened to a senior citizen or vulnerable adult, you should reach out for further help. Call a licensed mental health professional or your local child protective services. It is mandatory to report these types of abuse in most US states.
No matter what, avoid any blaming or blame-oriented questioning. Sexual abuse and assault are never the victim’s fault, no matter what they were doing, what they were wearing or what kind of relationship they had with their abuser. There is no excuse for sexual violence or coercion, in any instance. By letting your loved one know you are an ally, you create a safe space for faster healing. Remain empathetic, consistent and open. Your ability to listen will allow your loved one to reach out for support when ready.
Healing is possible, and you can live a good life after sexual trauma. People are willing to help you through this, so don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you need it.
1 Truong, Kimberly. “How You Can Help Someone Recovering From Sexual Abuse.” Refinery29, May 25, 2018.