Sexual Trauma

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

Sexual Abuse

The issue of memories of sexual trauma has been making headline news due to the hearing of the current Supreme Court nomination.

Sexual Trauma is the imposed and unwanted sexual encounter (physical or virtual) that triggers PTSD symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks, and dissociation. It is a worldwide public health problem and a profound violation of individual’s human rights. There is a wide range of experiences that can create sexual trauma including rape, childhood sexual abuse, street harassment, online sexual harassment and stalking. It can result from ongoing experiences or from an isolated event and it does not necessarily involve physical violence.

Sexual Trauma is often an overlooked problem for boys and men. Recent studies have shown that 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual abuse or assault. In part, the secrecy and stigma shrouding male sexual assault and trauma is due to our cultures’ values where invulnerability and denial of pain are seen as essential qualities of “manliness.”

  • The World Health Organization reports that 1 in 3 women in the world have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner or sexual violence by a non-partner.
  • 81% of women who suffer sexual assault report that they suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  • The controversy about recovered/loss memory of child sexual abuse (“Memory Wars”) has been fiercely debated for the past 25 years. Controversy still remains, particularly about how memory functions under stress.
  • Because of the cortisol and the frontal cortex activity that takes place during traumatic events, memories created at that time are stored in a different part of the brain compared to “normal” memories and this makes it harder for these to memories to fade.
  • It is imperative that therapists who deal with sexual trauma engage their clients from an informed and unbiased position and follow the guidelines of their professional associations.
  • One of the many comprehensive publications on this complex and controversial issue is a recent publication of Ann McDonald’s 2017 paper on Recovered Memory of Childhood Sexual Abuse: An overview of research evidence and guidelines.”
  • DSM-5 lists five major Dissociative Disorders linked with trauma:
    • Dissociative Identity Disorder
    • Dissociative Amnesia including Dissociative Fugue
    • Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder
    • Other Specified Dissociative Disorder
    • Unspecified Dissociative Disorder
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) nearly 1 in 5 women in the US reports having experienced rape in her lifetime.
  • In a 2015 survey conducted by the Association of American Universities (a survey of 27 universities, including seven of the eight Ivy League schools), more than 20% of female students reported experiencing non-consensual sexual contact.
  • Given the prevalent myth that males are never sexually harassed or abused, men and boys tend to (1) suffer from the negative effects of these encounters without realizing that those experiences were harmful or that they are related to current symptoms or (2) be aware that the experience(s) were harmful but they are too ashamed to seek help dealing with it.
  • 12.3% of women were age 10 or younger at the time of their first completed rape victimization and 27.8% of men were age 10 or younger at the time of their first completed rape victimization.
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