What We Need to Know About Sexual Trauma

In recognition of  Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we are sharing information and resources for those who have experienced sexual assault or sexual trauma. Whether you are coping with sexual trauma or you know someone who is, our goal is to help you feel seen and give you hope.

We sat down with Dr. Anadel Barbour to discuss how sexual assault and sexual trauma can affect a person, as well as what someone who may have experienced sexual assault can do to take steps toward healing.

First of all, tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background and your expertise?

I’ve been working in the Mental Health field for about 17 years, with a Ph.D. in Human Sexuality, Masters in Clinical Psychology and Certifications in EMDR Therapy, and as a Substance Abuse Counselor. 

I came into this field because of my own life experience. My mother was a sex worker and my father was an alcoholic that did not make it to the age of 50. My life took a lot of turns because of that, and because of my own addictions. When I got sober, the work I did on myself inspired me to give back. The trauma work became the core of what I do because the healing of sexual wounds is not only deep and painful but also confusing and shameful.

How would you define sexual assault? Does sexual assault always lead to trauma?

It varies, which is why it can be hard for some people to recognize a  sexual assault. Broadly speaking, a sexual assault can be described as unwanted sexual attention that causes emotional distress and/or bodily injury, verbal and/or physical, and can include a single incident such as a sexual attack and ongoing sexual abuse such as incest, through coercion, intimidation, and manipulation and attack. 

In my opinion, yes, it always leads to trauma. Trauma is subjective; all individuals are influenced by their personal feelings and perceptions (i.e., Secure or anxious Attachment,  Family Values, etc). So depending on a person’s background, they’ll respond to the sexual assault in different ways. For example, much of my experience came from witnessing sex and abuse and its consequences. Having a parent be openly sexual affected my values around sex, morals, levels of distress. Every individual will have an experience that will affect their responses.

Do you know approximately how many people experience sexual assault?

Unfortunately, that number is difficult to know, since much sexual abuse and many sexual assaults are not reported. According to The National Sexual, Violence Resource Center or NSVRC, (2015-2018) 25.5 Million Women and 2.8 Million men reported rape and attempted rape at least once in their lifetime. 

What are some of the side effects of a sexual assault?

In my clinical experience, side effects can be many and also may be relative to each individual. Some of the effects can be dissociation, major anxiety, major depression, shame and self-loathing, substance abuse, and eating disorders. There can be difficulty in relationships that can include siblings, parents, friends, and intimate partners. Often there is mistrust of medical professionals, and physical manifestations such as vaginismus in women, and premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction in men. Other byproducts of trauma are PTSD, emotional dis-regulation (inability to self-soothe), isolation, and fear of sex, fear of people, and isolation.  

I would like to add that although asexuality, promiscuity, and celibacy can be side effects, these are also healthy choices many people with or without abuse make for themselves. We must keep in mind, it depends on if an individual finds the behavior maladaptive rather than enjoyable that informs clients and therapists on how to proceed.

How would you define sexual trauma? What could be considered sexual trauma? 

Sexual trauma occurs when there is a violation of personal space emotionally, verbally, and/or physically that creates fear in an individual. 

Let me give you some examples I have worked with that are, unfortunately, more common than we can imagine. Some examples are older family members, and step-parents, bosses, those who use fame and notoriety to attract people, caregivers, medical professionals, clergy. Other examples are the sudden attacks on the street by a stranger, gangs of men finding vulnerable people to overpower, peepers, entry into a home, roofies slipped into drinks at parties and bars, and being manipulated and coerced by a trusted friend. 

I hold firm that whatever my client deems inappropriate, it is. That is the most important thing—believing the person that was victimized.

How might one advise someone who’s experienced sexual assault or trauma?

Do not hesitate to ask for help! As soon as you feel ready, tell someone. Keeping it a secret is one of the major contributors to trauma. It gets stored in the Limbic System of the brain, and never processes into a rational resolution without the action of asking for and getting help. 

Remember, there is help out there. Depending on your needs, you can find what you are looking for. Some helpful resources are Sex Coaching, EMDR Therapy, Mindfulness Therapy, Psychotherapy, Yoga, Body-Centered Therapy, Emotional-Focus Therapy, shelters, 12 Step Programs, and Trauma support groups, and hotlines. You can do it when you are ready!

What about someone who is dating a victim of sexual assault? How might you advise them to be a helpful nourishing partner?

The person dating a victim of sexual assault is a special person because they need to possess or cultivate compassion, patience, an open mind, and an ability to listen without giving advice. Being listened to, being believed, and not being judged are paramount to a trusting relationship.

What does healing from sexual trauma look like? 

The best thing I can do is let my clients tell you:

  • “I called an attorney and gave him the name of the guy!”(The “guy” was her rapist)
  • “I initiated sex last night. We didn’t have sex, but we cuddled! It is a start. It is a win!”
  • “I called my mom last night. Baby steps.” (Mom knew and did nothing)
  • “I love my straight men friends! Not all men are predators. I never knew that. I never knew that!” 
  • “I made an appointment to see the OBGYN.” 

Any gain in their courage and adaptive change in their thoughts and behaviors is immense progress. I hope everyone who suffers will take that step and begin their healing today.

Resources for sexual assault survivors:

  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline in partnership with more than 1,000 local sexual assault service providers across the country. You can chat online or call them at 800-656-HOPE.
  • NotAlone.gov: A government website dedicated to educating college students and schools about Title IX and sexual assault.
  • National Sexual Violence Resource Center: Their website has information on sexual violence as well as legal resources.
  • Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence: A national resource center on domestic violence, sexual violence, trafficking, and other forms of gender-based violence in Asian and Pacific Islander communities. This organization provides local referrals to survivors in Asian and Pacific Islander communities and also works to create systemic change by providing training to professionals and advocating for research-based policy changes.
  • Ujima: The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community works to respond to and end domestic, sexual, and community violence in the Black community through research, public awareness, community engagement, and resource development.
  • National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project: Advocates for policy change to support immigrant women and children. They also offer direct support by hosting a directory of service providers who support immigrant women and children with practical assistance, as well as a database of information about government benefits that are available by state and immigration status.
  • National Latin@ Network: A national resource center that supports prevention and intervention efforts across the country to end domestic and dating violence in Latinx communities. They do this work through research, policy advocacy, and training service providers on the needs of Latinx survivors of violence. They also operate a resource library for service providers and survivors.
  • The Network la Red: The Network/La Red hotline provides emotional support, information, and safety planning for lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and/or transgender folks, as well as folks in the BDSM or Polyamorous communities who are being abused or have been abused by a partner. Support available in English and Spanish. Hotline: 617.742.4911
  • 1in6: Provides educational information and resources for men who’ve been sexually abused or assaulted. Chat with a trained advocate through the national helpline for men, available 24/7. Join a weekly chat-based online support group, facilitated by a counselor. 1in6 also serves loved ones and service providers.
  • Womenslaw.org: Information about restraining orders and other legal protections for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Provides crisis suicide intervention, self-harm counseling and assistance, and local mental health referrals. Calls are routed to local centers. Hotline: 800.273.TALK (8255) and for the Spanish line call 888.628.9454 or TTY: 800.799.4TTY (4889)