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Impacts of sexual violence and abuse

Everyone is affected differently by sexual violence and abuse. There is no right or wrong way to be or to feel. Some of the impacts include: STIs, pregnancy, difficult emotions and trauma-related issues, such as anxiety, PTSD, flashbacks and nightmares.

Sexual violence and abuse impacts the lives and wellbeing of victims and survivors in lots of different ways.

It can affect their:

  • physical health
  • mental and emotional health
  • behaviour and habits
  • job and finances
  • daily routine
  • social life
  • sleep
  • relationships of all kinds – both romantic and non-romantic
  • sex life

And pretty much any other part of life that you can think of.

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If you are affected by anything you read here, you can talk to us.

Please remember

How someone is impacted by sexual violence or abuse is never their fault.

100% of the blame and responsibility lies with the perpetrator or perpetrators. And no victim or survivor should ever be made to feel that they're making a 'big deal' out of what happened or should 'get over it'.

Not sure how best to support a victim or survivor?

We have some suggestions to help
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How a person is impacted by sexual violence and abuse looks different for everybody. That's because every victim or survivor is different and every case of sexual violence or abuse is different.

Some of the impacts might last a few days, while others might last for years ­­­­– or only appear some time later.

Some victims and survivors might also feel that they haven’t really been affected by what happened to them.

It’s really important to remember that everyone responds differently to sexual violence and abuse – so whatever someone feels is a valid response.

There’s no right or wrong way to be or to feel afterwards. And there's no timeline for ‘getting over’ it. Many victims and survivors are still affected years after the event.

Let’s take a look at some of the impacts of sexual violence and abuse in more detail…

Physical injuries, STIs and pregnancy

In cases that involve contact, a victim or survivor might be left with physical injuries.  

These could include:

  • cuts
  • tears
  • bruises
  • soreness
  • swelling ­­­­
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But, it’s a really common myth that sexual violence and abuse has to involve other physical violence or leave a victim or survivor with visible injuries. So, just because someone doesn’t have these doesn’t mean they didn’t experience sexual violence or abuse.

Find out about other rape myths here


In cases that involve contact with genitalia, a victim or survivor can catch a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

If that happens, it's because the perpetrator has an infection. 

Most STIs can be treated easily – but, if some aren’t treated for a long time, they can cause serious illness or other health issues. Because of this, it’s important to get tested for STIs as soon as possible.

Find out more about STIs on the NHS website


In cases that involve rape, a victim or survivor can also get pregnant.

It’s possible to prevent a pregnancy after an assault has happened by taking emergency contraception. Victims and survivors of rape can also take a pregnancy test and discuss their options with a healthcare professional at:

Info

If you or someone you know has recently experienced sexual violence or abuse, we have information to help you work out what to do next.

Feelings and emotions

Everyone feels differently after experiencing sexual violence and abuse, and it’s common to feel a range of different – and often complicated – emotions.

A victim or survivor might feel:

  • angry, 'moody' or short-tempered
  • ashamed or ‘dirty’
  • embarrassed or humiliated
  • guilty or somehow to blame
  • scared
  • unable to trust
  • lonely or alone
  • numb or empty
  • worthless
  • anxious, panicked or worried
  • uneasy
  • hopeless
  • low or ‘down’
  • stressed
  • tired or exhausted
  • depressed
  • upset or tearful
  • ‘on edge’
  • like they're going to be sick
  • like they can't breathe or it's difficult to breathe
  • overwhelmed
  • like they can’t cope or it’s hard to cope
  • ‘slow’ – both mentally and physically
  • groggy, foggy or ‘spaced out’
  • confused or unsure about what happened or what they’re feeling
  • suicidal
  • uninterested in sex and/or intimacy, or scared or disgusted by it

Or they might feel unaffected by what happened to them –­­ and that’s completely valid too.

How someone feels can also change with time.

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However someone is feeling, talking to Rape Crisis can help. We always listen to victims and survivors, and believe them. And we never judge.

Talk to us

Trauma

For many victims and survivors of sexual violence and abuse, what happened to them was a traumatic event. 

These are events that are very stressful, scary or upsetting. They can cause lasting harm to someone’s mental, emotional and physical health.

Not everyone finds the same experiences traumatic. And not everyone's mind and body responds to trauma in the same way.

Some people experience the effects of trauma soon after the traumatic event. But others might not experience them until a long time after.

Many people find there are times when they feel more affected by trauma. This can happen if they experience something else that is stressful or scary – or if something reminds them of the traumatic event.

On the other hand, some people find there are periods where they feel less affected. Or that it changes over time.

Trauma responses

The effects of trauma can be mental, emotional and physical.

Common responses include: 

  • Intrusive or unwanted thoughts or feelings.
  • Very upsetting or painful emotions.
  • Low mood, feeling upset or being irritable.
  • Suicidal thoughts or feelings.
  • Physical feelings, including feeling sick, sweating or shaking.
  • Aches, tension or pain in parts of the body.
  • Self-harm or self-harm urges.
  • Alcohol or drug misuse.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Sexual problems – for example, low sex-drive or pain during sex.
  • Avoiding certain places or things that remind a victim or survivor of the traumatic event.
  • Becoming withdrawn and isolated. Or not wanting to do things they used to enjoy.
  • Feeling anxious, worried, ‘on edge’, uneasy, panicked or scared. After trauma these feelings can be extreme, long-lasting and overwhelming – what is known as 'hyperarousal'.
  • Flashbacks: vivid memories of a traumatic event that feel like they are happening now.
  • Sleep problems: these include insomnia (not being able to sleep) or nightmares where the victim or survivor might feel like they are reliving sexual violence.
  • Panic attacks: these can be caused by anxiety. They are different for everyone but common symptoms include having trouble breathing and feeling dizzy, light-headed, sick, weak or shaky.
  • Dissociation: when the brain tries to detach from reality as a way of coping with trauma. It might feel like daydreaming or an ‘out of body’ experience.

All of our member Rape Crisis Centres provide trauma-informed support and services

This means that all of their staff and volunteers have specialist training in how victims and survivors might feel and be affected after sexual abuse or violence – and what they might need to help them recover.

Find your nearest Centre
Two women indoors

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Some victims and survivors are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is an anxiety disorder that can develop after trauma.

People who develop PTSD might feel like they are experiencing the traumatic event again through flashbacks or nightmares. They might also try to avoid anything that reminds them of their trauma.

Feeling ‘on edge’, in danger, irritable or ashamed all the time are also common symptoms.


Triggers

Sometimes, the effects of trauma can be brought on by ‘triggers’. These are things that remind the victim or survivor of their trauma –­­ for example, a certain sound or smell.

A trigger might cause someone to experience a trauma response, such as a flashback or panic attack.

A trigger doesn’t have to be a scary or stressful situation. Lots of everyday things can be triggers. For example, a particular place, a piece of music or a certain day of the year.

What will trigger a victim or survivor is not always easy to predict and might not even always seem to ‘make sense’. But, how it affects them is involuntary – they cannot control what will or won't trigger a trauma response.

Remember that everyone responds to trauma in different ways. A victim or survivor might also experience things that we haven’t listed here.

The ‘knock-on’ impacts

These impacts on physical, mental and emotional health can spill over in to every part of a victim or survivor’s life.

They can affect their ability to work, look after their children or care for themselves. They can also affect their ability to maintain relationships of all kinds or to build new ones. Or to cope with change or other difficult situations or problems.

Even tasks that seemed ‘simple’ before what happened – for example, getting out of bed, taking a shower or leaving the house – can feel really hard or even impossible.

Getting help and support

We're here for you

Rape Crisis England & Wales and our member Centres provide a range of different services and resources that can help victims and survivors who are struggling after sexual violence or abuse – whether it happened recently or a long time ago.

Victims and survivors who would like medical treatment for non-urgent physical symptoms or other health issues can also visit their GP.

Get help
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