Sexual assault is an unfortunate reality in our world today, and it can leave lasting marks on someone’s life, even long after the event. This can result in a variety of mental health issues, such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorders. There is also a high co-occurrence of sexual assault and substance abuse, with substance abuse either being involved in the sexual assault itself or being used as an emotional salve after the fact.
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Substance use is involved in over 50% of sexual assault cases, either on the part of the victim, perpetrator, or both.
When sexual assault and substance abuse co-occur, it can make recovery difficult without help.
Recovery from co-occurring sexual assault trauma and substance use can be very challenging, but it is possible. We have over a dozen helpful resources for sexual assault recovery.
What Is Sexual Assault?
The term sexual assault is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of unwanted sexual acts. This can take the form of unwanted touching, fondling, groping, and can extend to unwanted acts of sexual intercourse such as rape or any act that involves sexual pleasure on the part of the perpetrator but is unwanted on the part of the victim. Sexual assault can also apply to situations where someone is unable to give consent, such as if the victim is unconscious.
While sexual gratification on behalf of the perpetrator can be, and often is, derived from sexually assaulting someone, the primary motivator in cases of rape is most often the assertion of power. Even though rape is an overtly sexual act, the main objective is more often related to control, dominance, and power rather than purely sexual gratification.
Who Experiences Sexual Assault?
Anyone is able to be the victim of sexual assault. While there is a common misconception that sexual assaults are rare, the CDC estimates that 43.9% of women and 23.4% of men will experience a sexual assault during their life. Sexual assault is much more widespread than many people may realize, and even though sexual assaults occur this frequently, many of them go unreported. This has many contributing factors including fear of stigma, fear of not being believed, and fear of punishment. Additionally, the majority of sexual assault victims experience this trauma before the age of 25 and the perpetrator is most often someone the victim knows, so this can make reporting the incident seem more intimidating.
Who Commits Sexual Assault?
There is no single identifier of sexual assault perpetrators, and they can come from a variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. While there is another misconception that sexual assaults only occur in dark alleys at night, the reality is much different. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, just over 75% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. According to RAINN, the number is slightly higher at around 80%. Finally, a study conducted in Erie County, New York found that, among women who had been sexually assaulted, 98% claimed that the perpetrator was someone they knew. Regardless of the exact number, it is clear that an overwhelming percentage of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.
Sexual Assault & Substance Abuse
Drugs and alcohol are involved in a significant portion of sexual assault cases. For example, the CDC estimates that women who experienced drug or alcohol-involved sexual assault, 58.4% of these assaults were perpetrated by someone the woman knew. Additionally, over 50% of all sexual assault cases amongst college students involve alcohol. Among the general population, both perpetrators and victims of sexual assault have often consumed alcohol before the sexual assault took place, with estimates ranging from 34-74% of perpetrators and 30-79% of victims being under the influence when a sexual assault occurs.
Aside from alcohol and use on the part of the perpetrator, there is also a strong connection between the victim’s drug or alcohol use and sexual assault. One study of 442 female sexual assault victims found that around 73% of the women reported drug and/or alcohol use in the 6 weeks prior to the assault.
There is also a trend for women who have been sexually assaulted to begin or increase the use of drugs or alcohol after sexual assaults. A study conducted interviews with 148 women who had experienced sexual assault by an intimate partner and found that sexual assault is a major contributor to new or escalating drug or alcohol use. This study found that 10% of women who experienced one sexual assault reported beginning or increasing their alcohol use due to the assault. Of women who experienced more than one sexual assault, 27% attributed new or increasing alcohol use to these assaults. As far as illicit drugs were concerned, this study found that no women reported new or increasing drug use due to one sexual assault, but 9% of women who experienced more than one assault attributed this assault to new or increased illicit drug use.
Sexual Assault, Mental Health Issues & Substance Abuse: A Dangerous Trio
Sexual assault can take a heavy toll on someone’s mental health. It is not uncommon for someone who has experienced sexual assault to suffer from traumatic psychological symptoms for quite some time after the event. In the short-term, these are known as acute stress disorder, but when they persist, it is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These psychological symptoms can intensify or worsen pre-existing substance use, leading to more negative long-term outcomes. For example, one study that referenced data from the National Survey on Adolescents found that teens who experienced sexual assault were 3x more likely to report past or current substance use than those with no history of sexual assault.
Many studies have found a close link between trauma, subsequent mental health challenges, and worsening substance abuse. While these issues can all occur independently, there is a tendency for sexual assault to result in mental health issues such as PTSD, anxiety, or depression. One study found that up to 80% of women entering treatment for substance abuse issues reported experiencing sexual assault at some point. Additionally, many of these women had co-occurring PTSD. Furthermore, there is a strong association between mental health issues, particularly PTSD, and higher rates of substance abuse.
There is an ever-growing body of research that indicates people with PTSD may use drugs or alcohol as a way to reduce their unpleasant symptoms. In effect, substance use becomes a way to escape the discomfort of trauma. In an often horrifying role-reversal, substance use may initially reduce the discomfort of these psychological symptoms, although once dependence and addiction develop, these symptoms begin to intensify. There is also the unfortunate tendency for more trauma to occur as a result of substance use, and this can result in an ever-worsening downward spiral.
The co-occurrence of sexual assault and substance abuse presents some complexities that often require professional help if someone is to stand the best possible chances of long-term recovery. Some of the most effective treatment options usually include an integrated approach to treatment and involve pharmacological, therapeutic, and social support aspects working together to promote recovery. This can provide the widest array of tools possible to help someone begin and continue their journey of recovery.
The first step is often entering a detox center, as some drugs and alcohol can produce dangerous or potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms. Once detox has been safely completed, entering a treatment center can give someone the tools, help, and support to allow someone to devote themselves entirely to their recovery. These centers usually staff trained clinicians, therapists, and psychiatrists whose mission is to help someone uncover their struggles, as well as their desire for recovery, and help them move towards their goal. Once treatment is complete, it is often recommended to continue therapy and find a support group of some kind, either for sexual assault survivors, substance abuse, or both.
Sexual Assault Recovery Resources
There is no easy cure or solution to being free from trauma and substance abuse, but with work and help, it is possible. There are recovery fellowships and resources available all across the country that can provide the support, guidance, and compassion that can truly help someone in recovery from sexual assault and substance abuse become free of their past, and live a new life.
Resources For Anyone
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center: A non-profit that was founded by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and is partially funded by the CDC, their site provides a wealth of resources for sexual assault survivors, their family, friends, and advocates for sexual assault prevention and awareness.
- Rape Response Inc: This organization provides free and confidential support groups to anyone who has been a victim of sexual assault.
- RAINN: The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network provides many services and resources for sexual assault survivors. They operate the National Sexual Assault Hotline, a local sexual assault treatment provider locator, as well as many other helpful resources for those whose lives have been impacted by sexual assault.
- NoMore.org: A sexual assault and domestic abuse prevention and support organization that has members all over America. Their site also provides helpful resources for people who have experienced sexual assault or domestic abuse.
- StopItNow.org: A non-profit that is aimed at preventing child abuse and sexual assault, they provide prevention and advocacy resources on their website.
- SAFER: A website dedicated to ending campus-based sexual assault, their resource page lists many other helpful sexual assault organizations all over the country.
- National Organization of Asians and Pacific Islanders Ending Sexual Violence: An advocacy, prevention, and support organization that aims to support Asians and Pacific islanders whose lives have been impacted by sexual assault.
- Joyful Heart Foundation: An advocacy and support organization formed in 2004, Joyful Heart provides resources for victims of sexual assault, and works on several different prevention and advocacy initiatives.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: A page of sexual violence resources, there are dozens of resources listed for issues including sexual assault in general, rape, and sex trafficking.
Resources For Women
- VAWnet: An initiative of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, this site provides resources for women who have experienced violence and other gender-based issues.
- National Organization of Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault: An advocacy organization dedicated to helping Women of Color live free from sexual assault.
Resources For Men
- 1in6.org: A non-profit organization that is dedicated to helping men who experienced sexual assault either during childhood, or adulthood. They provide a web-based helpline that is available 24/7 to help men who have survived sexual assault and their friends and family.
- MaleSurvivor.org: This is a non-profit organization that promotes community and compassion among male survivors of sexual assault. They also provide a “Healing Resources” page so that someone can find support groups and mental health help near them.