Sexual abuse is a heinous crime that can have devastating emotional and psychological effects on survivors. Sadly, it’s widespread, and most Americans know someone who has been through sexual abuse. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an American is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds. Given the prevalence, it’s not surprising that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused.
If you have experienced sexual abuse, your life may be impacted long-term. You may wonder whether you have any grounds for moving forward with a criminal or civil case. Regardless of the details surrounding the abuse, you should know that you have options.
Who Is Most Affected By Sexual Abuse?
Sexual abuse does not discriminate, and it can happen to anyone regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. No one is exempt from the possibility of sexual assault. However, some demographic groups are more likely to experience sexual violence.
Young people: Almost 70 percent of sexual assault survivors are under the age of 34, and college students are more vulnerable than the general population. About 15 percent of victims are underage. In contrast, only 3 percent of people victimized are older than 65 years old.
Women: Women are more likely to be sexually assaulted, and 90 percent of rape victims are female. Women in college and teenagers between 16 and 19 years old are especially susceptible.
Prisoners: Sexual abuse in prisons runs rampant and often involves a staff member. More than 80,000 prisoners experience sexual abuse every year, according to research from DePaul University. Additionally, incarcerated people may face repercussions from officials if they attempt to report the incident.
Native Americans: A survey from the U.S. Department of Justice found that a staggering 84 percent of Native American women have experienced sexual abuse, and Natives are 2.5 times more likely to face sexual assault than any other ethnic group in the country.
LGBTQ+: The rates of sexual assault are much higher in the LGBTQ+ community than in those who identify as straight. Nearly half of transgender people will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and 61 percent of bisexual women have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking.
Special needs: People with disabilities are sexually abused at higher rates than the general population. Additionally, disabled people may have a more challenging time reporting sexual assault to law enforcement due to accessibility barriers.
Undocumented Immigrants: Those who aren’t legally in the U.S. may face sexual abuse in immigration detention centers, or they might experience it in their daily lives. For many undocumented immigrants, the benefits of reporting the crime to police are weighed against the fear of being deported.
Types of Sexual Abuse
There are multiple types of sexual abuse, and it would be hard to make a list that covers every possibility. We can look at the most common types to understand what sexual abuse entails and how it happens.
Sexual Harassment: If you’re made to feel uncomfortable at work, school, or another setting, you could be experiencing sexual abuse. Sexual harassment can happen in many forms — for example, unwelcome touching or crude remarks.
Child Sexual Abuse: When an adult has a sexual interaction with someone under 18 years old, it’s considered child sex abuse. This could be physical contact or something like sending lewd images. Additionally, most child sexual abuse cases involve a perpetrator that the victim trusts, like a family member, neighbor, or sports coach.
Sexual Assault: Sexual assault is a broad term that covers everything from unwanted touching to rape. If you’ve been the victim of sexual assault, you may minimize the experience or worry that what happened to you wasn’t that bad. Remember that a victim is not to blame for the assault, and your feelings afterward are justified, even if it feels like the incident was minor.
Incest: If a family member commits sexual abuse, it’s defined as incest. While any sexual abuse can cause detrimental effects, incest can be particularly difficult to process, as it involves a trusted loved one. The psychological effects can be especially damaging with incest — more so than with other forms of abuse.
Where Does Sexual Abuse Happen?
Sexual abuse can happen anywhere, but there are, unfortunately, some settings where it is more common.
College campuses: According to RAINN, women between 18 and 24 years old who attend college are three times more likely to experience sexual abuse. More than 25 percent of women college students will experience sexual assault while in school.
Places of worship: Whether it’s a mosque, temple, synagogue, or church, a place of worship should be a safe place, free from abuse and assault. Unfortunately, sexual abuse in religious settings happens all the time, and children may be particularly susceptible.
Workplaces: Almost 1 in 5 employees have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Concerningly, 75 percent of those who report workplace sexual abuse have faced retaliation as a result. Additionally, women in male-dominated fields and low-wage women workers are more likely to be victims of sexual misconduct.
The military: Thousands of service-members come forward every year to report sexual harassment and assault, and countless incidents go unreported. The U.S. Department of Defense even has a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office designed to reduce the rates of sexual abuse in the military.
The Effects of Sexual Abuse
The effects of sexual abuse are long-lasting and might include physical, mental and financial distress. The difficulties that victims may face are numerous. Here is a look at some of the most common effects.
Depression: A 2013 study found that 84 percent of sexual assault victims had depressive symptoms. Depression can be debilitating and includes symptoms like anxiety, fatigue, and poor appetite.
Post-traumatic stress disorder: Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition characterized by difficulty recovering after a traumatic event, and it’s frequently seen in survivors of sexual abuse. One study found that almost all sexual abuse victims experience PTSD symptoms in the days and weeks following the assault, and half of the women who are sexually assaulted will live with PTSD for life.
Substance abuse: Overuse of alcohol and drugs is another potential effect of sexual abuse. Victims may want to distract themselves or feel unsupported by their loved ones and turn to illicit substances to cope.
Sexually transmitted infections: These infections are transmitted via sexual contact, and it’s usually recommended that those who have been physically assaulted undergo an STI screening. This test, while important, can cause even more distress for sexual abuse victims.
Pregnancy: For rape victims, pregnancy is one possible outcome. Dealing with an unexpected pregnancy on top of the trauma of sexual abuse can be difficult and further exacerbate the damage from the assault.
Suicidal ideation: Researchers from Duke University found that 13 percent of women sexual assault survivors have attempted suicide, and more than a third have considered it. If you are thinking about suicide, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free, confidential help.
Why It Takes Years To Come Forward
It’s common to ask why someone would wait years to share their story of sexual abuse. There are many reasons for this, and it’s incorrect to assume someone’s account is less credible because they waited years to share it. For many survivors, the fear of being shamed or not believed is enough to stop them from reporting the crime. Additionally, victims may feel that they were somehow at fault for the sexual abuse, even though that isn’t true. Megan Garber, a journalist for The Atlantic who covers sexual assault, had this to say in a 2017 interview with NPR:
“Just as a matter of pure sort of cost-benefit analysis, it often just does not make sense for them to come forward because they will be often punished. They will be shamed. They will be told, ‘You know, maybe — you know, maybe you misunderstood the situation,’ or ‘Maybe you shouldn’t have worn that skirt to work.’”
Given the stigma surrounding sexual abuse, it’s normal for people to wait a while before publicly sharing what happened or filing a police report. Victims worry about being wrongly blamed for the crime inflicted on them, and if a survivor decides to pursue criminal charges, they may be asked about their sex life or drug and alcohol usage around the time of the crime. Only 23 percent of sexual abuse cases are reported to law enforcement, and under one percent of sexual abuse perpetrators face conviction.
Why Sexual Abuse Is Underreported
Along with the stigma surrounding sexual assault, someone who experiences sexual assault has another question they often ask themselves: Will people believe me? Given the way sexual assault is often portrayed in the media and society at large, it’s no surprise that victims are hesitant about coming forward. If someone was under the influence or sexually assaulted by a trustworthy acquaintance or friend, they may wonder if it will become a “he said, she said” situation. Of course, sexual assault victims deserve to be believed, especially considering that only 2 to 10 percent of sexual assault reports are unfounded. The overwhelming majority of those who report sexual assault are telling the truth.
Male Survivors and Stigma
While men are less likely to be abused than women, millions of men have been victims of sexual abuse. The stigma of sexual assault and abuse affects all victims, but boys and men are particularly likely to face shame after being victimized. Because of societal expectations and stereotypes, male survivors may face questions about why they didn’t use physical force to fend off an attacker or wonder whether becoming aroused during an assault means it wasn’t actual abuse. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding abuse or assault, a victim is never to blame. Coming forward is difficult for anyone, but it can be especially hard for men.
How To Find Justice
For sexual abuse survivors looking for legal recourse, there are a few things to consider. As we noted previously, you can file a criminal complaint against the perpetrator. Not every law enforcement agency has a trauma-informed approach to sexual abuse, which creates a space for victims to share their stories without feeling invalidated or retraumatized. Even when law enforcement treats a survivor with care, the dismal rates of conviction for sexual assault may make it hard for people to pursue justice from the criminal justice system.
Choosing to file a civil case is another option. Even if a sexual assault perpetrator is prosecuted and convicted, it’s rare for the criminal court system to provide damages to a victim. For someone seeking recourse, a civil court case may be attractive for many reasons.
If you come forward about sexual abuse and no one listens, including law enforcement, a civil lawsuit gives you another chance for justice. Your legal team can present evidence to the court. If the civil case is decided in your favor, you might be entitled to monetary compensation for things like psychological distress, medical fees, and lost wages.
Additionally, the burden of proof is higher in a criminal case, making it harder to get a favorable result. A defendant must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal court, a standard that means the jury believes there’s no other credible explanation other than the defendant committing a crime. In most civil cases, by contrast, the standard is a preponderance of the evidence, which means you must prove that your claim is more likely to be true than untrue. Even if a criminal filing doesn’t lead to a conviction, you still might be able to receive damages in a civil setting.
Deciding how to handle sexual abuse can be difficult, and it’s a good idea to talk to a qualified legal professional before making a decision. Our legal team has years of experience representing survivors of sexual assault and abuse in New Jersey and the surrounding area. Contact us today online or call 609-641-6200 for a free consultation.