Understanding Sexual Violence and Its Impact on Mental Health

What is sexual violence?

Sexual violence is a crime and can refer to any type of sexual activity where consent is not obtained or freely given. The person responsible for the violence is often someone known to the victim, and can be, but is not limited to, a romantic partner, a friend, family member, coworker, or neighbor. Sexual violence is never the fault of the victim.

Different Types of Sexual Violence

There are a lot of different ways that people can become victims of sexual violence, and it can happen to anyone, regardless of age, gender, ability, attractiveness, etc. If you’re interested in statistics around sexual violence, you can visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center to learn more. So, what is considered sexual violence anyways? 

Does not include touching:

Sexual harassment




Taking nude photos or videos

Does include touching:

Unwanted touching

Sexual Assault


Sexual assault is generally defined as any unwanted sexual contact. Rape is often defined as unwanted sexual penetration. It’s important to know that the definitions and labels for sexual offenses can differ slightly from state to state. In some states, sex without consent is called “rape,” while in others, it is called ”sexual assault,” ”sexual intercourse without consent,” or “sexual penetration without consent.”

Though the term “assault” may bring physical attack to mind, it isn’t just about hitting. Sexual violence can also include using force or fear to make you do things that you don’t want to do.

Why are people sexually violent toward others?

Sexual violence is not about offenders getting pleasure from sex or any other form of harassment. Instead, it’s about them asserting power and control over someone else. Some offenders have been abused themselves, but this is not always the case, and there’s no evidence that a victim or survivor of sexual assault will become a perpetrator.

To learn more about the theories behind sexual aggression, check out the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

How Experiencing Sexual Violence
Might Affect You

Everyone reacts to the types of sexual violence differently. Individuals can experience a variety of immediate, short-term and long-term effects on their physical and emotional well being. These can include:

Shock & Denial

Someone who has been a victim of sexual violence might not accept that it has really occurred. “Has this really happened to me?” and “Why me?” might be common questions that someone asks themselves.


After any form of sexual violence occurs, a person might be afraid of the offender, other people, or of being alone. A person might also be afraid to deal with the medical, legal or social consequences of the crime, and of being rejected by loved ones because of the sexual violence.

It’s also possible that survivors might be afraid of, or uncomfortable in, sexual relationships after an assault. If you experience this, you have every right to feel this way.


A sexual violence survivor might be unable to talk about the experience or describe what it means and feels like. There are also social pressures that might keep you from speaking, too. 

For someone who was born and identifies as male, there might be certain stigmas telling him what he should have done or felt. If you identify as a male sexual assault survivor, just know that you also matter and your experience is valid. To get connected with other male survivors in a support network, visit malesurvivor.org.

For those that experience disabilities, being taken seriously or being heard on this matter could be challenging. To learn more about how sexual violence can impact someone with disabilities and to find support resources, visit this article by RAINN.

It’s not uncommon for a survivor to always be on edge. After going through a traumatic event, they might be unable to relax or feel safe. Sometimes persistent anxiety can develop into an anxiety disorder. To learn more about managing anxiety, check out our collection of Anxiety Articles or our article How To Manage Your Anxiety.

Survivors might be at a greater risk of depression after the incident. It’s not uncommon to feel disconnected or numb from the experience. If you experience this, please try to seek help or talk to someone you can trust. Mental health professionals can validate your experience with sexual violence and help you work through the emotions you’re experiencing now. You are not alone.

Guilt & Blame

 A survivor might continually question the events leading up to the violent event, and find fault with themselves or others for the assault. Questions they might ask themselves include, “Why did I go there?”, “Why did I let it happen?” and “Why did I not fight back?” They might also receive blame and shame from society or the people they confide in. Again, it is never the survivors fault for being assaulted or harassed. 

After an assault or violation, survivors can sometimes feel ashamed or even dirty. Going through something like that can definitely take a toll on your self-esteem and can send people into negative thought spirals or binge eating to help cope with the experience. Survivors might also become apathetic or self-conscious when working, studying or socializing with friends. 

No matter how you are treated by someone else, you are still worthy of respect. You are worthy. Period. 


A survivor might want to be alone, and have a tendency to close themselves off from friends and family members. They might also have a hard time getting emotionally close to others after experiencing sexual violence.

After an assault, a victim might have a hard time trusting people who weren’t even connected with the incident, including friends and family members. 

Nightmares & Flashbacks

Images and memories of the violence might continue in a survivor’s daily life and sleep. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, you might be experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If so, you may want to talk to your doctor or a mental health professional about this so you can start managing your symptoms.

Mood Swings

Survivors might quickly change moods from anger and rage to tears and despair. No matter what you’re feeling, it’s okay. It’s okay to not be okay. Your mind and body are processing a lot. If you feel overwhelmed, there are crisis support resources you can reach out to called “warmlines” for when you know you’ll be safe but need someone to talk to. Otherwise, talking to a trusted friend or a therapist could be really helpful in regulating your emotions.

Spending more time than usual on self-care and tending to your own wellbeing can be incredibly empowering. To learn more on how to cope with emotions and ways you can channel that energy, visit our article on Developing Coping Strategies.

To Stay Safe, Play It Safe

Most sexual violence occurs within a relationship (intimate partners, family members, or acquaintances). On average, 74% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a non-stranger, and 30% are by an intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexual violence can also happen outside of relationships. Check out the CDC’s fact sheet on sexual violence or the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network website for statistical or crisis helpline information.

Here are some tips or things you can do to keep safe:

  • Safety in numbers. Plan to go out and hang out in a group. Go out with people you feel safe with and who you know have your best interests at heart. Good friends make sure that their friends are safe and make safe choices.
  • Plan your ride ahead of time. Have transportation plans to make sure you can get to where you’re going and back safely. Carry money for a taxi-cab just in case.
  • Communicate about where you’re going. Let someone—like your parents, siblings or roommates—know where you’re going and when you’ll be home. If your plans change, let these people know.
  • Sex and substances can get blurry. Drugs (including alcohol) and sex can be a dangerous mix. Remember: if you aren’t in control of yourself, you won’t be able to control your situation.
  • Trust your gut. Avoid being alone and isolated with someone you don’t know well. If you start to feel uncomfortable, go with your feelings, and get to a safe place as fast as you can.
  • Protect yourself. Take a self-defense class at your local high school, college or recreation center. It might also be a good idea to have pepper spray, wasp spray, a whistle, or a self-defense keychain handy.

Agreeing to one type of activity, such as kissing, doesn’t mean that it’s a ”green light” for other sexual contact. Remember: it’s OK to change your mind and say no at any stage. Also keep in mind that you shouldn’t stop being careful just because you know the person you’re with. You might not know the person as well as you think.

Sexual Violence and the Law

In the United States, laws relating to sex and sexual violence can differ between states. Crimes such as statutory rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse can mean people having sex under a certain age (the age of consent), and do not necessarily include force. The age of consent varies between the states, ranging from 14 to 18, with most states setting it at 16. This means that having sex with someone under that age, even if it is consensual, is a crime. 

Some states base the penalty for these violations on the age of the offender, with older offenders receiving harsher punishments. For example, in certain states, a minor might receive as little as six months or one year in prison, and an older offender might receive life imprisonment. Most penalties range from 10 to 30 years, depending on age and state, according to the Connecticut General Assembly Report.

The federal government has certain laws to ensure that all victims of violence have their rights. Since 2003, every state has some sort of crime compensation program and victims’ rights legislation. The Crime Victims’ Rights Act, a component of the Justice for All Act of 2004, specifies the roles of various criminal justice officials in supplying the information the victim is to receive, as well as in implementing victims’ rights. A second act, the Violence Against Women Act of 1998, enhances the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women and increases the jail time of the accused perpetrator before the trial. These laws, along with other state and federal laws are continuously updated and reauthorized.

Sexual violence is a crime. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted or was a victim of another type of sexual violence —either recently or in the distant past—you have the right to report it to the police. If you decide to report an assault, an officer will take your statement. If the assault was recent, they might also ask you to have a medical examination, during which a health care professional will make sure you’re physically OK and possibly take evidence. Check out the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network for more about what happens during an examination and who might conduct it.

Where To Get Help

Finding the courage to talk about sexual violence is important. Whether you report it or just find support through other survivors, you deserve the help.

If you need help, you can call the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-4673 or the National Center for Victims of Crime hotline at 1-800-FYI-CALL. You can also call The Boys Town National Hotline at 1-800-448-3000 to find help in your area. You could also check out our Crisis Support Resources to find additional resources. Remember: do not hesitate to call your doctor, nurse, or local health professional if you feel comfortable doing so.

Each state has a sexual assault coalition that can provide with state-specific information and resources.  You can access each state’s coalition through the Office of Violence Against Women at the U.S. Department of Justice

For emergency situations that require immediate and urgent assistance, call 911.


Information for this article was provided by:
Acknowledgements: This article was partially developed by youth and staff for us.ReachOut.com

About Youth Era

Youth Era is a nonprofit that works with teens and young adults to become happy, successful, and contributing adults members of their communities. The organization creates solutions for communities across the country that look beyond short-term assistance for the few and toward sustainable support for the many. To learn more, visit www.youthera.org.

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