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Sexual / Physical Abuse

Heather Flint, CSW

Heather Flint, CSW

Heather's treatment philosophy and ultimate joy in life is advocating for and empowering individuals to harness their inner strength and ultimate capacity, so they can be successful, contributing members of our community.  Heather received her Bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University, and her Masters degree from Boston University. She has worked with individuals and/or  groups in the following settings: long term care, elderly, hospice, grief/loss, caregiver burnout, post traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, birth mothers, adoption, and sex/pornography addiction.

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Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse or sexual assault, occurs in many forms. Sexual abuse includes child sexual abuse, male and female rape, and ritual sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is generally considered by experts, including mental health professionals, as an “act of aggression” and not a “crime of passion.” The majority of sexual abusive crimes are committed by men, and it is increasing at a faster rate than any other violent crime in the United States. The National Victim Center reports that over 700,000 women are sexually abused annually, with an estimated 61% of these women under the age of 16. These numbers are considered extremely conservative. Studies show that approximately 80% of all sexual assaults are committed by a friend, acquaintance, or family member of the victim. Victims of sexual abuse– whether female or male, child or adult– are susceptible to life-long emotional pain. Because so many cases go unreported, many victims suffer their pain in silence and without help or comfort.

Use of drugs and alcohol has been found to contribute to the risk of sexual abuse. Rohypnol (flunitrazepam) is a sleeping medication that, although not marketed in the United States, has been associated here with “date rape” due to the dis-inhibition it causes. Also known by the street names of Roachies, Rophies, Ruffies, of La Roche, it can impair memory and judgment for 8 to 24 hours. These side effects are greater when this medication is ingested in combination with alcohol.

It is estimated that fewer than 50% and perhaps as few as 10% of all rapes are ever reported. Factors believed to contribute to the gross under-reporting of rape and other sexual abuse include embarrassment, unwillingness to expose the friend or relative who committed the crime, fear of further injury, and fear of court procedures that often brutally scrutinize and judge the victim’s behavior and history. These fears apply similarly to both female and male victims.

Myths that surround sexual abuse and rape include:

  • No really doesn’t mean no.
  • Nice girls don’t get raped.
  • She asked for it.
  • Children make up stories about rape.
  • The victim is at fault for allowing sexual abuse to continue.
  • Most assaults are by strangers.
  • The best way to recover from the assault is not to talk about it and act like it never happened.
  • Attractive women are provocative and/or promiscuous.
  • All men can defend themselves.
  • Male rape is homosexual rape or only occurs in prisons.

Each of these misconceptions can allow the blame to be shifted from the abuser to the abused, leading to a lack of support for, and even condemnation with secondary victimization of, the victim.


Rape is the forcible and unlawful carnal knowledge of one person by another. More common than rape by a stranger is rape by someone known to the victim. This includes acquaintance rape, date rape, and marital rape. Acquaintance rape is any unwanted sexual intercourse forced upon one person by someone they have either just met, are dating, or have known for a long time. Date rape is forced sexual intercourse by someone with whom the victim is on a “date” with or even to whom they are engaged. Marital rape is domestic violence. Forced sexual relations may be by way of threat, tone of voice, physical power, or threat with a weapon. A 1984 article reporting a study done by the National Center for the Prevention and Control of Rape estimated that up to 92% of adolescent rape victims said they knew their rapists, and of that number, most victims were females between the ages of 15 and 25 years.

Date Rape

The following information was reported in a study conducted for Ms. Magazine in 1985 by a professor at Kent State University. The researcher interviewed 7,000 male and female students across 32 college campuses. The study revealed that one in every eight women had been raped, and that 1 in every 12 men admitted to having either physically forced or attempted to force sexual intercourse with a woman. Interestingly, none of these men believed they were rapists. Also, only 57% of the women who suffered unwanted sexual intercourse called their experience rape, and another 43% had not even admitted to themselves that they had been raped. According to the report, date rape occurs on all types of college campuses, whether a small, private school or a larger public school-either in the city or the country.

The study also revealed that the more informed women are about date or acquaintance rape the more chance they have of avoiding it.

While there appears to be no particular cause of date rape, three factors strongly contribute to the act:

Socialization: Researchers believe the biggest factor in date or acquaintance rape and indeed, even in marital and child rape is a disregard for woman’s (or child’s) rights or desires. Most cultures, including Western, are traditionally patriarchal. In such societies, young boys are generally expected and encouraged to be tough and aggressive, particularly in sports and at play. They are even praised and admired for their physical strength and willingness to use aggression to show their strength and prowess. There is also considerable societal acceptance for young men experimenting with their sexuality as part of their developing “masculinity.” Girls, on the other hand, are conditioned to be more passive, to keep the peace, to be ladylike, not to fight, and generally become disrespected when they experiment with their sexuality. Girls are also generally expected, and therefore ultimately expect, to be dependent upon a man financially. These roles may appear as superiority in a man and inferiority in a women, and often seem to lead a man to believe he has a right to expect sex from a woman, even without her consent.

Communication: Many misconceptions and mixed messages can occur when it comes to sexual relations particularly between younger people and those experiencing their first sexual encounter. When placed within the context of socialization, a young woman feeling sexual desire for her date or partner may often say no, because it is generally socially unacceptable for young women to have sex. She may strongly desire intercourse while not wanting to appear “easy” or go against her moral upbringing. However, her sexual desire may be apparent and her date may sense her feelings. He may feel confused about these “mixed signals,” and his more aggressive tendencies encourage him to turn his partner’s negative or uncertain response into a positive one. This may ultimately result in coercion or even physical force, which then becomes rape. Also, for many men, a woman struggling against his physical coercion is even more sexually arousing.

Changing Sexual Mores: Since the 1960′s and particularly with the availability of the birth control pill, sexual standards have generally become much less strict and, in general, both women and men engage in sexual intercourse at a much younger age even in high school and college. Many young men, therefore, may simply expect to have sex with a woman after just a few dates, while some may believe that a woman is sexually active with him, regardless of her wishes.

Date rape will usually occur when a woman is alone with a man, perhaps in his car or his room, even if that room is in an apartment or dormitory with several other people on the premises. Drugs and alcohol are large contributors to date rape. They may make the woman less inhibited and when she reaches a point of refusing intercourse, her partner refuses to stop. Or she may “pass out” only to awaken to find her date has had sex with her. On the other hand, drugs and alcohol may make the male more sexually aggressive than usual, forcing sex upon his date, even if she has had little or no mind-altering substances.

The study referred to here, as well as most professionals dealing with the incidence of rape stress that acquaintance or date rape is not simply a result of miscommunication or misunderstanding. It is a deliberate, sometimes premeditated attempt by one person (usually a man) to exert their will and physical power over another. It appears that forcing sex upon someone makes the aggressor feel strong because it makes someone else feel weak. A clinical psychologist and author of Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender, writes that: “all sexual assault is an act of aggression, regardless of the gender or age of the victim or the assailant. Neither sexual desire nor sexual deprivation is the primary motivating force behind sexual assault. It is not about sexual gratification, but rather a sexual aggressor using somebody else as a means of expressing their own power and control.”

Marital Rape

Legal definitions of marital rape differ; however, it is generally defined as “any unwanted intercourse or penetration (vaginal, anal, or oral) obtained by force, threat of force, or when the wife is unable to consent.” Marital rape is often defined as such whether it occurs in a relationship where the couple is legally married, or is cohabiting, divorced, or separated. One famous study from 1990 exposed marital rape as a serious problem faced by millions of women. It reports that 10% to 14% of all married women have been raped by their husbands, and that marital rape makes up at least 25% of all rapes. Women in physically abusive relationships are particularly vulnerable to marital rape, and similar studies show that up to 50% of battered women have been raped at least once by their spouse. Women raped by their husbands are usually raped many times before they can escape the situation. Abusive husbands may rape their wife after she falls asleep; or use threats, violence, punishment, or weapons to force sex upon her.

Men who both batter and rape their wives appear to escalate the violence overtime, even to the point of murder. Abused women are at a higher risk of serious injury or murder when they attempt to-or succeed-in leaving the abusive relationship. One study reported that two thirds of the women interviewed were sexually abused when they ended the relationship, and another study revealed that women separated or divorced from their husbands were at higher risk for sexual abuse.

Marital rape has traditionally been ignored by the legal system and society in general for generations. Increased public awareness of the subject began in the 1970’s but it wasn’t until 1993 that marital rape became a crime in all 50 states. Even by the late 1990’s, in 33 states, some exceptions still remained, that release husbands from prosecution for marital rape. In spite of many studies on the subject, little is known about this particular form of sexual abuse. It is known, however, that age, socioeconomic, racial, or ethnic backgrounds are not indicators of marital rape. However, it seems that almost two-thirds of sexually-abused wives were first raped by their husbands before the age of 25. Women in lower income families are more likely to report marital rape and numbers of marital rape were slightly higher among African-American women than white, Latinas and Asians; and white women are more likely to leave an abusive husband.

While marital rape is often grouped under the general heading of domestic violence, there appear to be several different types of this form of abuse:

  • Battering may occur during the sexual abuse.
  • Sexual abuse may occur after the battering, with the husband showing remorse, wanting to make up, and coercing the wife to have sex against her will.
  • Sadistic or obsessive rape involves perverse sexual acts and/or acts of torture that are physically violent.
  • Pornography is often associated with this form of abuse.
  • Marital rape without other forms of physical abuse (forced-only rape).

Studies have found no particular profile of the rapist husband; however, it seems they are often jealous, domineering, have a sense of ownership or possession of their spouse and they believe she is obligated to have sex with them. Victims of marital rape, like other sex abuse victims – experience severe physical and emotional trauma. Rape by someone loved and trusted causes feelings of betrayal, while the anxiety of living and sleeping with someone who may, at any time, initiate unwanted sexual relations, can cause long-term consequences such as eating and sleeping disorders, depression, sexual dysfunction, emotional pain, and feelings of worthlessness and loss of self-esteem.

Male Rape

Historically, male rape in ancient times was considered the right of a victorious soldier against soldiers of the defeated warring faction. The philosophy behind the act was that the man who was sexually penetrated lost his manhood and could no longer be a warrior. This custom was still practiced by certain European countries during World War I. In Roman times, gang raping a male was the ultimate punishment, particularly for adultery or -by Persians and Iranians- for sleeping with women from a harem. In modern history, the rape of a male prisoner by another or several male prisoners is relatively common knowledge. However, it is only in the last two or three decades that male rape has been brought to the awareness of the general population.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 1994, approximately 60,000 males aged 12 and older were raped in 1992 and in the 10 years from 1975 to 1985, 123,000 males were raped. Almost all of these rapes were by other men. However, these figures are believed to be extremely low in comparison to the actual number of male rapes.

The profile of offenders as listed in a well-known study on the subject is that:

  • Half of the perpetrators reported that their normal sexual interaction is with women only.
  • Half of the victim population was heterosexual.
  • The gender and age of the victim was unimportant to approximately half of the perpetrators and accessibility rather than sexual orientation was a primary reason for the choice of victim.
  • In some instances of male rape- usually of a younger child- the perpetrator is a woman. It may be the boy’s mother, sister, aunt, babysitter, caregiver, or some other female who holds some type of power over the male.

Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse has been reported up to 80,000 times a year, but the number of unreported instances is far greater, because children are afraid to tell anyone what has happened and the legal procedure for validating an episode is difficult. The problem should be identified, the abuse stopped, and the child should receive professional help. The long-term emotional and psychological damage of sexual abuse can be lasting and devastating.

Child sexual abuse can take place within the family, by a parent, step-parent, sibling or other relative; or outside the home, for example by a friend, neighbor, caregiver, teacher, or stranger. When sexual abuse has occurred, a child can develop a variety of distressing feelings, thoughts and behaviors.

No child is psychologically prepared to cope with repeated sexual stimulation. Even a two or three year old, who cannot know the sexual activity is wrong, will develop problems resulting from the inability to cope with the over-stimulation.

The child of five or older who knows the abuser becomes trapped between affection or loyalty for the person, and the sense that the sexual activities are terribly wrong. If the child tries to break away from the sexual relationship, the abuser may threaten the child with violence or loss of love. When sexual abuse occurs within the family, the child may fear the anger, jealousy or shame of other family members or be afraid the family will break up if the secret is told.

A child who is the victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness and an abnormal or distorted view of sex. The child may become withdrawn and mistrustful of adults, and can become suicidal.

Some children who have been sexually abused have difficulty relating to others except on sexual terms. Some sexually abused children become child abusers or prostitutes, or have other serious problems when they reach adulthood.

Often there are no obvious external signs of child sexual abuse.

Some signs can only be detected on physical exam by a physician. Sexually abused children may also develop the following:

  • Unusual interest in or avoidance of all things of a sexual nature
  • Sleep problems or nightmares
  • Depression, or withdrawal from friends or family
  • Seductiveness
  • Statements that their bodies are dirty or damaged, or fear that something wrong with them in the genital area
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Delinquency/ conduct problems
  • Secretiveness
  • Aspects of sexual molestation in drawings, games and fantasies
  • Unusual aggressiveness or suicidal behavior

Child sexual abusers can make the child extremely fearful of telling anyone about the abuse. Only when a special effort has helped the child to feel safe, can the child talk freely. If a child says that he or she has been molested, parents should try to remain calm and reassure the child that what happened was not their fault. Parents should seek a medical examination and psychiatric consultation for the child.

Parents can prevent or lessen the chance of sexual abuse by:

  • Telling children that if someone tries to touch your body and do things that make you feel funny, say NO to that person and tell me right away.
  • Teaching children that respect does not mean blind obedience to adults and to authority. For example, don’t tell children to, “always do everything the teacher or baby-sitter tells you to do”.
  • Encouraging professional prevention programs in your local school system.

Sexually abused children and their families need immediate professional evaluation and treatment. Child and adolescent psychiatrists can help abused children regain a sense of self-esteem, cope with feelings of guilt about the abuse, and begin the process of overcoming the trauma. Such treatment can help reduce the risk that the child will develop serious problems as an adult.

Ritual Abuse

This form of abuse is an extremely sadistic and damaging abuse of children or non-consenting adults. It not only consists of ritualistic and methodical sexual abuse, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse, but often includes mind control, torture, child pornography, prostitution, and even murder-all of which performed in the name of some religious or political philosophy.

Lasting Effects of Sexual Abuse

Whether performed by a male or female, sexual abuse is extremely damaging and painful emotionally and psychologically to the victims. As a result of such trauma, victims experience symptoms of helplessness, guilt, humiliation, insomnia, impaired memory and sexual dysfunction. They may also develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and experience flashbacks of the assault and as such may try to avoid the place in which the rape occurred as well as previously pleasurable activities. In a cross-sectional study of women who had been raped compared to women who had not, the victims rated themselves as significantly less healthy, visited the physician nearly twice as often, and incurred double the medical cost. Medical problems directly related to the assault may include acute injuries, acquired sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

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