Sexual Assault and Drug Abuse in Women
Sexual assault and drug addiction are intrinsically linked. Sexual assault can cause addiction, and addiction can leave you vulnerable to sexual assault. Child abuse can also be part of this cycle — where addiction could cause abuse, and child abuse could develop into addiction later in life. It is good to get the facts about drug addiction, sexual assault and child abuse.
Similar to addiction, sexual abuse is often hidden, covered up and not talked about openly. In some circles, there is a social stigma attached to the victim of sexual abuse. Although, in recent years there tends to be less blame placed on the victim.
In the United States, 18% of women experience rape in their lifetimes. That amounts to approximately 20 million women affected by sexual assault directly. Only roughly 16% of sexual assaults are reported to authorities. Approximately 600,000 college women were raped in 2006 alone, and only 12% of those assaults were reported to law enforcement.
There is a high likelihood that rape victims know their assailant. Approximately 82% of all sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim — a spouse, family member or friend. Of the sexual assaults that are reported, at least 50% of them take place within one mile of the victim’s home. Many rapes take place at night. Approximately 43% of sexual assaults happen between 6:00 pm and midnight.
Perhaps because sexual assault is a crime that is not openly discussed, there is some confusion about what it is. When cases are reported in the news, often the perpetrator claims the act was consensual. The definition of sexual assault is frequently debated outside of the law enforcement community. According to the Department of Justice, sexual assault includes any sexual behavior that is unwanted by the victim.
Unfortunately, sexual assault does not just affect women. Rape victims under the age of 12 account for 10% of all sexual assaults in this country. Approximately 7% of girls in grades five to eight have been sexually abused at least once. Of the childhood victims of sexual assault, approximately 82% are girls, making sexual assault primarily a female issue.
Problems Stemming From Sexual Assault
Here are some facts about sexual assault that add up to big problems for women:
- Sexual assault is not talked about openly.
- Victims of sexual assault are often blamed themselves for the crime.
- A majority of sexual assault victims are women.
- Many sexual assault victims are reluctant to report it.
- Attackers in sexual assault cases are usually known to their victims.
Being the victim of a sexual assault has all sorts of psychological ramifications. The shame and guilt associated with this crime, for the victim, make it hard to report and even harder to recover from. For many women, it decreases their sense of self-esteem, erodes their feeling of power in their own lives and creates trust issues that interfere with building healthy relationships in the future.
The psychological effects of sexual assault include:
- Flashbacks — Remembering the incident over and over again with increasing severity, these flashbacks can develop into Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
- Depression — Guilt and shame can develop into depression. Women who accept some or all of the blame for what happened can become depressed. Being hurt by someone you cared about can also bring on extreme sadness.
- Self-harm — Victims of sexual assault sometimes hurt themselves as a means of “punishment” for letting this happen to them. They do not know how to process the emotions brought up by the incident, so they take their pain out on themselves.
- Dissociation — This is one of the subconscious defenses the brain has against the extreme emotions created by being the victim of a sexual assault. Dissociation is like an extreme form of daydreaming where the victim separates herself from the events taking place.
- Insomnia — Sexual assault can cause a disturbance in normal sleep patterns that may last for months or even longer. It is another sign the brain is not able to process the emotions from the assault. A lack of regular sleep can become a physical health problem over time.
- Substance abuse — Drugs and alcohol are often used as a means of escape from extremely emotional situations. When the emotional results of a sexual assault are not dealt with in a constructive way, it is not unusual for substance abuse to follow.
- Eating disorders — Eating disorders are rooted in body image and control issues. Sexual assault can bring these issues to the forefront for some women and either initiate an eating disorder or exacerbate an existing one.
- Suicide — Approximately 33% of rape victims consider suicide, and 13% make at least one attempt. Suicidal thoughts may persist for years and develop as a result of all of the emotional turmoil surrounding the assault.
Victims of sexual assault struggle with physical and emotional issues, many of which cannot be seen. It is the invisible wounds that are hardest to heal from.
Sexual Abuse and Addiction
Emotions can be difficult to process, especially when they come up all at once. Not everyone who is raped turns to drugs to escape their emotional turmoil, but it is a common thread in addiction treatment.
Victims of childhood sexual abuse may not even realize why they turned to drugs or that the sexual abuse is at the root of their current problems. Some victims work very hard to block the experience and the resulting emotions out of their minds. At first, drugs may provide the mental escape they need. Over time, addiction sets in, and it doesn’t matter why they started — they are hooked.
Research shows a strong link between childhood trauma and addiction later in life. When a child experiences trauma, such as sexual assault, during the formative years, her view of the world develops differently. Trauma teaches children to be afraid, and consequently, they can suffer anxiety and other mental health issues. They become pre-programmed to feel out of control and expect the worst in every situation.
A similar transition from sexual assault to addiction can happen in adults. Even women who were not inclined to use drugs before the assault sometimes find their way to drug addiction to escape the resulting emotional pain. Sexual assault victims are more likely to transition to drug abuse if:
- Someone in their family uses drugs.
- They are close friends with a drug user.
- They had body image issues before the rape.
- They were exposed to any type of trauma in their childhood.
- The incident made them believe they were going to die.
- They sustained severe physical injuries from the assault.
- They had any pre-existing mental illness.
- They already suffered from low self-esteem before the assault.
- The sexual abuse was on-going for a period of time.
There is no accurate way of predicting, with total certainty, which sexual assault victims will turn to drug use. These are, however, some indicators. Any woman whose state of mental health is already compromised has a greater chance of a poor psychological outcome from a sexual assault. The longer the assault went on and the more traumatic or violent the incident, the more likely a woman is to have trouble overcoming the psychological results on her own.
Warning Signs for Substance Abuse
If someone you know is the victim of sexual assault or witness to any other trauma, you should watch for signs of substance abuse. It is not a good idea to make accusations, especially to someone suffering trust issues as a result of a rape. Recognizing the signs of drug use, however, could put you in a position to really help your loved one before the addiction gets out of control.
Here are some signs of drug abuse to watch for:
- Changes in behavior — It is normal for someone to become withdrawn after a sexual assault, but this should not go on for too long. Secretive behavior could be a sign of drug use. Most people are ashamed to share their drug use with friends or family. They will try to hide the habit from you.
Other behavior changes could include new social patterns, hanging out in different places or making new friends. If these changes are signs of drug use, your loved one will want to keep these new activities separate from you and your regular group of friends. She may begin to drift away and spend more time with people who share her desire to use drugs or who can help her procure her substance of choice.
- Physical changes — Any sudden weight loss or weight gain could be a sign of drug use. For many women, weight is a sensitive issue, so tread lightly. Weight loss or gain could also be a sign of an eating disorder — something else that can develop following a sexual assault. Of course, red eyes, dilated pupils, runny nose, or persistent cough can also be signs of drug abuse.
Other physical signs have to do with stress and anxiety. Someone who suddenly cannot sit still or isn’t able to focus on the topic of conversation might be exhibiting signs of drug use. Changes in sleeping patterns like staying up really late at night or sleeping during the day can also be signs.
When you know someone really well, you notice changes in her behavior or appearance. If you recognize some of these changes, you might want to address the issue of drug use. Providing some factual information about the causes and results of addiction might move your friend or loved one to get the help she needs.
Child Abuse and Future Drug Addiction
There is a direct correlation between child abuse and drug use later in life. Most child abuse is perpetrated by a family member. There are several risk factors for child abuse including:
- Mental health issues in the family
- Parental depression
- Domestic violence
- Drug abuse in the family
- A parent who was abused as a child
- Teenage parents
- Household income below the poverty level
Children who grow up in these types of environments are more likely to become victims of abuse at the hands of one of their parents or another close family member. While it is not always the case, very often the abuser is a caregiver — someone whom the child trusts.
The trauma of child abuse puts that child at greater risk for drug and alcohol abuse later in life. Often these children begin using drugs at an early age — as soon as they are old enough to access the substances. Access is one of the key components to drug abuse, especially for teens. If they are so inclined, they will find even common household items like cold medicine to experiment with.
There is quite a bit of overlap between risk factors for child abuse and risk factors for drug abuse. If several of the risk factors listed above are present, even if the child is not the victim of abuse, she is more likely to use drugs and alcohol later in life. The addition of child abuse makes it that much more likely to happen.
Early Intervention to Prevent Substance Abuse
Recognizing the signs of child abuse can help you intervene on behalf of a loved one before she turns to drugs and alcohol. Preventing the potential addiction is certainly better than going through rehab, if possible. Here are some signs to look for in children who are at risk of child abuse:
- Changes in self-esteem that are sudden and don’t correspond with normal growth and development
- A desire or attempt to run away from home
- Fearful behavior, such as nightmares
- Poor school performance
- Affection-seeking behavior
- Unexplained headaches or stomach aches
- Social withdrawal
- Unusually big appetite
- Sudden changes in weight
If you suspect someone you love is being abused, you will want to get help right away. Contacting authorities or possibly removing her from the abusive situation are the first steps. The sooner the abuse stops, the less damage there will be in the long run. No matter how quickly the abuse stops, however, even one incidence of child abuse is damaging and puts that child at greater risk for drug abuse.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) developed some research-based programs for early intervention. These programs are designed to identify risk factors for substance abuse beginning before the child is born and to intervene to create a positive outcome. The programs work with families in high-risk demographics to guide their parenting and care-taking, so abuse and later addiction do not occur.
Prenatal, Infancy and Toddlerhood
Through nurse home visits, risk factors are assessed, and family needs are identified. The family is then connected with resources in the community to meet their needs. An emphasis is placed on eliminating substance abuse by the parents and alleviating other parental stressors to prevent child abuse.
Children Ages Two to Five
This family intervention program assesses the needs of families with income or other stressors. The assessment is based on a parental interview, and follow up recommendations are made. The interventions in this program mostly consist of parenting skills and helping parents become more involved with their child. Connections are also made for parents with support services to prevent child behavioral problems, something that could become a big stressor to parents at this stage.
Preschool Ages Three to Six
Children in foster care tend to experience developmental delays along with behavioral and emotional problems. There is a special program designed to improve the outcomes for children in foster care by optimizing their environment. This program focuses on bringing additional support and parent training to foster parents. Family therapists also work with the children in skills development playgroups.
Children Ages Six to Eight
Research has shown that increasing a child’s connection to her community can reduce drug use and mental health problems and encourage academic achievement. This program is designed to help children transition to elementary school by reducing risks and increasing protective factors in the child’s life. It provides children with the skills for better relationship development with teachers and peers.
This is just a sampling of the intervention programs designed by NIDA to support at-risk children. Most of the programs focus on elementary school-aged children since this is when most of their habits are formed. Development at this early age moves quickly, and a missed stage cannot be re-visited.
Once a child develops abuse and addiction habits, they are very hard to change. Brain development at this stage becomes permanent. This is why recognizing risk factors in children who may be predisposed to future drug abuse is important. These early interventions can put a child who is predisposed to drug abuse on a better path before it is too late.
How to Get Help for Yourself or Someone You Love
Knowledge is always one of the most important factors. Knowing that there is a direct link between sexual assault and drug abuse is empowering. The added risk if that assault takes place during childhood is real and also should be understood fully.
Prevention is always the first place to start. If you know someone who is at risk for child abuse, you can intervene and get that family into a support program. If that family is your family, reach out for help today. The advice and support of these programs is helpful to anyone, and if it prevents a possible assault and the resulting potential drug addiction of the child, it is worth the effort.
People who suffer from addiction are more likely to abuse or neglect their children and pass that addiction on to them as well. It is an unfortunate fact, but your addiction does not just affect you. If you or someone you love suffers from addiction, it is important for everyone that you get help right away.
If someone you love is already the victim of child abuse, you can recognize the risk of drug abuse. Getting that child into a program to mitigate the risk is the best thing you could do for her. Understand that she will need extra support, especially during her elementary school years, but also later, to stay off drugs and get out of the cycle of abuse.
If you or a loved one is the adult victim of sexual assault, you know there is an increased risk of drug abuse and addiction. You cannot prevent the assault that has already taken place, but you can prevent the possible drug addiction that could follow. Sexual assault is a crime that the victim is not responsible for. Report a sexual assault the same way you would report any other crime you were a witness to or a victim of.
Talking about a sexual assault is the first step in regaining your power after the incident. The perpetrator did not respect you, but you can still respect yourself by doing what is right and telling the truth. Also, remember to reach out for help, no matter how you feel. It is good insurance after such a horrible experience to talk with a counselor and be sure you’re processing your feelings completely.
If you or someone you care about needs trauma and/or addiction help, don’t hesitate. Contact JourneyPure Voyage to learn more about overcoming addiction and trauma and living the healthy life you deserve. Contact us now at (615) 939-9294 to learn more.