Sexual Assault: A Silent Crisis

women healing from sexual abuse

by Kim Johnson

Living in an era of women’s rights and empowerment, it may be a surprise to know sexual assault (rape, sex abuse, sexual harassment) remains a huge crisis in America. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), someone is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds. And every 9 minutes, that victim is a child.  These are astounding statistics. Yet, even though people talk about everything and anything on social media, no one talks about this. 

While you may know someone who has been sexually assaulted, discussing it is extremely difficult. For the person who hasn’t experienced an assault, it’s hard to comprehend it happens.  For the victim, it’s just as hard to verbalize the truth that it does. The dynamics of this horrific offense are so complicated, the wounded often decide to suffer in silence. If the victim is a child, they are threatened to keep quiet or ignored for unfortunate reasons.

Sexual assault can happen to someone of any age, race, sex, socioeconomic background and religion. This can be especially true for the woman going through a divorce. The very nature of this situation can put her, and ultimately her children, at risk.

Reasons to Be Cautious 

A separated or divorced woman is often in an emotionally susceptible state. This can be further intensified if the husband was the one who instigated the divorce. The stress of financial battles, a loss of self-worth, and juggling tasks alone leaves little strength to even make it through the day. Wanting to simply climb out from under the burden can be an innocent invitation for something you never intended.

Divorced women can be:

  • Often vulnerable. Loneliness and a loss of self-confidence can make you an easy mark. Dating scams can be disastrous, so you need to be careful about whom you’re seeing and even interacting with online. Predators seek out vulnerable women for everything from financial cons to sexual assault. 
  • Easily manipulated. Because going through a divorce can make you vulnerable, men may try to manipulate you into a sexual relationship before you are ready. Remember to trust your instincts and don’t go along just to get along.
  • Exhausted mentally and emotionally. Going through a divorce is extremely draining. Feeling rejected may make you inclined to seek approval from others to feel better about yourself. If you haven’t healed from the havoc, dating can then become a pitfall. You won’t be on guard against those who are looking to deceive or sexually assault you. 

The Risk for Children

Finding the fairy tale is sometimes a reflexive journey for divorced women with children.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to experience a loving relationship again. This hope is especially poignant after a breakup. Most divorced adults eventually cohabitate or remarry again. For example, around 75 percent of divorced women remarry within 10 years post-divorce. Unfortunately, the prince charming who sweeps you off your feet may have a dark, hidden agenda when it comes to your kids.

Just as divorced women are at risk for sexual assault, children may also be a target. According to many statistics, children who don’t live with both parents (and homes with parental discord and domestic violence) have a higher risk of being sexually abused. And the problem is, many child sexual abusers are men who are respected members of the community. They thrive in positions with easy access to youngsters like schools, clubs and churches. They look good on the outside but loving you is just a doorway to your children.

Many myths about child sexual predators give them a perfect hiding place from unsuspecting mothers. When it comes to blending a family, understanding the truth and reality is crucial.  Adults who sexually abuse a child:

  • Have a need to feel power and control. While they may appear self-confident, they often struggle with insecurities in relationships with other adults.
  • Have an intimate sexual relationship with their wife or partner. Having a great sex life with someone does not always have any bearing on their urges for sexual contact with children.
  • Act out in times of unusual stress.  Sometimes men will sexually abuse a child when they are under extreme pressure.  The loss of a job, a high-stress job, divorce, or financial problems are just some of the events that can trigger an adult to act on otherwise suppressed impulses. The pandemic has made this even worse.
  • May not fully understand the harmful impact of their actions. Adults, young or old, with a high social status may be so self-consumed they ignore the devastating effect their sexual actions have on children. 

Perceptions can make this increased risk seem inconsequential. However, it is helpful to consider the ramifications of single parenthood. There is a lack of supervision which occurs when both biological parents are no longer working as a team. One set of eyes can sometimes miss something. Another increased risk is created when a single-parent family becomes a stepfamily. A whole set of new of dynamics are introduced and older step-siblings may play a harmful role. Yet, the most significant factor is the addition of the biologically unrelated male to the family by marriage or relationship. Bad things may not happen. But it is never wise to ignore the possibility. 

This information may be alarming, and it should be.  However, you don’t have to allow this to keep you from moving on with your life. There are ways to grow and experience many good things after a divorce. You simply must remain vigilant and aware.

Understanding the Definitions 

A good step toward being aware is understanding different terms for sexual violence. Often, they are used interchangeably and this can blur the lines between them. There is a difference between sexual assault, sexual abuse and sexual harassment.

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual act or behavior which is threatening, violent, forced or coercive to a person who has not given consent or is unable to give consent. This is an umbrella term that includes a wide range of victimizations and dynamics which are complicated. Typically, sexual assault is not about sex, but about manipulation, exploitation, and exerting power and control over another person. 

Sexual Abuse

The term sexual abuse is more commonly used when talking about the sexual assault of children and teenagers. This occurs when someone in a position of power or authority takes advantage of a child’s trust to involve them in sexual activity. The perpetrator can be a family member, neighbor, teacher, club or religious leader. The most horrific problem with the sexual abuse of children is the widespread, underreported problem of sex trafficking.

Sexual Harassment

Another part of sexual assault includes sexual harassment, a much broader term. This includes creating a sexually hostile environment (work, school, etc.), using crude remarks and jokes, unwanted looks or body language that make an individual feel harassed. Unfortunately, the exact definition can vary by state. And because of the way sexual violence is portrayed in films, music, video games and culture, this type of “locker room talk” can feel normal and okay. In reality, it is not. 

Be Aware and Be Prepared

For a divorced woman, the first step to reducing the risk of sexual assault is to be very conscious of your own vulnerability.  Are you dating too soon?  Do you still feel extremely lonely? Is your self-esteem still suffering? Work to know yourself and give yourself time to heal. This may seem like overkill, but sexual assault can happen to anyone at any time.  There is no stereotypical victim or perpetrator. So, do your due diligence. There are many apps that are specially designed for a quick background check (TruePeopleSearch is an example). Read and do your research. 

For your children, it is never too soon to talk about body safety. It doesn’t have to be a scary conversation. Keep it age appropriate.

  • Teach your children the correct names of their body parts. Knowing this can help your child better communicate with you if the unthinkable happens.
  • Teach kids that some body parts are private. Naked pictures of your kids when they are young seems so innocent.  Yet, this can send the wrong message and make them believe it is okay for anyone to see them with their clothes off.
  • Teach your kids body boundaries. Matter-of-factly let them know that no one should touch their private parts, and that they should not touch someone else’s.
  • Teach your kids that secrets are not okay. Many sexual predators threaten kids to keep the secret of what is happening. The child then fears if he or she tells, they’ll be “in trouble.” Make sure your children know secrets are not okay. Assure them if they share one with you, they won’t get in trouble.
  • Teach your children a “safety” code word. As children get older, it is appropriate to have a word they can use if they feel they are in an unsafe situation. This can be used for times when they are in other’s homes, being picked up from school or at a sleepover. This could even be used in your own home if the need ever arises.
  • Teach your kids the rules apply to everyone. Let children know the privacy rules apply to anyone, not just strangers. This includes siblings, cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and close friends. It also applies to a stepdad and step siblings.  Just because someone is an adult and “in charge,” doesn’t mean they’re allowed to cross the child’s body boundaries.

If You are Sexually Assaulted

Knowing what to do, or how to respond, after a sexual assault may be difficult. No one wants to believe something like this could happen to them. Yet it is beneficial and practical to be informed and aware.

There can be a flood of emotions like pain, anger, fear, and blame to name a few. Or, the trauma experienced can put a paralyzing lock on natural feelings, and the victim can feel like they are in a trance. This can mean it is nearly impossible to make a decision or choice about what to do next after an assault. Reading useful information ahead of time helps to be prepared just in case the unthinkable occurs. 

According to professionals, there are steps to take if this terrifying situation happens.

  1. Make Sure You are Safe. The most important thing to do immediately after a sexual assault is to ensure you are in a safe place. Because of the intense, traumatic emotions experienced, this practicality can be forgotten. Call a friend, trusted family member, or just grab a blanket for warmth. Make sure you are away from danger.
  1. Seek Medical Help. Even though many sexual assault victims hesitate to get medical care, it is highly advisable. While the choice must be yours, there are many reasons to do so. These include collection of DNA or other evidence, emotional support from trained healthcare providers, and receiving information about other helpful resources. 
  1. Consider Legal Options. Making a police report is an intensely personal and often difficult decision. For some survivors it feels empowering. For others it can make them feel they are reliving the experience all over again. If you do go forward and contact the police remember to contact the enforcement agency in the town where the assault occurred, to call as soon as possible, to save as much evidence as feasible (clothes, don’t bathe or brush your teeth), and to request a counselor or advocate during the interview.
  1. Process the Event. A normal response to this experience is to put it out of your mind. However, it is vital to your healing to address it by learning healthy ways to cope with the emotions. Some feelings usually experienced include denial (refusing to believe it happened), memory loss (actually being unable to recall some of the details), self-doubt and blame, a sense of guilt, anxiety, and even PTSD. Counseling can be beneficial with a professional who is specially trained to help those who have been sexually assaulted.
  1. Stay Connected with Friends and Family. Isolating after a sexual assault is often a normal response. You don’t feel like yourself and it can feel strange to be with others. Work slowly and take one step at a time. Make plans with a friend or your family, then return to other social activities as you feel comfortable. Take a class, join a gym. You may initially not feel like connecting with others so take small steps to move forward.
  1. Take Care of Yourself. This may seem like a no-brainer, but recovering from difficult emotions like self-blame and depression can result in ignoring your physical health. You can easily nurture yourself by avoiding the tendency to stay busy in an effort to avoid your feelings, practicing some relaxation techniques, regularly exercising, seeking medication if it is necessary, avoiding overusing alcohol or drugs, or turning to God for spiritual help.

Recovering from a sexual assault can take time. Be prepared to allow yourself to heal at your own pace. Reach out and look into local organizations for help. 

How You Can Help Others

The subject of sexual assault is uncomfortable and many people feel there is nothing they can do to help. While the only person responsible for this situation is the perpetrator, everyone has the ability to be aware of another’s safety. This doesn’t mean you have to be a hero. However, you can take a friend home who has had too much to drink, stop participating in “locker room rhetoric,” or call the police if you observe a risky situation. 

There are also steps you can take if you believe someone you know has been sexually assaulted. Knowing what to say is not always easy. However, being supportive can be simply listening with concern and non-judgement.  Or, it can be finding resources and information that will help the survivor take steps to move through recovery. Don’t worry about saying the right things. Sometimes just being there is enough. 

As a parent, if you find out or suspect your child has been sexually abused (by anyone), it will take a huge toll. Your first priority is to manage your emotionally charged feelings (shock, anger, fear, anxiety) and focus on your child. No matter how it is disclosed, work to create an atmosphere free of harm, judgment and blame. There will be many questions and decisions to make. If your child is in danger, don’t hesitate to call 911. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) to talk to someone from your local sexual assault service provider who is trained to help. 

The culture of silence in our society which allows sexual assault to run rampant can be shaken up. Being a person, parent, friend, family member, or community member who stays aware and informed is your way to help.

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