How sexual abuse affects adults
Sexual abuse in adulthood is a traumatic experience, and it can have a tremendous negative impact on the survivor. These impacts may be felt immediately by some survivors, while in others it may manifest months or years after the attack occurred. Likewise, for some survivors, the impact of sexual abuse may be short-lived while, for others, it could stay with them for the rest of their lives.
What’s more, the extent to which an adult is affected by abuse can vary greatly depending on factors such as their age, gender and personality, the circumstances surrounding the abuse itself, whether or not they seek help and support about what happened to them, what support (if any) they receive from friends and family, and the society and culture in which they live.
Typically, sexual abuse affects adults on three levels: the impact on their physical and sexual health; the psychological impact the abuse leaves behind; and the social and relational impact on the individual. We’ll cover all these factors in our article below.
The physical and sexual health impacts of adult sexual abuse
Adult sexual abuse can have an immediate and direct negative physical impact on the person being abused, particularly if the attack is violent. It could cause injury, physical trauma or even death.
The abuse could also lead to longer-lasting physical and sexual damage, and you might see the following effects in adults who have been sexually abused:
- Migraines, nausea and fatigue
- Gynaecological problems including sexual dysfunction
- Higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Increased probability of the individual going on to engage in high-risk sexual behaviour such as unprotected sex with multiple partners
The psychological impact of adult sexual abuse
As well as physical damage and trauma, people who have experienced adult sexual abuse may find they exhibit psychological problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Some of the symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, trouble sleeping, flashbacks, disassociation with what happened to them, difficulty remembering events, and hyperarousal (hypervigilance and always being alert).
Some of the other psychological effects following adult sexual abuse could include:
- Fear and anxiety, including social anxiety disorders
- Severe depression and suicidal thoughts
- Irritability and outbursts of anger
- Drug and alcohol abuse
The relational and social impact of adult sexual abuse
Experiencing sexual abuse in adulthood could also have an impact on the survivor’s relationships and social behaviour. It could leave the individual feeling isolated, less trusting of themselves and others, fearing intimacy, and being unable to develop strong emotional bonds.
What factors feature in adult abuse and neglect?
Those who commit abuse look for favourable circumstances that allow them to commit abuse without a high risk of getting caught. This means they are more likely to target the most vulnerable in our society in circumstances where they may be able to do so in secret.
Vulnerable adults share some common factors that perpetrators of adult abuse, neglect and exploitation take advantage of. This could include lack of mental capacity, inability to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, communication difficulties, physical dependence on others, memory problems, low self-esteem and previous experience of abuse.
Perpetrators of adult abuse, neglect and exploitation may also rely on certain circumstances that allow them to continue to abuse or neglect the vulnerable adult without getting caught. This could include the fact that the vulnerable adult is under the perpetrator’s care in a care setting, or the fact that they have been socially isolated or excluded.
What are the signs of sexual abuse in adults?
Living a life that is free from abuse and neglect is a fundamental human right, and Safeguarding Adults was introduced as part of the Care Act 2014 to ensure this right is upheld for vulnerable adults. Read more about adult sexual abuse claims to get some insight into what you can do if someone you know is being abused.
Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to spot when adults are being sexually abused. There are some indicators to look out for, but it’s important to remember that these indicators can also point to many other problems and that some adults may hide the signs due to fear or shame. Some of the signs of sexual abuse in adults could include:
- A preoccupation with anything sexual
- Fear and withdrawal from relationships
- Unexpected or unexplained change in behaviour
- Loss of sleep
- Substance or alcohol abuse
- Unexplained bruising or itching – particularly around the inner thighs, genital, anal or breast areas
- STIs or pregnancy in a person who doesn’t have the capacity to provide consent
If it’s a child that you suspect is being abused, you may want to learn more about child abuse, and the signs you might want to look out for in children of all ages.