April marks the 14th annual Sexual Assault Awareness month. Sexual Assault Awareness month serves as a time to bring attention to sexual assault and the impact it has on both individuals, families, and communities across the country. According to the Center for Disease Control, nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 59 men in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives (CDC, 2014), with 20%-25% of college women experiencing attempted rape or rape during their college career (CDC, 2014). These statistics remain underestimated due to the continued stigma of sexual assault in this country which contributes to under-reporting. The negative impact to survivors of sexual assault is significant making it important to continue working towards prevention, education, and treatment.
Multiple psycho-emotional and physical problems often plague those who survive sexual assault. One of the physical ailments that has been correlated in the research is chronic pelvic pain. The pelvic region is closely connected with sexuality and identity; thus assault can leave an undeniable mark on your pelvic health. The physical trauma to the pelvic floor leads to chronic tensing of muscles; resulting in pelvic pain. This pelvic pain may affect daily function such as the ability to sit or effectively empty the bladder and bowels. Inability to relax those tense pelvic floor muscles can be a reason for painful intercourse and why those who have suffered from physical trauma can have a difficult time with physical intimacy. Using pelvic floor physical therapy along with counseling can be a very effective tool to help chronic pelvic pain and painful intercourse. Working with your nervous system, the muscles can be retrained to relax.
In addition to the correlation between chronic pelvic pain and sexual assault, survivors may also experience a number of psycho-emotional problems making it imperative to provide survivors with resources quickly. Initially, a survivor of sexual assault may experience shock, denial, fear, confusion, anxiety, withdrawal, shame or guilt, nervousness, distrust of others, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (CDC, 2015). Symptoms of PTSD may include: emotional detachment, sleep disturbances, flashbacks, and mental replay of assault. If resources are not received and utilize, the survivor may also experience a variety of long term effects including: depression, generalized anxiety, attempted or completed suicide, PTSD, diminished interest or avoidance of sex, and low self-esteem (CDC, 2015). In addition, sexual assault may impact the survivors relationships while also increasing risk of substance abuse, risky sexual activity, unhealthy eating patterns, and criminal behavior (CDC, 2015). In order to reduce the impact of sexual assault, it is important to help survivors identify and utilize resources, such as, trauma-informed and survivor-centered individual counseling, as quickly as possible.
Centers of Disease Control. (2014). Understanding Sexual Violence: Fact Sheet. Injury and Prevention Control: Division of Violence and Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention
Centers of Disease Control. (2015). Sexual Violence: Consequences. Injury and Prevention Control: Division of Violence and Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/consequences.html.
Chronic Pelvic Pain and Previous Sexual Abuse. From Obstetrics & Gynecology, Vol. 96 no. 6, December 2000.
Jamie Justice, MPT, WCS is a physical therapist at Creative Therapeutics who is board certified in pelvic floor physical therapy for both men and women.
Brittany Male, LCSW CADC is a mental health therapist at LivingRite: The Center for Behavioral Health. LivingRite has trained professionals who provide trauma-informed services to those who may have experienced sexual assault or abuse in their lifetime in addition to addressing a wide variety of other mental health issues. For more information on their services or to make an appointment you can contact (815) 758-8400 or visit their website at livingrite.org.