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Trauma and Sexual Assault Essay

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Updated: Jan 21st, 2020


Trauma results from painful or distressful emotional and psychological effects of painful events. Briere and Scot (2006) posit, “Trauma is used to refer to both negative events that produce distress and the distress itself” (p. 3). Thus, trauma is an emotional and psychological distress that occurs in response to negative painful events.

Trauma overwhelms the ability of people to cope with traumatic events, thus rendering them powerless in the face of adversity. When one experiences a negative event that is shocking or extraordinary, fears develop, which eventually lead to trauma. Trauma weakens the emotional and psychological strengths of people, which makes them helpless for they cannot overcome traumatic experiences.

In society, traumatic experiences that one can encounter include sexual assault, death of a close person, violence, war, disasters, accidents, and witnessing of horrific death among others. Fundamentally, trauma emanates from diverse traumatic experiences that people face in the course of life. Hence, this essay describes trauma in terms of nature and cause before examining sexual assault as a type of trauma and its spiritual and professional therapies, which enable people to cope.

Nature of Trauma

Trauma in psychology refers to the impact of traumatic experiences on emotional, biological, and psychological aspects of human beings. Flannery (1999) postulates, “traumatic events may arise when an individual is confronted with actual or threatened death or serious injury or some other threat to one’s physical integrity” (p.78).

Trauma can also occur when one witnesses others undergoing traumatic experiences such as wars, disasters, robbery, and violence. Experience of these traumatic events causes people to develop intense fear, shock, and feelings of helplessness. Trauma destabilizes mental and emotional status, and thus force people to become susceptible to subsequent traumatic experiences. It is hard for a traumatized individual to endure other traumatic events because trauma has a cumulative effect on emotional and psychological stability.

One unique thing about trauma is that it depends on the ability of an individual to cope with traumatic events. Different people have different capacities of coping with traumatic events in life. Normally, traumatic events cause trauma when they overwhelm psychological, physical, and emotional capacity of an individual.

Risk factors such as limited social support, genetics, limited intelligence, and deficient formal education enhance susceptibility to trauma. Moreover, Flannery (1999) asserts, “prior mental illness, dysfunctional family life, and a previous history of being traumatized all increase the risk of impaired functioning in the face of traumatic events” (p. 79). This assertion shows that a combination of congenital, social, mental health, and historical factors contribute to the vulnerability of an individual to the trauma.

Traumatized individuals usually exhibit three kinds of symptoms, viz. “intrusive symptoms, avoidance symptoms, and arousal symptoms” (Barlow, 2007, p.67). Intrusive symptoms entail constant recollection of traumatic events that caused the trauma. Intrusive symptoms occur when an individual relives the traumatic events.

Therapists should be cautious not to make clients to relive their traumatic experiences for they cause great distress in the form of intrusive symptoms, which remind them of their ordeal (Stein, et al. 2000). Traumatized individuals can also exhibit avoidance symptoms by avoiding thoughts and places that relate to traumatic events, poor recollection of the events, loss of interest in certain events, and restricted emotions.

Barlow (2007) argues, “Avoidance and numbing symptoms reflect an individual’s attempt to gain psychological and emotional distance from trauma” (p. 66). Avoidance symptoms show that an individual is struggling to suppress and overcome the impacts of traumatic events. Irritability, insomnia, hyper-vigilance, angry outbursts, and loss of concentration are some of the arousal symptoms of trauma. The symptoms indicate that traumatic experiences cause emotional and psychological disturbance on a traumatized individual.

Causes of Trauma

Accident is one of the factors that cause development of trauma in an individual. Accidents form part of traumatic events, which are honorific for many people lose their lives, some sustain disabling injuries, and others survive with trauma.

Briere and Scott (2006) state that about 20 per cent of people in the United States have faced critical motor vehicles accidents and “a substantial number of these people go on to develop significant psychological disturbance, especially if the accident involved major injury or resulted into death of others” (p.7).

The traumatic experiences of the accidents predispose people to trauma because they do not only threaten lives of the people, but also elicit horrific feelings due to the psychological and emotional impacts of accidents.

Natural disasters also cause trauma amongst people. Given that natural disasters cause massive destruction of property and lives, they constitute traumatic experiences. In the United States, about 15 per cent of the population has experienced natural disasters such as hurricanes, avalanches, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, floods, earthquakes, and outbreak of fires (Yehuda, 1998).

Natural disasters cause death, loss of property, and grave injuries all of which have significant impacts in causing trauma amongst the affected people. Barlow (2007) states that natural disasters are responsible for the occurrence of extensive trauma in society as natural disasters cause massive destruction of lives and property. Hence, victims of natural disasters require immense social support and counseling so that they can manage traumatic experiences that they have undergone.

Battering of partners in marriage is another cause of trauma at the family level. Victims of partner battery are often women because they cannot overpower their male counterparts. Briere and Scott (2006) state that about 25 per cent of married couples or those living with their partners have at least experienced one incident of battery, while about 12 per cent have experienced physical harm from choking, kicking, and punching.

These traumatic experiences explain why women have high rates of trauma or are more vulnerable to trauma than men are. The violent experiences force women to become dependent, lose social control, and harbor fears of anxiety.

Carll (2007) clarifies, “in addition to the physical violence, women are often emotionally or psychologically abused and frequently sexually abused and/or stalked within the context of intimate relationships” (p. 261). Persistent violence in marriages or relationships results into traumatic bonding, which causes women to endure the violence despite the fact that it is causing trauma.

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault generally involves forceful sexual act that a person(s) commits against another without due consent. Usually, women and children are the leading victims of sexual assault because they are prone to rape and other forms of sexual abuses. The dominant sexual assault is rape, which is an act of compelling someone to have sexual intercourse without consent.

Sexual assault is an ordeal experience that traumatizes the involved victims. It entails a violation of physical, emotional, and psychological integrity of a person, thus resulting into trauma. James, Gilliland, and Lloyd (2012) posit, “Abundant evidence suggests that crises resulting from sexual abuse and rape are more intense and differ in nature, intensity, and extent from other forms of crisis” (p. 56).

Owing to the intense trauma that sexual assault causes among victims, its treatment is similar to that of post-traumatic stress syndrome acquired from traumatic experiences of combat.

Social and cultural factors are responsible for the occurrence of sexual assault in society. In the social aspect, gender inequality, social disorganization, legitimization of violence, and pornography are some of the factors that contribute to sexual assault. Gender inequality predisposes women to sexual assault because they have lower social, economic, legal, and political status than men do.

Social disorganization refers to loss of social control in society, which makes women to be susceptible to acts of sexual abuse. The aspect of legitimization of violence involves the support that society provides to acts of violence. In a society that supports acts of violence, women are very vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Pornography causes sexual assault and as James, Gilliland, and Lloyd (2012) argue, “pornography reduces women to sex objects, promotes male dominance, and encourages or condones sexual violence against women” (p. 250). Hence, social factors that are present in society are the principal causes of sexual assault among women.

Cultural factors also contribute to the occurrence of sexual abuses. Many cultures across the world support supremacy of men in the society. Men supremacy in cultural contexts gives men the power to control and access women bodies without seeking consent from them. Different cultures deny women their rights of controlling their bodies or reproductive health.

Hence, due to men supremacy, women become subjects in the society for they have no rights to own their bodies or consent to sexual acts. Additionally, psychological factors cause sexual abuse. James, Gilliland, and Lloyd (2012) assert, “Personal and psychological factors that are unique to men who perpetrate sexual abuse affect both their decision to assault and the way an assault is carried out” (p. 250).

Male offenders normally commit sexual assault to punish women, as a crime, attain sexual satisfaction, lust, recreation activity, and take control of women. Therefore, personal and psychological factors drive men to commit sexual assault against women.

Factors Necessary for Successful Coping

Successful coping with trauma depends on the nature of trauma and the ability of an individual to overcome the trauma. Traumatized individuals have different capacities of coping with trauma. The impact of traumatic experiences on individuals varies from one person to another depending on personal attributes (Sherin & Nemeroff, 2011).

While some people are sensitive to traumatic experiences and take long to recover, others are tolerant and take a short period to recover. According to Flannery (1999, p.79), “reasonable mastery, caring attachments to others, and a meaningful purpose in life” are three factors that enable victims of trauma to cope successfully. Reasonable mastery is the capacity of a traumatized individual to utilize environmental factors in coping with the trauma.

Normally, as traumatic events are overwhelming and beyond control, the victims of the traumatic events react by exhibiting hyper-vigilance symptoms, which is a defense reaction. In sexual assault, reasonable mastery entails the ability of the victims to overcome the trauma by managing fears and suppressing them from causing further psychological torture.

Caring attachment is another factor that enhances successful coping in traumatic instances. For one to cope with traumatic experiences and overcome their impacts on one’s life, caring attachment to others is imperative. Traumatized individuals normally experience a sense of helplessness and isolation, thus require assistance from others for them to cope with trauma. Family members and friends provide social support, which enables the victims to overcome the trauma.

Studies have shown that the absence of caring attachment from family members and friends is responsible for poor recovery of victims of trauma (Wilson & Keane, 2004). In this case, sexual assault causes intensive trauma, and thus it requires social support to recover. Continued stigmatization of the victims of sexual assault in society worsens the recovery process.

Having meaningful perception of life enhances successful coping of trauma. People who have a positive perception of the world relative to their traumatic experiences have resilience of coping with trauma. Bisson and Andrew (2997) assert that trauma is subjective as it depends on psychological status of an individual.

Some people are more vulnerable to the trauma than others are because people have different psychological perceptions and resilience. In this case, victims of sexual assault who understand the impact of trauma can manage it and live a positive life, which enhances their quick recovery.

Spiritual Therapy

Spiritually oriented therapies play a central role in enabling victims of sexual assault to cope with trauma. A number of psychotherapists have noted that spiritually oriented therapies have a significant impact in the recovery process of a traumatized individual. The common spiritually oriented therapy, which employs serenity prayer, is a 12-step program.

According to Meichenbaum (2008), serenity prayer states, “God, give me the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other” (p. 22). Spiritually oriented therapies require therapists to be more responsive and sensitive to the religious beliefs of clients. Understanding religious beliefs and perception of clients in issues related to sexual assault is critical in enhancing the effectiveness of the therapy.

Psychotherapists also should incorporate spiritual orientated therapies into normal psychotherapies. The incorporating of spiritually oriented therapies into conventional therapies is important because they enhance the effectiveness of the therapies (Anderson, 2007). Since sexual assault causes intensive trauma that overwhelms an individual, different religions believe that spiritual help empowers the victims.

People believe that spiritual powers come from God, thus they have the power to emancipate victims from trauma for such people are helpless and vulnerable in society. This aspect means that spiritual-oriented therapies provide means through which an individual can cope with trauma.

According to Meichenbaum (2008), “one outcome of engaging in spiritual coping activities is to reduce the likelihood of victimized individuals engaging in such ‘negative, self-disparaging, stress-endangering’ story-telling to oneself and to others” (p. 7). Thus, the incorporation of spiritual interventions in psychotherapies is important in enabling victims of sexual assault to cope with trauma.

Professional Therapy

Feminine group therapy is one of the therapies that are effective in treatment of trauma associated with sexual assault. It is applicable in adult victims for they have different coping abilities from young people. The therapy utilizes an approach that is integrative because it aims at addressing cognitive, physical, spiritual, and emotional aspects of a person. Since trauma destabilizes physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual aspects of the victims, feminine group therapy focuses on stabilizing them.

Gerrity, Kalodner, DeLucia-Waack, and Riva (2003) posit, “Feminists have supported group therapy as a strong and significant intervention for females who have been sexually abused” (p. 499). As the healing process of women entails learning how to trust and relate with others, feminist group therapy reduces guilt, shame, and isolation among victims of sexual assault.

Family therapy is another effective therapy that is applicable in treatment of sexual trauma. Underwood, Stewart, and Castellanos (2007) argue, “Although group therapy may recreate a sense of family, some researchers have found family therapy itself to be effective in treating sexually traumatized females” (p.406). Family forms an important part of a victim’s life because it provides the necessary social support. Moreover, family provides immediate caring support that is responsive to the needs of a traumatized member.

Mode deactivation therapy is a form of therapy that aims at deactivating negative symptoms of trauma, which traumatized individuals display. Usually, traumatized youths are very reactive as they display aggressive behaviors, which worsen their trauma.

Research shows that mode deactivation therapy “is effective in reducing aggression and suicidal ideations among the population of sexually traumatized individuals” (Underwood, Stewart, & Castellanos, 2007, p.407). Hence, mode deactivation therapy plays a central role in treatment of sexually assaulted individuals.


Trauma occurs due to traumatic experiences that one has undergone. Traumatic experiences destabilize emotional, psychological, and physical aspects of an individual, thus generating negative feelings. Trauma makes an individual to lose hope in life because for negative feelings are overwhelming at times.

Accidents, natural disasters, and partner battery are some factors that cause trauma in society. Since traumatic experiences vary from one person to another, coping factors are different too. For instance, sexual assault is the common cause of trauma amongst women because men abuse them sexually.

Hence, in a bid to help women to overcome trauma associated with sexual assault, spiritually oriented therapies are necessary. Moreover, professional therapies such as group therapy, family therapy, and mode deactivation therapy are applicable in treatment of trauma associated with sexual assault.


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