Life Events & Trauma

3 Min Read

Sexual Harassment & Assault

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are serious crimes that can cause lifelong trauma and possible post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in survivors. Survivors often struggle with anxiety in their relationships, trouble setting boundaries, body issues, feelings of guilt and shame, and isolation. Due to sexual advances of no fault of their own, survivors of sexual harassment and assault can struggle with trust issues. They may be triggered by offensive remarks or inappropriate talk about body parts or even innocuous comments that bring up for them the traumatic event following their abuse.

While all too common in the United States and other parts of the world, sexual harassment and sexual assault crimes are often underreported to medical professionals or law enforcement. Survivors are often afraid their story won’t be heard or taken seriously or they might believe they can manage the trauma of sexual harassment or sexual assault themselves. Survivors may feel silenced and, as a result, not seek necessary help, possibly leading to severe mental health conditions and self-harm behaviors.

Sexual Harassment & Assault

What constitutes sexual harassment or assault?

Sexual harassment and sexual assault crimes can include but are not limited to:

  1. Unwelcome sexual advances
  2. Unwanted sexual contact
  3. Sexual misconduct by a boss or person in power
  4. Unwanted and repeat requests for sexual favors
  5. Unsolicited attempts at sexual activity after being told no
  6. Coercion of sex from an unwilling participant
  7. Sexual abuse or unwanted touching of any kind
  8. Discrimination based on a person’s sex in the workplace, an educational institution, etc
  9. Creating a hostile work environment based on a person’s sex
  10. Harassment or other abuse or discrimination around sexual orientation
  11. Physical harassment of a sexual nature
  12. Insults of a sexual nature
  13. Demeaning sexual comments and humiliation
  14. Dating violence

With treatments for trauma and additional supports like groups and sometimes medication, survivors of sexual assault and harassment can learn to manage trauma symptoms and live productive and happy lives.

Treatment for Survivors

No matter the exact circumstances, therapists, psychologists, counselors, and psychiatrists will work with survivors to untangle feelings of fear, shame, low self-esteem, and anxiety caused by abuse or harassment. They will teach coping skills and help survivors to identify triggers that may cause anxiety and panic. This can happen in many ways.

Options for Care

Depending on the nature of the situation or how a survivor is experiencing symptoms of trauma, several styles of therapy may be used to help.

For survivors with a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) could be used to help the survivor with skills to reduce avoidance and adaptation behaviors associated with trauma. Psychodynamic psychotherapy has a long history of helping people who are survivors of sexual violence.

For survivors struggling with issues of shame, another therapist might take a narrative approach to treatment. These therapists will help survivors to understand that what happened to them is not their fault and give them the skills to realize their abuse does not have to define them going forward.

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Additional Supports

Some therapists will recommend a combination of group and individual therapy for survivors of sexual assault or trauma. This is meant to help empower survivors by giving them a community and showing them that they are not alone. Entirely optional, a survivor’s support group or family therapy sessions could easily be incorporated into a survivor’s treatment plan if desired. Common topics often discussed in sexual assault and survivor groups include:

  • Military sexual trauma
  • Safety concerns
  • Anxiety and triggers due to trauma
  • Coping mechanisms
  • Romantic relationship strains and concerns as a result of sexual trauma
  • Setting boundaries
  • Using one’s voice
  • Self-esteem and body issues
  • Shame and regret
  • Discrimination based on sex
  • Family members and trust

Positive Treatment Outcomes

Treatment outcomes vary on a case-by-case basis, but survivors of sexual harassment and assault can recover from the impact of trauma and go on to have healthy relationships. Some have used their narrative and experience to educate the general public through movements and social justice initiatives. Survivors have been able to:

  • Participate in the #MeToo movement or other groups that provide empowerment
  • Identify their triggers and learn how to reduce anxiety around one’s safety
  • Decrease the risk of future dating violence for others
  • Learn coping techniques for anxiety and trigger identification
  • Recognize all forms of sexual harassment

These are just several different outcomes that survivors of sexual harassment and assault may experience with treatment and care. Each survivor’s experience is unique, and treatment plans for getting better should reflect this. 

Getting Help

If you’re struggling with problems related to sexual harassment or assault, reach out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to a therapist you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements.

After hours in the U.S., you can also call Planned Parenthood, your local women’s shelter, domestic violence groups, or 211 for confidential resources and support group information. The RAINN hotline is also open 24 hours a day.

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Find a Therapist to Navigate Sexual Harassment and Assault Trauma