Call Now: 615.455.3903

What is Sexual Abuse?

Lonely woman thinking by the shore of a lake with skyline

Sexual abuse is a blanket term that encompasses abusive sexual behavior that one person does to another. Experiencing sexual abuse can be incredibly traumatic, and unfortunately, it’s more common than many people think. Every 68 seconds, a perpetrator sexually assaults someone. 

This post will answer the question of “What is sexual abuse,” including explaining types of sexual abuse, signs of sexual abuse, and what it does to a survivor’s mental health.

What is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse encompasses any unwanted sexual activity. Abusers use force, take advantage of people who cannot give consent, or make threats to get what they want. Often, the perpetrator is someone the survivor knows, like a family member, friend, colleague, or someone in a position of power over the survivor.

There are many types of sexual abuse. Each has a distinct definition that varies based on the laws in a particular state. 

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault can take many forms. The phrase itself refers to behavior that happens without the survivor’s consent. It includes sexual abuse, rape, attempted rape, unwanted touching, and forcing someone to perform sexual acts against their will.


Rape is a form of sexual assault, but not all sexual assault is rape. In the legal sense, this word describes any sexual assault that includes penetration without consent.

Child Molestation

Because children are too young to consent to sex, any sexual activity with children is child molestation. Child molestation can have a lasting effect on the survivor for years following the event. Sex of any kind with a minor, fondling a child, or masturbating in front of a child all are child molestation. It also includes trafficking children or producing pornographic materials of children.

Child molestation doesn’t always necessarily mean physical contact with a child. Child molestation can include when a perpetrator exposes themselves to a minor, interacts with a child obscenely on the phone or through digital messages on social media, or owns pornographic images of children.

Often abusers are someone the child knows. They try to take advantage of their relationship with the child. In many cases, abusers try to manipulate them into staying silent.


Incest is sexual contact between family members. It’s thought that people underreport incest because the survivor may not wish to get a family member in trouble, or they fear the rest of the family won’t believe what happened. Sometimes the survivor won’t report the abuse because they think their abuser will harm them if they tell. The victim may report the abuse in some cases. But family members also may ignore or minimize it to protect the abuser. 

A family member may tell the survivor that this sort of experience is normal and happens in families. They may believe it because they don’t have the outside perspective necessary to understand this is false.

Non-Consensual Sexual Contact

Non-consensual sexual contact may include things like groping or pinching. Attempted rape may also fit into this category.

Also, sexual contact can be non-consensual for many reasons. If the survivor isn’t old enough to consent legally, is physically disabled or incapacitated, is unconscious, or is a vulnerable adult who depends on others for care, sexual contact is non-consensual. Also, if the abuser is in a position of authority over the survivor and uses this position to coerce the survivor into agreeing to sex, sexual contact is non-consensual.

Non-Contact Sexual Abuse

Non-contact sexual abuse is a broad term that encompasses several types of sexual abuse. For example, sexual harassment is a type of non-contact sexual abuse that includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and verbal harassment. It may involve an employer making job security or promotions dependent upon sexual favors, or the harasser sharing unwanted explicit photos or messages. Sometimes harassers share stories or jokes about sexual relations in inappropriate places, like the workplace or learning environment.

Non-contact sexual abuse can also take place online. For example, some websites publish nude photos of people without their consent. This practice is “revenge porn,” and in many cases, former partners submit the images.

A woman with both hand on her head looking depressed because she was sexually abused

Signs of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is a traumatic experience, and every survivor reacts differently. In some cases, survivors may experience concentration difficulties or be prone to emotional outbursts.

Often, victims of sexual abuse experience deep feelings of guilt or shame. They may blame themselves for not stopping the abuse or if they experienced physical pleasure. Regardless, it’s vital to note that the survivor is not at fault in cases of sexual abuse.

For some people, their first sexual experience was an act of sexual abuse. This may make intimacy difficult. Survivors can experience flashbacks to the moment of abuse. Or engaging in sexual activity may bring up painful memories. Some survivors may struggle with setting boundaries to help them feel safe when having intimate moments with their partners.

Survivors may also struggle with low self-esteem due to negative things their abusers said to them and from having their safety violated. Low self-esteem can affect many areas of the survivor’s life, like relationships, career performance, and overall well-being.

Mental Health Effects of Sexual Abuse

Because sexual abuse is a traumatic event in a survivor’s life, often they experience the mental health effects of sexual abuse.

Some survivors may experience depression, a mood disorder when emotions associated with sadness and hopelessness continue for long periods and interrupt regular thought patterns. Sadness and despair are typical after sexual abuse, these feelings may indicate depression if they last. Depression isn’t something survivors can just snap out of. Many survivors benefit from seeking treatment from a mental health professional.

Sexual abuse can make victims of sexual abuse feel like they’ve lost their bodily autonomy, which can cause severe anxiety. This anxiety may manifest in the fear that the abuse will happen again or that someone who resembles their abuser may also harm them. Some survivors with anxiety may have panic attacks. In other cases, they may develop agoraphobia and fear leaving their homes.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a trauma disorder that can result from a traumatic experience. Victims with PTSD may feel extreme feelings of stress, fear, anxiety, and nervousness. Some survivors with PTSD may feel like they are constantly in danger. PTSD is a severe mental health disorder. It prohibits the abused from functioning in their daily lives without treatment.

Seeking Support After Sexual Abuse

While the definition of sexual abuse is broad, any form of sexual abuse is traumatic. Trauma affects an individual’s overall well-being. It’s essential to seek help to better process these experiences.

Many survivors may seek support from friends or family. And while talking about what happened is a good first step, not all friends and family are equipped to help survivors.

At Integrative Life Center, we offer help through a trauma-informed lens. We help survivors develop healthy coping mechanisms to better deal with their experiences. Our Trauma Treatment program helps individuals process, understand, and overcome issues resulting from traumatic experiences.

Every survivor deserves the care and support to move forward on their healing journey. Contact ILC today to begin your healing journey. 

Related Post

This is an invitation to take that next step if you need...

Contact Our Team

Start Your Healing Journey Today