Recognizing Sexual Violence and its Link to Substance Use and Abuse

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 April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and today, April 28th, is Denim Day, an annual, international campaign when denim is worn to show support for survivors and challenge myths surrounding sexual violence. (Learn more about the history of the campaign and why denim here.)

Sexual violence, an issue often shrouded in secrecy, occurs at an alarming rate. This type of violence is frequently linked to substance use or abuse, so it is necessary to examine the connection, including during Sexual Assault Awareness Month and on Denim Day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sexual violence is a sexual act committed when consent is not obtained or not freely given. It includes sexual assault (commonly referred to as rape), criminal sexual contact (unwanted touching), and sexual harassment. Essentially, a sexual assault takes place about every 73 seconds in the United States and every 9 minutes the victim is a child. According to the CDC, more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetime. Amongst those who experience sexual violence, it is estimated that about 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. While sexual violence impacts every community, all genders, and all ages, these statistics show that girls and women, as well as young people, are at higher risk. Additional statistics show that transgender individuals and people with disabilities are also at higher risk for experiencing sexual violence.

Intertwined in the occurrence of sexual assault

Most sexual assaults are committed by individuals known to their victims. They may be family members, classmates, teachers, coworkers, partners, acquaintances, or other trusted individuals. In addition to taking advantage of victims' trust, perpetrators may use drugs to assist in their crimes.

Alcohol, a commonly used and socially acceptable drug, is used most often to facilitate sexual assault. Substances assist in committing sexual assault for many reasons. Perpetrators may intentionally drug their victims, making them more defenseless. Whether victims take substances knowingly or unknowingly, they can create confusion and impact memory. They can also create fear of reporting the violence, especially when taken willingly but illegally. Additionally, people who use regularly are more vulnerable to perpetrators, who may believe them to be more easily manipulated, less likely to understand what is happening, less likely to remember what happened, and less likely to report or get help.

Despite this increased vulnerability, it should be understood by survivors and members of the community that substance use is not the cause of any incident of sexual violence: perpetrators' decisions to violate someone else's body and rights is. In some instances, perpetrators use substances to help them feel more comfortable with committing the act or like they have an excuse for the behavior. However, it is never an excuse and cannot be used as a defense under the law.

Following the occurrence of sexual assault

As a result of victimization, survivors may turn to substances to cope with the trauma they have experienced. Survivors of sexual violence are significantly more likely to use or abuse alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs, cocaine, and other illegal drugs. In an attempt to cope, survivors may use substances to feel numb or provide a temporary escape from the harsh reality of their experience. It may also result from feelings of isolation, loneliness, low self-esteem, loss of control, or discomfort with intimacy. However, not all survivors will end up using or abusing substances. This consequence may be influenced by a survivor's particular experience as well as the support or care received after the violence occurs. Regardless, the devastating effects of sexual violence can be eased, which is why it is so important to make sure that survivors of sexual violence get the support that they need while working to prevent sexual violence from continuing to occur.

Services and Support

Individuals with an addiction and survivors of sexual violence face stigma, making it challenging for any individual experiencing one, if not both, of these issues to come forward and seek help. If someone is struggling with both, each issue needs to be addressed in order for treatment and healing to be successful. For example, someone using a substance as a way to deal with a history of violence or abuse could relapse after treatment for an addiction until the trauma has been addressed as well.

As a result, there is need for collaboration for the provision of treatment services. Cross-training for clinicians between sexual violence programs and addiction treatment centers is encouraged.Also, clinicians need to be mindful of the treatment models they implement when working with individuals who have an addiction and are sexual violence survivors. Traditionally, addiction treatment models have not taken trauma into account. Furthermore, there are conflicts that can occur between the models that are used to treat addictions and those used to work with survivors of sexual violence. For example, the use of confrontation under the addictions treatment model may not coincide with the empowerment model principles used when working with survivors.

In addition to coordinating treatment services, cooperation in prevention efforts will prove beneficial: the prevention of sexual violence will help prevent substance use and abuse, and vice versa. Those working in the substance abuse prevention field can only enhance their efforts by collaborating with those invested in preventing sexual violence. By decreasing the occurrence of sexual violence, the number of survivors will decrease and so will the number of those who turn to substances to cope with their trauma. Meanwhile, by decreasing substance abuse, the number of individuals who are seen as vulnerable to perpetrators can be addressed.

Conclusion

The issues of sexual violence and substance abuse are intertwined: we cannot successfully address one without addressing the other, whether working with individuals to provide treatment or addressing the issues at the community level. With a more thorough understanding, we can create more successful efforts in addressing each issue individually and together.

If you or someone you care about has been affected by any form of sexual violence, there are options. Support is available 24-hours a day by calling the Middlesex County Center for Empowerment's hotline at 1-877-665-7273.

If you are looking for opportunities to collaborate with the Center for Empowerment, the designated sexual violence program of Middlesex County, you can reach them via their hotline or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Contact them to explore ways to increase your impact on the community, such as by joining the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition of Middlesex County.

Image credit: Photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

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