International studies indicate that survivors of rape or sexual abuse develop physical, mental and social problems throughout their lives, including sexual dysfunctions and depression and anxiety exacerbated by PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorders). They also generate up to 18.7% more suffering for abused women, indicating the weight of gender and victim blaming.
The case of Brazilian soccer player Daniel Alves, 39, detained in Spain this week, has raised debate about the impacts of rape on victims’ mental health.
Former captain of the Brazilian national team and married to an international model, Alves is accused of raping a 23-year-old girl in the bathroom of a nightclub in Barcelona. The victim said that she does not want the compensation guaranteed by Spanish law, but only the arrest of the aggressor – which disrupted the player’s defense.
Rape can, however, cause mental damage that is difficult to overcome. A British survey carried out with young people born between 2000 and 2002 showed that sexual violence is associated, in both genders, with medium and high psychological distress, risk of self-mutilation and suicide attempt.
Published in the international publication Lancet Psychiatry in 2022, the article “The impact of sexual violence in mid-adolescence on mental health”, showed that at age 17 there was already “a well-established and substantial gender gap in the prevalence of common mental illnesses”. A total of 5,119 girls and 4,852 boys who had suffered sexual violence in the year prior to the questionnaire were evaluated.
Girls in the group had higher rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm. The survey reinforces that adolescents aged between 14 and 18 “are five times more likely to suffer sexual assault than their male peers”.
The article recommends public policies and social changes to reduce sexual violence and “close the gender gap in the internalization of mental health problems.”
The work “Exploring the relationships between sexual violence, mental health and identity”, published in 2018 by Australian researchers at BMC Public Health, highlighted how the origin of the violator magnifies the mental damage.
336 women were heard through an anonymous questionnaire applied in doctors’ offices. In a country where one in five of them has suffered some form of sexual violence since the age of 15, the researchers evaluated the rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD in the participants.
“We found significant associations between rape/sexual assault and mental health problems,” the authors state.
Coercion and control cases generated the highest PTSD and anxiety scores compared to women without experiences of sexual violence.
Furthermore, when perpetrated by acquaintances, the acts led to higher rates of PTSD in victims. In the case of strangers, the highlight was the significant increase in depression scores.
“Health professionals should ask about the different types of sexual violence […] and on the identity of the perpetrator to inform the likelihood of ongoing symptoms,” the researchers recommend.
“Sexual assault and posttraumatic stress disorder: a review of the biological, psychological and sociological factors and treatments”, for your time, indicates that changing victim blaming attitudes and destigmatizing the subject are essential for better assistance in the recovery process.
Published by McGill Journal Medicine in 2006, the Canadian study reinforces that “recovery from rape trauma is a deeply personal and highly individualized journey.”
Thiago Dornela Apolinario, a psychiatrist trained at USP (University of São Paulo) and a specialist in human sexuality with a master’s degree in the area of sexual violence, worked for years with survivors at Seavidas, a service at the Hospital das Clínicas in Ribeirão Preto. According to him, many of the problems of sexual violence manifest themselves years later, especially if they occur with very young people.
When the person understands what they went through, the traumatic event can manifest itself as difficulties in building bonds and in sexuality itself, in the form of sexual dysfunctions, and in issues of self-image and self-esteem.
Even in adulthood, sexual violence can lead to bouts of anxiety, depression, insomnia, emotional anesthesia, eating disorders and alcohol and drug abuse, which add to the fear of unwanted pregnancies and contracting some disease.
“It is a very big suffering to have experienced such a trauma in your life, a situation that threatens integrity”, says the psychiatrist.
When the reaction is dissociative, that is, the person tries to “erase” certain aspects of the trauma from memory, Apolinario states that the trauma can reappear in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, or even distancing from reality.
“Many times, patients told us in the outpatient clinic: ‘I want to put a stone on top of this’, ‘I don’t want to talk about it’. They are even afraid to speak up and be judged, because victims are often blamed in our sexist and patriarchal society , but the consequences appear in the long term, both in mental health and in the sexual sphere”, he ponders.
The psychiatrist recommends that victims with painful and chronic mental health conditions due to sexual violence seek help from multidisciplinary health teams.
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