Psychology of Criminal Behavior: Sexual Assault

Sexual Assault

Tre’shaun Hambrick

CRJ308: Psychology of Criminal Behavior

Instructor Tracey Mallett

October 6, 2012

Sexual Assault

Whenever the term ‘sexual assault’ is mentioned, most people think about rape. While rape is falling within its context, sexual assault incorporates a plethora of unwanted sexual advances that include, rape, voyeurism, incest, exhibitionism, sexual harassment, child sexual abuse and any other nonconsensual sexual contact (Bartol & Bartol., 2004). Due to wider scope and socio-cultural backgrounds of individuals, people may sexually assault another person without their knowledge.

This could also be the reason why estimating its prevalence is near to impossible. This is because most people do not realize that they have been assaulted and they fail to report the sexual assault incidences. The fact that most of these assaults are normally committed by close relatives or friends could also be the reason why most cases go unreported (Clements et al., 2004). Either way, sexual assault causes serious physical, social, emotional and psychological damages to the victim.

It is the objective of this essay to explore three of the psychological effects of sexual assault on the victims.

It is important to note that sexual assault can cause harmful psychological effects that can become hard to correct or treat. Victims of sexual assault commonly experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is a psychological disorder characterized by severe feelings of anxiety, fear, and stress long after the ordeal. Female rape victims are especially vulnerable to this condition. A person is said to have acute PTSD when he or she manifests the symptoms for less than three months.

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The condition becomes chronic when the victim exhibits the symptoms for more than three months. A person develops PTSD symptoms immediately following the attack. About 94% of rape victims develop PTSD symptoms immediately following the rape ordeal. Although this percentage decreases over time, some victims are not able to overcome it, and their symptoms continue for many years after the traumatic event (Bartol & Bartol, 2004).

Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks of experience in the mind of the victim, repeated dreams or memories of the events, hyper-arousal, and frightening thoughts. Many victims do whatever they can to avoid anything or anyone that might remind them of the traumatic event. This leads to the victim experiencing feelings of isolation from friends. The person feels detached, and he or she might lose interest in things that he or she used to enjoy. Some victims change their routine to avoid a reoccurrence of the incident. Many victims also feel helpless, and they experience feelings of horror.

In children, it can manifest through bedwetting, acting out during playtime or tendency to cling to their parents or other adults who, they trust. Another symptom of PTSD is anxiety, which in turn leads to other problems. Anxiety leads to difficulties in sleeping and concentration. Sexual assault victims with PTSD have negative thoughts. Some victims experience mental defeat. Their negative thoughts lead them to imagine negative response from others. Many of the victims tend to blame themselves, and even those who are around them for what they experienced. Victims with PTSD who receive little support tend to exhibit more symptoms, compared to the victims who receive support from their loved ones and others around them.

Symptoms are usually strongest immediately following the traumatic event, but they diminish after a while. The severity and length of the symptoms also depends on the victim’s perception of the event. The victim’s symptoms will be more severe and will last longer, if he or she thinks that the trauma was intentional rather than accidental. Rape victims and other victims of sexual assault will have more severe symptoms of PTSD. Some people develop lifetime prevalence of the condition. Lifetime prevalence rates are higher among women. This is significant considering most sexual assault victims are female. If not treated early, the condition can become persistent (Bartol & Bartol, 2004).

People’s thoughts are important determinants of behavior. Sexual assault victims with PTSD have many negative thoughts, and this not only affects their perception of people, but it also determines their behavior. PTSD treatment includes cognitive behavioral therapy, which encourages the victims to talk more about themselves and other people. This form of therapy enables the victim to deal with his or her emotions and thoughts. The therapist exposes the victims to the feelings that he or she associates with the trauma. By re-exposing these feelings, the therapist is able to re-adjust the behavioral response of the victim. The victims are able to examine the consequences of their actions on their thoughts and feelings. It is important for the victims to feel that they have the support of those who are around them. Cognitive behavioral therapy enables the victim to relearn social skills. Treatment of PTSD also includes using medication. The medication helps in reducing the anxiety and stress that the victim experiences. In treating PTSD victims therapists concentrate on the present situation. They do not focus on what the victim should have done to avoid the situation. Doing so will only enhance the negative emotions that the person feels, and this will lead to the victims blaming themselves.

Second, sexual assault is also known to cause depression. Depression involves more than feelings of sadness, as it can cause a person to experience physical pain and it interferes with the victim’s daily life. Some victims do not realize that they are suffering from depression because of ambiguity of their symptoms. Some of the symptoms of depression are common occurrences to some individuals. Other symptoms are a reflection of another condition. This is a condition characterized by prolonged sadness, indecisiveness, loss of appetite, feelings of hopelessness and low self-esteem, prolonged headaches, lack of coordination, fear, anxiety and extreme worry. These symptoms affect a person’s daily life. Depression is a serious psychological condition since it lowers the body’s immunity, and can lead to suicidal thoughts and even death. It can affect any sexual assault victim regardless of their age, gender or religion (Clements et al., 2004).

Victims lose interest in things that they used to enjoy, and they often feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Lack of interest, coupled with low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness contribute to the individual withdrawing socially. Some victims experience frequent crying spells, and others have suicidal thoughts. Victims become agitated, ad they experience extreme irritability. People with depression experience unexplained headaches and stomachaches. People who experience these symptoms for more than two weeks are said to be suffering from depression. Depression among women tends to be more common, and they experience depression symptoms in different severity from men (Lewis-Hall, 2002). Women are more likely to have appetite problems and frequent headaches compared to men. They are also more likely to feel exhausted and suffer anxiety than the men are. People having depression are frustrated because they feel that they are not performing to their capacity.

Many people downplay the importance of seeking treatment when they are suffering from depression. This is because some people consider depression a sign of weakness, and others think that they will overcome it on their own. Leaving depression untreated can worsen and prolong it, and it can worsen other illnesses and conditions that the person might be having. Women respond differently to treatment differently, in that they take longer to recover than the men do (Lewis-Hall, 2002). It is possible to treat depression, and physicians and therapists use a variety of methods when treating depressed patients. They can use medication such as antidepressants, most of which are effective. However, many therapists do not recommend the use of antidepressants in children because of associated side effects. Although antidepressants benefit many people suffering from depression, many people who suffer from depression because of sexual assault find it more beneficial to go through therapy sessions.

Therapists can use interpersonal therapy, which helps the victims improve their relationship with other people. The therapists focus on communication skills, and the victim’s relationships to other people. Through analysis, the therapist is able to determine the cause of a person’s sadness and loneliness, and she focuses on solving this problem. Therapists can also use psychodynamic therapy, which involves understanding the effects of the victims’ emotions on their behavior. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also important in enabling the victim to refocus his or her thoughts. Finding the right treatment for depression is important in reducing chances of reoccurrence. Some people respond better when they talk about their experiences to people who have shared similar experiences. They feel that they can relate better because other victims know and understand what they are going through. Support groups enable people to cope with depression. The victims learn that they are not weak because they are suffering from depression. They get to hear the experiences of other individuals who have gone through similar or worse situations.

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), also referred to as Multiple Personality Disorder, is another psychological effect associated with sexual assault. It is a condition where an individual’s thoughts and feelings become detached from their immediate reality. Individuals with DID manifest different personalities, each with a different perception of self and environment. As such, a sexual assault victim suffering from this condition may in one occasion regard herself with high esteem but latter regard herself as worthless. Most cases of DID are reported in cases where the sexual assault experience occurred in their childhood. DID is a dangerous condition and it can persist for a long time (Petrack & Hedge, 2003).

Dissociation refers to a situation where a person’s thoughts, actions, memories, and feelings are different from his or her immediate reality. When children experience sexual abuse, they tend to go into dissociative states, which they create as an escape away from the current abuse that is their reality. They do this if they do not see any way of escaping their situation. The more the abuse continues, the more the children continue forming different realities. There are different forms of dissociation .depersonalization occurs because of fatigue, different psychiatric disorders, anxiety or stress. It happens when one changes perception of self and the person feels detached from his or her body. Derealization refers to a person’s perception of change in the environment. The person feels that the things surrounding him or her are not real. dissociative amnesia is temporal memory loss, which seems to occur naturally, and it is not triggered by factors such as intoxication or injury. Other forms include dissociative fugue and alteration of identity (Chu, 2011)

Although DID cases exist in both sexes, they are more common among women. Common symptoms of this disorder include mood swings, depression, panic attacks, phobias, sleep disorders such as night terrors and insomnia, PSTD symptoms such as flashbacks, and eating disorders. The victims may experience severe headaches and other aches in different parts of the body. Some of the victims develop self-harming behavior and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. The victims have difficulty remembering parts of their past. These symptoms are similar to symptoms of other psychiatric disorders. This makes it more difficult to determine the right diagnosis.

Victims of DID should ensure that they get immediate help to maximize their chances of recovery. The most effective treatment in this case is psychotherapy. The treatment can be lengthy and painful for adults because it involves recalling past painful events. The therapists have to structure and pace the therapy in such a way that it will not overwhelm the victim. The therapist helps the patient come to terms with the feelings that they associate with the events. Some therapists use hypnosis to help the victims remember their childhood experiences. Although some therapists use medication to manage some of the symptoms, most of the therapists are careful about using medication because of the negative effects they have on the victims.

In summary, it is apparent that the psychological effects of sexual assault are far reaching and can affect the victim’s social and physical life. While some of the conditions can be treated through therapies, others like DID, if not identified at an early stage, can lead to permanent damage of the victim’s identity and personality. It is also worth noting that the effects are not only limited to the victim but also affect to primary care givers. It also affects family members thus expanding the scope of their danger.


Bartol, C. R.,& Bartol A. M. (2004). Introduction to Forensic Psychology: Research and Application. U.S.A: Sage

Chu, A. J. (2011). Rebuilding shattered lives: Treating complex PTSD and dissociative disorders. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

Clements P. T., Speck P. M., Crane P. A. & Faulkner M. J. (2004). Issues and Dynamics of Sexually Assaulted Adolescents and their Families. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 13(4) 138-274

Lewis-Hall, F. (2002). Psychiatric illness in women: Emerging treatments and research. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Pub

Petrak J. & Hedge B. (2003). The Trauma of Sexual Assault: treatment, Prevention and Practice. United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons

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Psychology of Criminal Behavior: Sexual Assault. (2019, Jan 29). Retrieved from

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