The Connection Between Sexual Assault and Substance Abuse

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Many factors play a role in an individual’s development of substance abuse. Childhood trauma, especially sexual abuse, is one of the leading factors in the development of substance abuse later on in life. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, women who have suffered some sort of sexual abuse or assault are three times more likely to develop a substance use disorder (SUD).

Even further, substance use disorder was found to be more closely related to sexual assault than any mental health condition. As a result, it is important to recognize the signs of sexual assault, and substance abuse to prevent any further harm from occurring.

What is Sexual Assault?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), sexual abuse is defined as, “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.” Sexual assault may occur in a variety of ways and differing forms. Unfortunately, many survivors of sexual abuse previously knew their attacker.

Common forms of sexual assault include, but are not limited to:

  • An incident in which the perpetrator asks the victim to do something sexual
  • The perpetrator kisses/hugs the victim in a sexual way without consent
  • The perpetrator exposes his or her genitals to the victim without consent
  • The victim is sexually fondled without consent
  • The victim is forced to touch the perpetrator in a sexual way against their will
  • (Attempted) intercourse without consent

Victims of sexual assault may respond in fear or shock. On the other hand, the victim may go into a state of denial, meaning they are unable to believe something happened to them. Also, sexual abuse can cause victims to become shy, withdrawn, or to develop any number of mental disorders – including substance use disorder. Survivors of sexual assault can avoid developing substance abuse issues by receiving effective treatment, involving several therapies, including group therapy and writing as therapy.

What is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse (otherwise referred to as addiction) is a complex disease that may wreak havoc among every facet of an individual’s life. Addiction is characterized by a pattern of compulsive drug or alcohol abuse, regardless of facing negative consequences as a direct result of said substance abuse. Unfortunately, substance abuse often leads to health problems, severe bouts of withdrawal, and other issues with life, such as troubles at work, school, or with family.

This mental health disorder is caused by a variety of risk factors, including one’s environment, genetics, behavior, and life experiences.

Common risk factors of the development of substance use disorder include:

  • Having a relative who suffers from an addiction to substances
  • Physical or emotional abuse
  • Sexual assault or abuse
  • Psychological trauma
  • Pre-existing mental health conditions
  • Compulsive/thrill-seeking behavior
  • Experimenting with substances at a young age

How Does Sexual Assault Contribute to Substance Abuse?

The relationship between sexual assault and substance abuse is very complex and intertwined. Both sexual assault and substance abuse contribute to one another. For example, experiencing trauma such as sexual abuse may lead to the development of a substance use disorder. Individuals who begin abusing substances as a result of surviving sexual assault are usually attempting to numb their feelings concerning the trauma. Additionally, the symptoms of untreated trauma make it more difficult for individuals to stop abusing drugs or alcohol.

On the other hand, abusing drugs and alcohol may cause an individual to become more vulnerable to traumatic experiences such as sexual assault. This is partially due to the effects of certain substances, such as thrill-seeking, impaired judgment, and risky behavior. Additionally, abusing substances often leads individuals to obtain new “friends”, who may not be so innocent. In other words, the environment associated with drug and alcohol abuse is a breeding ground for experiencing trauma such as sexual assault.

Unfortunately, experiencing trauma and abusing substances may become a vicious cycle. When left untreated, both sexual assault and substance abuse could lead to a variety of negative side-effects. On one hand, sexual assault often leads to mental health complications as well as emotional and behavioral trauma. On the other hand, substance abuse often impacts an individual’s life by leading to mental, physical, and emotional issues, as well as withdrawal, overdose, and possibly death. However, individuals who attend treatment for both their sexual trauma and substance use disorder are typically able to create a strong foundation of recovery.

Treating Sexual Assault and Substance Abuse

Co-occurring disorders are defined as two disorders that occur at the same time. Individuals who meet the criteria for co-occurring disorders require a treatment plan that addresses the symptoms of both disorders simultaneously. For sexual assault survivors, treatment often includes different types of therapies, such as individual or group, and might include medications, such as antidepressants.

To effectively treat substance use disorder, individuals must receive a combination of methods as well, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, group therapy, and individual counseling, as well as medication. Many individuals choose to recover in an inpatient addiction treatment facility, where they are monitored and kept safe, comfortable, and supported throughout their treatment process.

If you or a loved one have dealt with sexual assault and substance abuse, help is available. At New Jersey Interventions, we can help you or your loved one find a treatment program tailored to your every need. Contact us today for more information on sexual assault and substance abuse treatment.

Medically Reviewed: October 9, 2020

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

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