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The Connection Between Sexual Assault & Addiction

A sexual assault is a traumatic event that could last for just minutes but reverberate for years. Often, victims of sexual assault are left with traumatic, but invisible, scars. They may turn to substances for relief and develop an addiction.

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Many sexual assault statistics involve rape. It’s important to remember that sexual assault is a term that includes any kind of sexual contact or behavior given without the victim’s consent. People who endure these attacks can face the same problems, even if they’re not technically raped. 

Key Statistics About Sexual Assault & Addiction

Key Facts

Can Drug Abuse Facilitate Assault?

Sexual assault is conduct performed without the victim’s consent. People who abuse drugs and alcohol aren’t automatically consenting to any kind of sexual contact. But drugs or alcohol are often involved when an assault takes place. 

Victim Inebriation & Assault 

Intoxicating substances can make victims pliant, adaptable, or altogether unconscious. Some substances also block the brain’s ability to form new memories, making victims less likely to win court cases against their perpetrators. 

Alcohol is the most commonly used drug in sexual assaults, experts say. But other drugs used in assault include the following:

  • Rohypnol: This is a central nervous system depressant that can cause drowsiness and blackouts at high doses. 
  • GHB: Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (or GHB) is an illegal drug and central nervous system relaxant. At low doses, the drug can make people more responsive to sex. At high doses, it can cause unconsciousness. 
  • Ketamine: This prescription hallucinogenic drug can cause a sense of disassociation along with sedation. 

These are just some of the drugs used in sexual assault. Almost anything could be used to incapacitate victims and facilitate an attack. 

Perpetrator Inebriation & Assault 

Many abusive drugs, including alcohol and opioids, can lower inhibitions. Things people would never consider while sober might seem very reasonable while the person is intoxicated. 

It’s never legal or right to assault someone else. Intoxication is no excuse to attack anyone. But some drugs can make these sorts of attacks much more likely. 

Party Situations & Assault

Large gatherings of people can be a source of healing and entertainment, but some types of gatherings can make an assault much more likely.

Researchers say that large parties on college campuses, especially those associated with a sporting event, are closely associated with assault. In one study, rape reports rose 28 percent on days with a football game. Home games increased reported rapes by 41 percent. 

Parties often include intoxicating substances. Drugs and alcohol, combined with crowded rooms and loud music, can result in attacks.

Can Assault Facilitate Drug Use?

While many attacks occur due to the presence of drugs and alcohol, some people who endure sexual assault go on to develop substance abuse issues. Multiple factors are at play, but the following two are the most common: 

Drugs Ruin Relationships 

Life after a sexual assault can be very difficult, and some people struggle with everyday activities. Having support from family and friends is critical, and sometimes, those connections can help people to heal. 

But some people reach for drugs and alcohol in these moments. Outsiders aren’t always understanding. Ongoing drug use can have a negative effect on the person’s relationships, leaving them even more isolated and ready to use drugs and alcohol. 

Drugs Can Seem Helpful 

After sexual assault, some people struggle with flashbacks of the event. Their dreams are filled with detailed memories of the things they said, the way the room smelled, or how the room sounded. Any similar stimulus can make them jump and twitch. 

Drugs could be used to dampen memories, reduce flashbacks, and deaden dreams. Survivors may believe they’ve found a handy coping mechanism that makes their life easier. But over time, they may develop crippling addictions. Since they aren’t effectively addressing their trauma, they never give themselves the space to process what happened and heal. 

The Role of Co-Occurring Disorders 

Nearly 90 percent of women and men entering substance abuse treatment programs have experienced sexual assault. Their trauma is a pre-existing condition addiction treatment programs must consider. But often, survivors have even more issues to contend with. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition sparked by a traumatic event in which the person felt helpless. Many survivors develop PTSD in response to their assaults. 

About 5 percent of women who have never been victims of rape develop PTSD. Of women who have been raped, 31 percent develop PTSD.

Common signs of PTSD include the following:

  • Anger or frequent outbursts
  • Feelings of panic when reminded of the incident
  • Hypervigilance, or always feeling on alert
  • Insomnia or very vivid dreams
  • Distraction or the inability to concentrate

People often use the word triggered when discussing PTSD. People who have survived an assault may be always looking for the next dangerous attack to begin. And they may feel panicked when they encounter it. 

When people with PTSD are triggered, they will do anything to escape, even if it causes harm. For many people, the best way to escape involves using drugs or alcohol. 

Reacting to PTSD with intoxication can lead to more assaults, particularly if the person uses in unsafe spaces (such as at parties). In addition, self-medicating PTSD with drugs can lead to chronic symptoms, as people aren’t healing their trauma but trying to numb it. 

PTSD is the most common co-occurring disorder in sexual assault survivors, but it’s not the only one. About half of all survivors also struggle with symptoms of depression. Self-medicating depression with substances can often deepen feelings of sadness and loss. This furthers a cycle of substance abuse and worsening depression, eventually permeating virtually every area of a person’s life.

How Are Sexual Assault & Addiction Treated?

In a study of sexual assault survivors, receiving tangible support from others increased the odds of getting help. If a survivor talks about the attack, it’s critical to remain open, understanding, and supportive. Your conversation could encourage the person to enter an effective treatment program.

In programs designed for survivors, counselors use trauma-informed principles to assist their clients. The following core principles apply in these programs:

  • Empowerment: Survivors are encouraged to participate when their plans are developed. They have a say in their treatment plan.
  • Choice: Survivors are encouraged to learn about the approaches available, and they’re asked to identify which method seems right to them. Treatment plans are not forced on anyone.
  • Collaboration: Survivors, their families, and the staff work together in treatment planning and implementation. 
  • Safety: A survivor’s physical and emotional safety is paramount and always protected throughout treatment. 
  • Trust: Survivors understand what the treatments involve and who will provide them. 

A program like this is made to help survivors reconnect with their sense of agency, which is often difficult to find after an assault. The focus on safety helps them to feel secure in their surroundings. 

A trauma-informed treatment program for both addiction and sexual assault might include the following elements: 


Some addictive substances, including alcohol and opioids, can be addressed with FDA-approved medications. These therapies can amend chemical imbalances within the brain and help to lessen withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings. For some people, these therapies are critical. 

PTSD and depression can respond to medications, but some people find that their mental health symptoms ease or change once they’re not using drugs. Doctors can tailor a treatment program to determine whether medications are needed. In some cases, they may be needed in the early phase of treatment and weaned off later.


For many survivors, discussing the assault is almost impossible. Friends and family members may struggle with vivid descriptions of the attack, and worries about stigma can silence these important conversations. 

In one-on-one therapy sessions, a trusted counselor can help a survivor to process difficult feelings, including guilt, anger, and shame. Some people benefit from repeating the details of the attack until the memory fades, while others benefit from therapeutic approaches to help them process difficult memories without discussing them.

Group therapy sessions can also be helpful for people recovering from assault. Attacks can be deeply isolating, and it’s sometimes helpful to work with others who have endured similar circumstances. Group therapy is an important part of most substance abuse programs, allowing people to get support from their peers. 

Support Groups

Some people benefit from working in support groups for addiction. Meetings in the 12-step model (such as Alcoholics Anonymous) help people to understand how others cope with their urges to drink or use drugs. Since meetings are free and held almost everywhere, they can be a good source of ongoing support when treatment ends. 

Sexual Assault Can Be Survived

Every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Survivors aren’t alone, although they may feel like they are. 

While using substances may seem like an effective way to deal with the aftermath of an assault, other options exist. And they’re generally much more effective.

If you’ve recently been assaulted, talk to someone right now. Don’t turn to drugs or alcohol to help you cope. Talk with someone and get the counseling you need to move forward with your life.

If you’ve been assaulted and responded with substances, you can get better. Talk to your doctor or a trusted friend about what happened and explain that you’d like to enter a treatment program. With the right clinical support, you can heal from your trauma and live a better life. 

Reach out to us today to learn more.

Updated March 7, 2024
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