Covert sexual trauma is an insidious experience, and not one of the types of abuse often discussed. There are various ways an individual can experience sexual trauma. Some of the most common ways are through experiencing unwanted sexual touching, groping, and penetration. Sexual abuse and assault can happen to individuals of all ages, races, genders, sexualities, backgrounds, and family dynamics. Unsolicited sexual acts and violence can have psychological, emotional, and physical effects on a survivor and can result in symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (RAINN). There is a plethora of literature on the effects and implications sexual violence has on individuals and society as a hole, but what are the effects when the sexually abusive behavior is more covert, non-contact and insidious? This is the definition of covert sexual trauma.
What is Covert Sexual Trauma?
Covert Sexual Trauma is a trauma experienced from surreptitious methods of assault and harassment as opposed to outright sexual violence. Overt sexual trauma can include rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, incest, and more, whereas covert sexual trauma is more clandestine. While these traumas are not as known as the more covert methods, they are still valid, traumatizing, and debilitating. Some examples of covert sexual trauma can include body shaming, slut shaming, early exposure to pornography or other forms of sexually explicit content, unsolicited nude imagery, and verbal sexual harassment.
An example of how one can experience traumatic symptoms of covert sexual trauma can be found when looking at emotional incest, also known as covert incest. Covert incest takes place in a family dynamic when one or both parents rely on their child, or children, for emotional support. It can also look like placing a child in the role of a surrogate spouse. A father may idolize his daughter’s beauty and comment on how men will be all over her when she is older. A mother may crawl into bed with her son and cry to him about how lonely she feels in her marriage and tell him she wishes her spouse was more like him, the son. Children who grow up with these enmeshed relationships between a parent and child, may feel special at the time. These family dynamics, while not overtly sexually incestuous, can be examples of emotional incest. The child may not feel overtly victimized. In fact, they may feel privileged, and special. As these dynamics continue through their childhood, it may show up as various traumatic responses as adults. The traumatic symptoms can include mood swings, chronic low self-esteem and self-worth, anger and resentment, as well as feelings of emptiness.
Similar traumatic responses can show up through covert sexual trauma in the form of sexual objectification. The psychological concept of Objection Theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997), theorizes that sexual objectification disproportionately affects women, and that the women who do experience sexual objectification are more likely to experience various mental health problems, as well as internalizing their own objectification. Women who internalize their own objectification and eventually objectify themselves tend to struggle with feelings of physical and sexual safety, which can be a symptom of overt sexual trauma. Additional trauma symptoms as a result of sexual objectification can also include an emotional detachment from one’s body, decrease in libido or development of sexual dysfunctions, shame, increased anxiety, disordered eating, and depression (Szymanski, 2011). It’s important to note that just because women are more statistically likely to be subjected to sexual objectification, it can be experienced a person of any sex.
Why Is It So Complicated?
Much like trauma symptoms from overt sexual abuse, those who have experienced covert sexual abuse may recognize similarities. However, survivors may feel conflicted. They may experience confusion or feel compelled to devalue their reality as their experience with sexual trauma is more insidious and even socially accepted, compared to overt sexual violence. For example, many individuals experience street harassment in the form of cat calling, whistling, following, verbal sexual insults. These actions are often ignored as the perpetrator often exerts them in passing. Another example of socially accepted systems of covert sexual trauma is someone who has experienced body and slut shaming. For example, a woman with large breasts may experience objectification by her peers and/or romantic partners. A young girl who wears a revealing outfit may be called a “slut” by her classmates at school, by her parents or guardian, a teacher, or other adult or authority figure.
There is an implication that the individual on the receiving end of the insults is at fault for the harassment. They may feel as if, or be told, they are “asking for” unsolicited feedback on their body and/or sexuality. The individual may then internalize these messages and struggle with self-esteem and self-worth. They may struggle with feeling as if they are able to speak up regarding the harassment. It can be even more complicated when insults and harassment are coming from the individuals support system (i.e. friends, family members, romantic partners, religious leaders, etc.) They may not see the harassment as a violation of their bodily and sexual safety. They will likely feel the effects of the trauma but be unaware that what they experienced was traumatic to them. It’s important to remember that sexual violence is an umbrella term for any sexual act in which someone is forced, manipulated, or coerced into exposure to sexual activity without one’s consent (National Sexual Violence Resource Center).
What Are the Impacts of Covert Sexual Trauma?
Survivors of covert sexual trauma can experience a myriad of impacts emotionally, physically, and cognitively. Emotionally, a survivor of covert sexual abuse can feel immense shame, guilt, embarrassment, and overall as if they are somehow at fault for their victimization. The survivor may also feel dissociated, or a disconnection or detachment from their body. The survivor may struggle with sleep, either sleeping too much, trouble staying asleep, or not sleeping at all. In addition to sleep issues, the survivor may experience disturbing nightmares around the trauma they’ve experienced. Flashbacks are common, as well as obsessive, seemingly uncontrollable thoughts about the trauma. In extreme cases, survivors can even experience thoughts of suicide and/or self-harm.
One of the most impactful aspects of covert sexual trauma is possibly the sole fact that the survivor may go through life feeling victimized, however, they may not understand why they feel that way. They may recognize their symptoms or have them acknowledged by a mental health professional, but still may not understand where the trauma has originated from. This can especially be the case for those who haven’t experienced an overt sexually violent incident. It can be beneficial for individuals who have experienced any type of trauma, emotional disturbance, or mental health issues or illness to learn how to validate themselves (Linehan, 1997). Validating one’s experience can be crucial for a survivor of covert sexual trauma to heal their emotional wounds. Additionally, striving to minimize shame, guilt, and self-blame can be crucial to validating their experience. Much like survivors of overt sexual trauma, survivors of covert sexual trauma are not to blame or at fault for what they have experienced.