Researchers estimate that there are 60 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the United States. According to statistics from the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN), every 92 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Every 9 minutes, that victim is a child. Tragically, 68 percent of these attacks go unreported.
Sexual abuse is a serious problem, but too often, one that has been kept secret. Victims often feel ashamed and isolated., while suffering from fear, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
What Are Common Types of Sexual Abuse?
- Rape. The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines rape as “forced sexual intercourse, including both psychological coercion as well as physical force.” The definition includes attempted rapes, male and female victims, and both heterosexual and same-sex rape. Verbal threats of rape are considered attempted rape. The use of force implies that there was no consent and often includes the use or threat of physical violence to compel the victim’s compliance. Rape is a crime in every state, although some state laws use the term “first-degree sexual assault.”
- Sexual assault. The term sexual assault includes rape, as well as other types of sexual contact that the victim does not want. It does not necessarily involve penetration of the body. In Florida, penetration by another or a foreign object is sexual assault.
- Domestic violence. Laws vary from state to state, but Florida law defines domestic violence as any “assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another family or household member.” Perpetrators may be current or former spouses and people related by blood or marriage. It also includes those who currently or previously reside together as a family unit or parents who have a child together, whether or not they were married at any point in time.
- Child sexual abuse. In addition to acts of sexual violence, child sexual abuse includes such acts as exposing a child to pornography, forcing or permitting a child to watch adults engage in sexual acts, and forcing children into prostitution.
- Statutory rape. In Florida, the definition of statutory rape is “sexual penetration involving a youth.” Consent is immaterial. Ignorance or misrepresentation of the victim’s age is not a defense.
- Date rape. Date rape refers to rapes or other sexual assaults that occur in the context of a friendship or dating relationship. Sometimes it involves the use of date rape drugs like Rohypnol.
- Abuse, neglect, and exploitation of elderly persons and disabled adults. Some states impose more severe penalties when the victim of a sexual assault is a vulnerable adult or has reached a certain age (older than 60.)
- Sexual harassment in employment. Under Federal and state laws, employers may not sexually harass employees. Generally, sexual harassment involves threats of job loss, but it may also mean a hostile work environment due to a person’s gender.
- Sexual harassment in other contexts. The law in this area varies from state to state. However, sexual harassment may also arise in other circumstances, such as stalking. It may also be possible to pursue a civil remedy against someone who persistently threatens or harasses another because of the victim’s gender or sexual orientation.
Sexual Abuse in Florida
In one recent year, 8,105 rape offenses and 331 attempted rape offenses took place in Florida, with thousands more throughout the nation. Because so many incidents go unreported, the actual numbers are probably higher. Sexual abuse is a criminal offense, but victims may also file a lawsuit in civil court. Such lawsuits provide victims a way to hold the perpetrator accountable, and financial compensation may help them obtain the care and services they need.
Sexual assault means rape, attempted rape, molestation, harassment, sex trafficking, child sexual abuse, or other unwanted sexual behavior. These heinous acts often leave survivors and their families struggling with the physical and emotional trauma that may last all of their lives.
The terms sexual abuse and sexual assault have been frequently in the news. People often use the terms interchangeably, but the term sexual abuse mainly describes behavior toward children.
Childhood Sexual Abuse
The statistics regarding child sexual abuse are shocking. Children between the ages of seven and 13 are the most vulnerable. The average age for first abuse is 9.9 years for boys and 9.6 years for girls. One in 5 youth received a sexual approach or solicitation over the Internet in the past year. Children are often forced, threatened, or tricked into sexual activity that they do not fully comprehend. Also, they cannot give informed consent for such acts. Often, the victim knows the perpetrator, and the abuse may escalate over time, lasting an average of four years.
In Florida, every individual is considered a mandated reporter of child abuse. Yet less than 12 percent of child sexual abuse, according to estimates, is reported to the police.
The effects of child sexual abuse can be long-lasting and affect the victim’s mental health. They often feel ashamed, powerless, and isolated. Often, victims are about three times more likely to experience serious depression and four times more likely to develop symptoms of drug abuse or PTSD as adults. They are also at risk of re-victimization throughout their lives. For example, studies suggest that females exposed to child sexual abuse are 2-13 times more likely to experience sexual victimization in adulthood.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Sexual Abuse?
Sexual abuse can have physical, psychological, and emotional effects, but it does not affect everyone the same way. It often violates feelings of trust and safety. Many survivors avoid talking about the abuse because they are traumatized, shamed, or think that others will not believe them, so they resist seeking help.
Sexual abuse also affects significant others as well as friends and family. It may violate a person’s feelings of trust and safety. Sexual abuse can have psychological, emotional, and physical effects on a survivor. Many survivors do not talk about their experience because they are embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid that others will not believe them. Whether an assault happened recently or long ago, it may have a continuing impact on the survivor’s life.
Long term reactions may include:
- Mood swings
- Panic attacks
- Persistent anxiety and fear
- Withdrawal and isolation
- A sense of helplessness
- Disrupted sleeping habits
- Relationship difficulties
- Poor physical health
- Localized pain.
Sexual abuse can adversely affect the body’s stress response system. A recent study found that sexual assault may be related to subsequent health problems, including high blood pressure, sleep loss, and a 20 percent increase in the risk of heart disease.
Personal Injury Lawsuits Based on Sexual Abuse
The state may prosecute the perpetrator of sexual abuse for their crime. However, even if the criminal court acquits the perpetrator, the victim can still bring a lawsuit in civil court. A civil case will not result in a criminal conviction. Still, even if a judge or jury declares the perpetrator not guilty in a civil court, he or she can still be charged in criminal court.
In Florida, even if there has been no police report or criminal conviction, anyone who has been a victim of sexual violence or assault may file a civil claim for damages. A civil lawsuit based on sexual abuse is a type of personal injury case. If the perpetrator is found liable for injuries resulting from sexual abuse, the court may order them to pay compensation to the survivor.
This compensation helps the survivor deal with the personal and financial harm caused by sexual abuse. The survivor will file a lawsuit under one or more theories, including assault and battery, false imprisonment, or intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In addition to the perpetrator, others may be responsible for the harm. In some cases, the victim may file a civil suit against any organization, people, or institutions, such as schools or religious institutions, that may have enabled the abuse.
Proving Civil Lawsuits Resulting From Sexual Assault
A civil lawsuit based on sexual assault involves many issues. Consent is usually an important issue in this type of lawsuit. Physical evidence of the abuse, resistance, and witness testimony are all key evidence when proving the severity of the abuse and establishing damages.
The burden of proof is lower in a civil case than in a criminal one. Criminal cases use the standard of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The burden of proof in civil suits is the “preponderance of the evidence,” which is less stringent. It requires the plaintiff to prove that there is a greater than 50 percent chance that the claim is true.
Compensation for Survivors of Sexual Abuse
There are two types of damages awarded in a sexual abuse lawsuit: economic or non-economic. Economic damages, such as lost wages or medical bills, are fairly easy to assess. Non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and reduced quality of life, are less easy to calculate. The survivor may need long-term care for problems such as depression, addiction, and suicide.
The survivor may also seek injunctive relief to help prevent future abuse.
What Is the Statute of Limitations?
Especially if the sexual abuse happened many years ago, you might think it is too late to take legal action. However, in some circumstances, a survivor may still file a case. The statute of limitations varies from state to state.
In Florida, a survivor must file a sexual abuse lawsuit within the following time limits:
- Seven years after the victim reaches the age of majority, which is 18 years old in the state of Florida;
- Four years after the victim leaves the dependency of the abuser or four years from the time of the discovery of both the injury and the relationship between the injury and the abuse (whichever is later); and
- With sexual battery involving a minor under 16 years old, there is no statute of limitations.
You should consult an experienced sexual abuse attorney near you as soon as possible regarding the applicable statute of limitations for your case.
What Should You Do After a Sexual Assault?
It’s difficult to know what to do, how to feel, or what your options are after a sexual assault. Your safety is always the priority.
Many survivors are reluctant to seek medical attention immediately after a sexual assault. However, a health care provider can treat any physical injuries. They can also provide you with a rape kit. Reporting the assault right away allows the police to gather evidence. However, if you choose not to report the assault immediately, some centers can freeze the evidence and store it for later access.
Reporting a sexual assault right away allows law enforcement officers to collect crucial evidence, increase the chances of bringing the offender to justice, and reduce the chances of the offender victimizing others.
If you have suffered sexual abuse, you may need to seek help, especially if:
- You never revealed or discussed the abuse with anyone.
- You struggle with your work, family, and other relationships.
- You have strong feelings of anger, shame, self-hate, depression, or anxiety.
Therapy may help you understand and manage your anger and fear. It may also help you manage your stress and learn to take care of yourself.
Survivors often seek individual or group therapy, such as:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a way to help you identify and change the views you have of yourself, the world, and the future. CBT can make you aware of unhealthy ways of thinking. It can also help you learn new ways to think and act.
- Group therapy can help you deal with work and relationships. It takes place in a group of 6 to 10 people, under the guidance of a therapist.
- Support groups can help you understand that you are not alone. Groups also provide a safe place to share feelings.
Your healthcare provider may also prescribe medication to help you deal with anxiety, depression, and similar issues. Always seek medical attention if you or a loved one has serious thoughts of suicide or self-harm. When you are ready, consider contacting a compassionate sexual abuse attorney; a sexual abuse attorney can help you identify resources for survivors, protect your safety and privacy, and when you are ready, discuss how to hold an abuser accountable for their crimes.
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