By Faye Davis, Executive Director & Morgan Price, Education & Outreach Coordinator
The most common question we get asked these days is, “What impact is Covid-19 having on survivors of sexualized violence?”
This is a tough question to answer, as the impacts will continue to affect survivors long after the pandemic is over. While each survivor’s experience is unique, survivors of sexualized violence are more at risk to experience the following impacts:
Increased Stress Responses
Sexualized violence survivors are trauma survivors, and it is common for trauma survivors to experience increased levels of anxiety and stress as a direct result of experiencing sexualized violence. With the added stress of the pandemic, the stress responses in their bodies may rise to levels that survivors have difficulty coping with. One of the impacts of trauma is difficulty regulating the nervous systems when experiencing stress. In addition, access to their counsellor, doctors, mental health workers, and other supports may have been temporarily halted or delivered through alternative methods during the initial phases of the pandemic.
Retraumatization and Triggers
Survivors have noted similarities between the circumstances of the pandemic and their experiences of sexualized violence. Isolation, helplessness, fear, feeling trapped, and a lack of control and choice are common experiences of many people living through Covid-19. This can remind survivors of those same experiences connected to their sexual trauma, and creates opportunities for the pandemic to trigger old memories, emotions, impacts, and ways of coping.
Reversion to Old Coping Techniques
Survivors, especially those who were abused as children, have often developed and used many coping mechanisms to manage the impacts of their trauma over their lifetimes. They may have filled their lives with work to feel in control, expanded their social networks to stay connected, or joined a yoga community to stay grounded. When these outlets weren’t available during the initial shutdown, the feelings they were coping with by using these outlets may have risen to the surface. Other coping mechanisms, like using food, alcohol, online gambling, substance use, or self harm had the opportunity to thrive during quarantine. Mixed with societal acceptance of coping however possible during the pandemic, these coping mechanisms could have been very tempting during this time of heightened stress.
Isolation of Children
Unfortunately, the majority of child sexual abuse happens by someone who has consistent access to that child, not by random strangers. So although we would think that children would be safer during lockdown, this isn’t true for children being sexually victimized by someone in the home. These children will often only report the abuse to a trusted adult outside of the household, like teachers, daycare providers, or extended family members. In addition, these trusted adults who see the child frequently may be able to observe behavior that lead them to suspect a child may be a victim of sexual abuse. Without the ability to be around each other during the height of the pandemic, vulnerable children did not have this safety network available to them, and were therefore at a greater risk of sexual abuse.
In addition to the ways survivors were directly impacted, perpetrators of sexualized violence were able to use the pandemic to their advantage in several ways, which had the potential to further harm vulnerable folks.
Sexual assault is not motivated by a desire for sex, but by a desire to control and dominate others through violence. As pandemic stressors may create greater feelings of powerlessness and lack of control, perpetrators may increase attempts to control others through sexualized violence.
Individuals who are being sexually abused by their intimate partners are at increased risk. Many were forced to quarantine with their abusive partners, who may be no longer working, working from home, or angry about the pandemic in general. This isolation increases the abusive partner’s desire to control and makes it more difficult for the survivor to access help.
Survivors who are experiencing poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, or addictions are also at a greater risk for revictimization; perpetrators may use coerced sex as an “exchange” for food, drugs, alcohol, a place to stay, or other resources.
Perpetrators who groom and sexually exploit children and other vulnerable folks online have increased opportunities, as more individuals are online during the pandemic for school, work, and socialization.
Vulnerable individuals who live in care facilities due to diverse cognitive, mental, or physical abilities are at increased risk of becoming victims of sexualized violence. In facilities where visiting has been restricted, perpetrators are less likely to be observed and the victim has less opportunity to report to busy staff and unavailable loved ones.
The good news is…
Perpetrators of sexualized violence are likely to find their victims in places where they are trusted or have authority over others, which makes their victims vulnerable. They hunt in workplaces, sports clubs, churches, schools, and any other public gathering space. With the initial Covid-19 closures, these hunting grounds were unavailable to perpetrators. As most people have limited their social circles to a small group of people and more interaction is taking place virtually, perpetrators continue to have decreased access to non-family members and close friend groups.
SSAIC Covid-19 Service Restrictions
While SSAIC has changed the way we deliver services, we are still available and working to support survivors. Our office intake line (306-244-2294) is available from 9am-noon and 1pm-5pm, Monday to Friday with counsellors available to take calls from survivors or anyone seeking information. Our 24-hour crisis line (306-244-2224) is always available 365 days a year. We are offering face-to-face counselling on a limited basis; all previous clients have the option of selecting face-to-face or telephone counselling. Our counsellors are continuing to offer telephone counselling, information, and support.
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