HealthHow the 2016 Presidential Campaign affecting Survivors of Sexual Assault

How the 2016 Presidential Campaign affecting Survivors of Sexual Assault

  • Survivors of sexual assault, especially women, are at higher risk of developing PTSD.
  • Triggers and reminders can cause survivors to relive the trauma and worsen their symptoms.
  • The presidential campaign has inadvertently re-traumatised sexual assault survivors, leading to feelings of victimisation and raising questions about societal acceptance of sexual assault.
  • Tips on coping with sexual assault for survivors and their friends and family.

The American Psychological Association (APA) recently conducted a study that found that approximately half of American adults, regardless of gender or political affiliation, experienced significant distress during the 2016 election. We have seen this increased distress first-hand in our clinical practice, where we focus on treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and various anxiety disorders.

Throughout the presidential campaign, a number of our patients have expressed heightened levels of stress and anxiety due to the overall tone and rhetoric, particularly around sexual assault. As April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and many of our patients have either experienced sexual assault or know someone who has, we wanted to explore the intersection between the current political climate and the psychological and emotional impact of sexual trauma.

In addition, we aim to provide survivors of sexual assault with guidance on how to navigate the current political climate and friends and family members with suggestions on how to offer support.

Sexual assault in the United States

The Department of Justice (DOJ) provides a broad definition of sexual assault, encompassing various non-consensual acts and behaviours such as forced sexual intercourse, child molestation and attempted rape. Unfortunately, sexual assault remains alarmingly prevalent in the United States.

The Department of Justice estimates that approximately 320,000 sexual assaults occur each year against Americans over the age of 12, with an additional 60,000 cases involving children. This staggering figure equates to more than 30,000 sexual assaults every month, or one every 98 seconds. To put this into perspective, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported approximately 16,000 murders in 2015, and the United States experienced an average of 14 terrorist attacks per year between 2010 and 2015.

It is important to note that approximately 63% of sexual assaults go unreported, underscoring the scope of this pervasive problem. While sexual assault affects both men and women, it disproportionately affects women, with 90% of victims being female. Alarmingly, studies suggest that approximately 9.2% of all women will be raped in their lifetime, while 12.2% will experience sexual harassment. In other words, an estimated 20 million women will be raped or sexually harassed at some point in their lives.

Sexual assault and its impact on post-traumatic stress disorder

The long-term psychological effects of sexual assault can last for years, even decades, if left untreated. Shockingly, almost half of women who have been raped and a quarter of women who have been molested are at high risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).5 PTSD is a psychological condition characterised by symptoms that arise in response to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation.

PTSD can manifest itself immediately after the trauma or have a delayed onset, occurring more than six months later, and often follows a chronic course. Unfortunately, people with PTSD often develop co-occurring psychiatric conditions such as major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders. Given the potential for chronicity and the added burden of co-occurring psychiatric disorders, it is critical that people experiencing PTSD symptoms seek help promptly.

Given the constant exposure, how does the intersection of social media, news coverage and the behaviour of politicians discussing and sometimes glorifying sexual assault uniquely affect survivors?

Let’s start by looking at what we know about sexual assault and PTSD. When people talk about PTSD, they often think of the psychological wounds that veterans suffer after experiencing combat. While the traumatic events themselves are very different, the psychological consequences of both types of trauma are often strikingly similar.

However, for both men and women, rape has been shown to be the most likely to result in a PTSD diagnosis, followed by combat and childhood abuse5. This suggests that the psychological damage caused by sexual assault has a profound and distinctive impact on the emotional well-being of survivors. While the emotional shock may be similar to that experienced by soldiers in combat, sexual assault has a uniquely disturbing quality.

Surprisingly, almost half of women diagnosed with PTSD have experienced sexual assault and/or child abuse at some point in their lives5. Given this alarming link between sexual assault and PTSD, it is not surprising that being reminded of such horrific events can be equally distressing.

For people with PTSD, the environment can present an endless array of trauma reminders. Any smell, sound or image that triggers memories of the trauma can quickly trigger a surge of emotions (e.g. fear, shame, guilt) and physiological sensations (e.g. increased heart rate, upset stomach, shaking, sweating), leaving sexual assault survivors feeling as if they are reliving the trauma. Over time, these memories can expand to include more and more environmental cues, leading survivors to perceive danger and threat in many situations.

To illustrate this further, consider a scenario in which you are involved in a serious car accident while driving at night and listening to your favourite song. Every piece of information present before, during and after the accident is imprinted in the traumatic memory.

As described earlier, anything seen, heard, felt physically or emotionally, smelled, or even the thoughts that occurred, are all associated with the memory. Consequently, being in or near a car reflexively triggers anxiety. You may also experience anxiety when you smell petrol, hear your favourite song or walk around your neighbourhood at night.

Watching TV shows with fast-moving cars, news reports of car accidents, or hearing car noises outside your house can cause a spike in anxiety that is reminiscent of the original accident. This pattern also applies to survivors of sexual assault. It is not uncommon for them to feel intense anxiety when they hear news stories about sexual assault, encounter people who resemble their perpetrator, or are in crowded environments where they cannot keep track of those around them. These factors should be considered when examining the specific impact that the recent presidential campaign may have had on individuals who have experienced sexual assault.

During the 2016 election cycle, the media provided round-the-clock coverage of every story related to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Political campaigns often involve heated debates between opponents. However, this particular presidential election stood out for its recurring incidents of sexual assault. In addition, cable news programmes attracted large audiences and often featured graphic details of these stories with sexual assault at the centre. While many found these events and coverage distasteful, survivors of sexual assault experienced them as painful reminders of their own traumatic memories.

Examples from the recent Trump campaign cycle

A notable incident during the recent Trump campaign cycle occurred on 7 October 2016, when a widely-publicised audio recording of Donald Trump and Billy Bush engaging in a lewd conversation about women surfaced. The conversation revealed a disturbing and offensive exchange in which Trump unabashedly discussed the objectification of women and expressed a desire for non-consensual sexual acts. While this conversation sparked disgust and outrage among many people for the casual way in which Trump described and justified his sexually abusive ideas, it had an even deeper impact on survivors of sexual assault.

For some, listening to this conversation triggered painful memories and a sense of reliving their own traumatic experiences. In addition, sexual assault survivors described the conversation as confirming the perspective of how sexual predators view women. Trump’s subsequent attempt to dismiss it as ‘locker room talk’ only served to minimise and normalise his repugnant language and sexual assault, further invalidating the experiences of sexual assault survivors. The media’s repeated playing of the audio clip perpetuated the re-exposure and widespread dissemination of this defamatory conversation.

Another example of how political events can affect survivors of sexual assault was Trump’s response to multiple allegations of sexual assault against him. Instead of addressing the allegations, Trump chose to deny them and instead blamed the accusers, accusing them of seeking fame and attention. This act of victim-blaming resonated with many survivors of sexual assault who have faced similar accusations and blame.

Women who have been sexually assaulted often find themselves directly blamed or accused of lying, a unique experience not commonly experienced by other victims of crime or trauma. For many survivors, Trump’s response created a sense that he was becoming a visual representation of their past perpetrators. As a result, his deflection of responsibility reinforced the pattern of victim blaming.

The election itself invalidated the experiences of many survivors of sexual assault. The fact that a significant number of people were willing to vote for a candidate despite concrete evidence of inappropriate and sexually aggressive language and behaviour suggested to survivors that their culture considered sexual assault acceptable. For some survivors, the tolerance shown for Trump’s sexual behaviour seemed to convey that sexual assault was not a valid concern in their society.

They witnessed a man who had multiple incidents of what many would consider sexually assaultive behaviour getting a free pass. Moreover, the cultural significance of a symbol of sexual assault reaching the most powerful position in the country created a constant reminder of the traumatic experiences many women have endured.

Tips for survivors of sexual assault

Navigating the current political climate can be challenging for survivors of sexual assault. Here are some general suggestions for coping:

Confront rather than avoid

It is common to feel the urge to avoid reminders of your traumatic experience. However, avoiding thoughts, memories and feelings related to the assault can increase your anxiety and distress in the long run. Acknowledge your feelings and memories and work towards processing them in a healthy way.

Moderate exposure

Constant exposure to news and media coverage can be emotionally draining. Find a balance by being aware of how much exposure you can handle. Engage in activities you enjoy and don’t let fear of triggers stop you from participating. However, take breaks from excessive negative media consumption to avoid overwhelming yourself.

Establish self-care practices

Prioritise self-care activities that support your wellbeing. These may include exercise, spending time with loved ones, taking up hobbies, practicing mindfulness or relaxation techniques, and seeking therapy or support groups. These activities can help you manage stress and maintain emotional balance.

Set limits

Recognise your limits and set boundaries in your interactions with others. It is OK to decline discussions or debates that may trigger distressing emotions. Focus on maintaining a supportive and healthy environment around you.

Seek support

Talk to trusted friends, family, or professionals who can provide a safe space to express your feelings and discuss your experiences. Joining a support group or seeking therapy can be particularly beneficial to connect with others who have been through similar situations and learn coping strategies.

Prioritise self-examination

Remind yourself that your experiences and feelings are valid. The attitudes and actions of political figures or society as a whole do not diminish the significance of your trauma. Surround yourself with people who understand and validate your feelings.

Practice self-compassion

Be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion. Recognise that healing takes time and that it is normal to experience a range of emotions. Treat yourself with patience, understanding and self-care as you navigate the challenges of the current political climate.

Seeking professional help

If you have been sexually assaulted and are struggling with intrusive and distressing memories, we strongly recommend that you see a qualified therapist who specialises in trauma-informed and evidence-based therapy. Therapeutic approaches such as Prolonged Exposure Therapy have been shown to have positive outcomes, but there are a range of therapies that can help you cope with past trauma. For more information, talk to your healthcare provider or use resources such as the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN; They can give you advice and help connect you with appropriate services.

Supporting friends and family of sexual assault survivors

A common concern in our clinical practice is providing guidance to friends and family members who wish to support their loved ones who have experienced sexual assault. It is important to recognise that by engaging with this article, you are already demonstrating significant support. Your genuine care and concern for your loved one is evident. That said, here are some brief suggestions on how you can help your loved one.

Offer a listening ear

Although it may seem straightforward, actively listening to your friend or family member can have a profound effect. By offering a sympathetic ear and unconditional support, you are communicating your genuine concern for them. Even if you do not have definitive solutions to their concerns, your unwavering support and genuine concern can be a source of comfort in itself.

Show empathy

While you may never fully understand the experience of being a survivor of sexual assault, you can empathise with the emotions your loved one is experiencing. By finding a way to connect with their feelings and effectively communicating your understanding, you will establish a common ground that your loved one will greatly appreciate.

We also recommend that you read the following important and relevant article: “How to overcome anxiety in modern times: Processing Threatening Stimuli in the New Media Age“.


  • American Psychological Association (2017). Stress in America: coping with change survey part one.
  • Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2010-2014 (2015).
  • National Sexual Violence Resource Center:
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation:
  • Kessler, R. C., Sonnega, A., Bromet, E., Hughes, M., & Nelson, C. B. (1995). Posttraumatic stress disorder in the
  • National Comorbidity Survey. Archives of general psychiatry52(12), 1048-1060.
  • Kessler, R. C., Chiu, W. T., Demler, O., & Walters, E. E. (2005). Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of 12-month DSM–IV disorders in the national comorbidity survey replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 617–627.
Assistant Professor at University of Pennsylvania

Jeremy Tyler, Psy.D., is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety (CTSA). Dr. Tyler received his Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2016, after completing his clinical internship at the Dallas VA, where he completed clinical rotations in the PTSD/trauma clinic, PTSD/substance abuse clinic, outpatient mental health clinic, and spinal cord injury center.

Dr. Tyler’s research interests include understanding the role of transdiagnostic mechanisms involved in the treatment of anxiety-related disorders, including OCD and PTSD, with a particular interest in the role of anxiety sensitivity, perfectionism and emotion regulation. Clinically, Dr. Tyler is certified in providing and supervising Prolonged Exposure (PE) for PTSD and Exposure and Response (Ritual) Prevention (EX/RP) for OCD. Additionally, he provides cognitive-behavioral treatments for social anxiety, panic disorder, specific phobias, and generalized anxiety. Additionally, Dr. Tyler is highly interested in the dissemination and implementation of these treatments and is highly involved in clinical teaching, supervision, and consultation of these treatments.

Clinical Director at Perelman School of Medicine

David A. Yusko, Psy.D., is the Clinical Director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety (CTSA) in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the faculty in 2006 after completing his doctoral internship at Montefiore Hospital in New York City. He received his Psy.D. in clinical psychology from the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University where his training specialized in cognitive behavioral treatments for addictive behaviors.

Since joining the CTSA faculty, Dr. Yusko has extended his interest in addictions to the development of effective treatments for co-occurring posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use. Dr. Yusko specializes in Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) for PTSD, Exposure and Response Prevention (EX/RP) for OCD, and cognitive-behavioral treatment for social anxiety, panic disorder, specific phobias, and generalized anxiety.  He is also the co-author of the book “Gag Reflections: Conquering a Fear of Vomit Through Exposure Therapy.”


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