Author: Roxanne Dudrick of the Sexual Assault Center of East Tennessee

Drugs and alcohol are frequently associated with sexual assault as substances used by perpetrators to incapacitate or blame victims, but it is also important to understand the complicated relationship between survivors and drugs after an assault has occurred.

In Tennessee, rape is defined as penetration, no matter how slight, of a vagina or anus with any body parts or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person without the consent of the victim (T.C.A. § 39-13-501). A heinous act of power and control, sexual violence is physically, emotionally, and psychologically traumatizing to survivors.

Trauma is the holistic response to any event outside the range of normal human experience. It is critical to note there is no normal response to a traumatic event, whether it be anxiety, fear, or numbness, just to name a few.

Caregivers and loved ones can best aid a sexual assault survivor by implementing a trauma-informed response, which prioritizes the use of compassionate language and recognizes the impact of a traumatic experience.

Trauma affects the brain in a variety of ways, prompting reactions such as depression, insomnia, eating disorders, and self-harm. Substance abuse is one of the most common manifestations of self-harm among survivors, who are statistically 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs after an assault (RAINN).

According to one national study, substance abuse significantly increased among women who were sexually assaulted even if they did not have a history of drug or alcohol use or abuse (Kilpatrick 1997). That same study also found that women who abuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to have experienced sexual abuse in the past (Kilpatrick 1997).

How does one apply these definitions and warning signs to best serve survivors? A starting point is to execute trauma-informed care by connecting with a variety of community resources. If a person struggling with a substance use disorder has a history of sexual assault, then it is vital to address both forms of abuse—substance and sexual—on the path to recovery.

If you or someone you know has been assaulted, don’t hesitate to call the Sexual Assault Center of East Tennessee (SACET) 24/7 crisis hotline at 865-522-7273. SACET offers free and confidential sexual assault nurse examinations, advocacy, therapy, and education outreach. For more information, please visit