The Ins And Outs: Connection between HIV and sexual abuse in women cannot be ignored

The reality that sexual abuse can lead to lasting emotional and psychological damage is indisputable. However, the repercussions of sexual abuse are not limited to internal injuries; the physical impact can be just as damaging.

According to two March 2012 studies published in the Journal of AIDS and Behavior, more than 60 percent of HIV-positive women have experienced sexual abuse in their lives and 55 percent of women with HIV have been a victim of domestic violence, compared with 12 and 25 percent of women overall, respectively.

These are indisputable facts that go far beyond the ideological differences we have with the nature of sexual abuse. It’s about a disease that needs treatment.

One of the biggest problems is figuring out which came first: the abuse or the disease.

Certified domestic violence advocate Jennifer Fletcher, 34, said that it’s possible that women who have suffered sexual abuse contracted HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases as a result of the abuse.

“I would say that it’s highly likely. It’s not very often that they (the sexual aggressors) put a condom on,” said Fletcher.

Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s possible that the survivor of sexual abuse was already HIV-positive at the time of the incident.

“Among sexually active adults, the identification of an STD might represent an infection acquired prior to the assault, and therefore might be more important for the psychological and medical management of the patient than for legal purposes,” according to the CDC website.

Either way, the abuse brings a whole new level of problems. We can’t just counsel the issue away; it takes decades of consistent medical treatment to even stave off HIV enough to live a normal life.

The problem spreads. The studies, conducted by the University of California, San Francisco and Harvard School of Public Health, said that women who have been sexually abused were four times more likely than other women to have unprotected sex with someone else who wasn’t infected with HIV or whose status was unknown. The first symptoms of HIV generally show within six to 12 weeks of infection, according to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

We need to remember that a woman with HIV is not the only one who’s affected. She can pass it on to any of her sexual partners, and any children she has in the future, perpetuating the disease in innocent babies.

But it gets even worse. High levels of stress might make it tougher for HIV-positive women to fight off the infection.

The studies also found that women who had suffered recent sexual abuse trauma were four times more likely to have detectable levels of HIV in their blood than women who hadn’t suffered recent sexual abuse trauma, meaning that the treatment to fight off the infection wasn’t working. It’s possible the ineffective treatment is directly linked to the post-traumatic stress disorder and lasting anxiety that women often experience after sexual abuse, according to Fletcher.

It’s horrifying, and it’s unacceptable. We’re destroying people’s lives by ignoring the issue. We need to facilitate discussion so we can put an end to this debilitating duo.

If you or someone you know has suffered sexual abuse, get help. Find a friend to confide in. Attend a support group. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1 (800) 656-HOPE. You don’t have to go through it alone. And get tested for sexually transmitted diseases as soon as possible. You can help break the connection and make a change for the future.