Sexual assault is a violent crime, which is traumatic and life-changing for those who survive it. This horrific experience will affect you in numerous ways, but it does not define who you are. You are much more than simply "a rape victim." You are a friend, lover, daughter or son, sister or brother, mother or father. You are an individual with strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, interests and hobbies, goals and dreams. The sexual assault may have pushed some of this to the back burner for now, but it did not erase these important aspects of you.
It is absolutely critical for you to realize that it is not your fault that you were sexually assaulted. You may be questioning some of your decisions just prior to the assault. Survivors often beat themselves up with "what ifs," and "if only's." Judging yesterday's actions with today's information is a crazy-making approach to life. The first step toward healing is forgiving yourself for any real or imagined mistakes. You did not deserve to be sexually assaulted. You did not ask to be sexually assaulted. It is not your fault that you were sexually assaulted.
Reactions to Sexual Assault
Every survivor responds in her or his unique way. The following are things which assault survivors have reported experiencing after sexual assault. Some of these may be similar to your experience, while others might be completely different. Sexual assault typically affects survivors on four levels - physical, emotional, cognitive, and social.
- Soreness/physical injuries
- Sleep disturbance
- Appetite disturbance/eating disorder
- Muscular tension
- Somatic illness (headache, back pain, diarrhea, ulcer, etc.)
- Sexually transmitted infections
- Mood swings
- Feeling vulnerable
- Decreased self-esteem
- What will people think?
- Will they believe me?
- Will they blame me?
- Why did this happen to me?
- What if i had done...?
- What if i hadn't...?
- Will others hate me?
- If I forget about it, maybe it will go away
- I deserved it because...
- Difficulty concentrating
- Loss of memory for part of the assault
- Flashbacks - reliving the experience, triggered by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations or experiences
Impact on Social Behavior
- Afraid to be alone
- Uncomfortable around other people
- Difficulty trusting others
- Afraid to leave home
- Difficulty relaxing
- Disruption in sexual relations
- Hypersensitivity in relating to others
- Difficulty/apprehension around men, especially if they resemble the assailant
If you are experiencing some of these things following a sexual assault, it is important to know that these are normal reactions. It doesn't mean that you are "crazy" or "losing it." It does mean however, that you are going through a very difficult and traumatic experience. This is something that you should not deal with alone. Utilize your support system and talk about your experiences with someone you trust. Talking with a victim advocate could be very helpful. An advocate can provide support, as well as valuable information on the medical and legal systems, and what to expect. It is also helpful to seek counseling. A therapist can help you work through the trauma of sexual assault and help you move forward. A support group would allow you to share experiences with other survivors, who can truly understand what you are going through.
Reactions of Significant Others
Sexual assault is traumatic, not only for the person assaulted, but for her or his family and friends as well. The following are common initial reactions to learning of the sexual assault:
here is sometimes a tendency to blame the victim for the assault. This may be due to a belief in myths, such as women "ask for it" or that rape is primarily a sexual act rather than a violent crime. A friend or family member may express anger at you although they know intellectually that it was not your fault. Anger may also be directed at the assailant. People who are close to you may feel it is their duty to seek revenge.
Some people close to you may blame themselves, thinking they could have done something to protect you. This is particularly true of husbands, wives, or parents. Even young children experience guilt. Children close to you may understand more than you think. Not telling them doesn't mean they aren't aware.
Someone close to you may suddenly feel very vulnerable; they are facing the fact that this could happen to them also.
It may be embarrassing for them to have to explain and to answer questions from acquaintances. It may even be embarrassing for them to hear about the assault.
They may not know how to help. They may not have a clear idea of what rape is and how it affects people.
You may not be able to handle close relationships. Intimate relationships, particularly, may scare you or be difficult. Boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, or friends may feel shut out.
Most significant others, after their initial shock and anger, become supportive. As the reality of the assault begins to sink in, most family and friends are able to shift their focus from their own pain, to your experience. They can be a tremendous source of support and encouragement in the healing process.
Taking Care of Yourself
Nancy Rich, M.A. of Trauma Management Consultants offers the following suggestions for feeling more whole after a traumatic experience:
- Within the first 24 - 48 hours, periods of strenuous physical exercise alternated with relaxation will alleviate some of your physical reactions.
- Structure your time--keep busy.
- You're normal and having normal reactions--don't label yourself crazy.
- Talk to people--talk is the most healing medicine.
- Beware of numbing the pain with drugs or alcohol. You don't need to complicate this with a substance abuse problem.
- Reach out--people care.
- Keep your life as normal as possible.
- Spend time with others.
- Help those around you as much as possible by sharing feelings and checking out how they are doing.
- Give yourself permission to feel rotten.
- Keep a journal--write your way through those sleepless hours.
- Do things that feel good to you.
- Realize that those around you are under stress.
- Accept offered help.
- Talk to your doctor to ensure you are receiving proper nutrition - which is especially important when you are under stress.