Sexual assault is the most personal and violent crime committed against a person. The effects on victims are not only physical, but also psychological and emotional. These effects vary in timing and length. It is important to remember that there is not one correct or normal reaction. Each victim will cope in their own way. You can also visit RAINN.org for additional information and resources about the effects of sexual assault.
No two survivors of sexual assault react in exactly the same way, or feel the same emotions at the same time, or heal in exactly the same way. Every survivor deals with the assault in a way that addresses her particular situation. While every survivor should feel encouraged to seek a healing path that works for her or him, there are some commonalities among most, if not all, sexual assault survivors. Remember, these are not "rules" for a "normal" reaction to sexual assault, but rather some of the many emotions and experiences you may have as a survivor. It is important to know that you are not alone in what you are going through.
- Common Fears and Phobias: Countless people, in describing the attack, have said "I didn't think I was going to get out of it alive. The fear of being beaten, hurt or killed is universal. The fear experienced during the attack does not automatically disappear afterwards. The illusion that we are all safe from sexual assault is shattered. People often become fearful of places or situations resembling the attack, eg. their home or cars. Fears of this proportion are often referred to as phobias. It is common that people who have experienced sexual assault develop fears and phobias specific to the circumstances of the assault. For example, they develop fear of going out, being at home, being in a crowd, fear of sex and fear of men. Fears and phobias unrelated to the attack may also develop.
- Shock: Most people who have been sexually assaulted experience shock. There are many ways that shock may be expressed. A person may appear calm and unemotional. Often people have had to remain calm during the sexual assault in order to avoid threatened injury and to survive the ordeal. The calm can also indicate that a person is unable or unwilling to address other feelings at this time, or it may just be their way of responding to trauma. At the other extreme, people may be shaking, crying, laughing or unable to think clearly.
- Powerlessness/Loss of Control: People who have been sexually assaulted usually experience feelings of powerlessness and loss of control since the attack signifies to the person how powerless they are and that their wishes have no significance. As a result, some people have difficulty in making decisions because the assault left them feeling worthless or invalid. Therefore, it is important for the person to regain control over their sexuality, their actions and to make their own decisions in order to regain the power and control which was denied them or taken away during the assault.
- Shame: Some people experience a sense of shame and some may feel that being sexually assaulted marks them or makes them dirty/soiled in some way. They may repeatedly wash themselves. Feeling dirty can also extend into the home, especially if that is where the attack occurred. Cleaning can be a form of exorcism in trying to get rid of the evidence of the attack. For some, they may not feel like cleaning either themselves or their homes because they do not feel they are worthy of being clean or of living in a clean environment. This is because having their body violently abused has served to confirm feelings that they are not worthy of respect. Men may feel that assumptions have been or will be made about their sexuality and may even start to question it themselves.
- Guilt: Experience shows that most people who are sexually assaulted feel a degree of guilt. People can always think of something they should have done to stop the attack. "If only I had screamed." If only I had locked the door." If only I was not drunk." The list of "if only" is endless. This feeling is often reinforced by the legal system and by family and friends who ask questions such as "Why didn't you scream?" Asking "why" in such circumstances can often imply guilt. It is therefore not surprising that so many people feel guilty and blame themselves for not avoiding the attack. Guilt, as well as shame, also springs from many of the myths that place responsibility on the person for the attack. Myths such as "If you wear tight clothes you are asking for it" only serve to reinforce the unfair and incorrect belief that people who are assaulted are responsible for the assailant's behavior and that they were the cause of the sexual assault. The belief that they were in some way responsible can result in them thinking they can avoid or prevent future sexual assault by doing something such as screaming. This may be a way of the person trying to re-establish a sense of control over their life. Guilt and shame are often the reasons why people choose not to report a sexual assault.
- Anger: Reaction to a culmination of many different feelings: revenge, frustration, powerlessness, impatience or anger at self for not having avoided the attack. Anger is a positive and natural reaction to sexual assault. Many people however, shift the blame of the assault from the assailant to themselves. This means that the anger becomes focused on themselves rather than the assailant.
- Grief and Loss: Many victims may feel sad about how the sexual assault has changed their life and the lives of their loved ones. They may feel like they have lost something they can never get back.
Common Reactions to Rape
- Reliving the assault: Survivors often have unwanted thoughts about the assault. It is common to experience nightmares about the rape. You may get very vivid images of the rape, known as flashbacks, which can make you feel as if it's happening again.
- Hyper-vigilance (Startled Response): After being assaulted, you may feel like you always have to be alert in order to be safe. You may feel jumpy or shaky or be easily startled by sudden noises. You may feel that you are always in danger, which can lead to having trouble sleeping or concentrating. Being on the alert all the time may lead to feeling impatient and irritable with people.
- Avoidance: Many survivors try to avoid any reminders of the assault. You may try to push away painful feelings or memories of the rape. Blocking feelings may lead to feeling numb even about pleasant thoughts.
- Depression: It is normal to experience feelings of sadness, hopelessness and depression after an assault. You may have mood swings and cry often. You may lose interest in activities or people that you used to enjoy. Many survivors wish that they were dead or feel like hurting themselves.
- Lowered Self-image: Many survivors feel worse about themselves after the assault. It is common to experience self-blame, guilt and shame. You may feel bad about yourself for not being able to prevent the assault or you may feel that you deserved it.
- Changes In Your Feelings About Sex: After a sexual assault, it is normal to question your sexuality or your desire to be sexual again. Sex itself is a reminder of the assault and you may not want to have any sexual contact for a period of time.