Recovery from Sexual Assault
Sexual assault is a violation of a person’s body and capacity for self-determination. It can radically affect the survivor, and every sexual assault survivor’s experience is different. The information provided here includes some of the common reactions to sexual assault, but is not meant to be prescriptive in any way. Perhaps you have told a friend or a family member, people who are close to you and can be supportive throughout this ordeal. You may also have met with a counselor, or have thought about going to a counselor but not yet taken that step. You might feel that there is no one you can trust. It is important for you to know that you are not alone, that you will get through this time in your life, and that there are people who can help you
through the healing process.
Common Physical Reactions to Sexual Violence
The information provided here is taken from The Path Toward Recovery for Survivors of Sexual Violence
and adapted for the Colgate community.
I feel physically dirty — I just want to take a bath.
This is one of the most common reactions to a sexual assault — to feel dirty and want to wash immediately and excessively. The feeling of being dirty is common and may not go away, even after you have showered or bathed. If you are considering a physical exam or evidence collection kit, be aware that bathing can destroy evidence. However, having showered or bathed does not mean that a medical exam and evidence collection kit are no longer options for you. On the contrary, medical care is an important component of the recovery process and it is strongly recommended that you seek medical attention after a sexual assault.
I can't catch my breath. I can't get enough air.
You may feel this way — some survivors report feeling like they cannot get enough air, as if their throat is closing or they are going to faint. If you were choked or forced to perform oral sex, this response is particularly common. Elevated levels of anxiety, feeling panicky and constantly on edge can contribute to shortness of breath. It is important to discuss these symptoms with a health care provider.
It hurts. I'm feeling physical pain.
It is important not to overlook the physical pain that may accompany a sexual assault. Pain and discomfort in the genital area should be reported to a health care provider so that any physical injuries can be cared for properly. Not all physical injuries are immediately apparent and can result in chronic conditions if not treated. Additionally, there is the possibility of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, and pregnancy, so you want to receive medical attention to address these concerns even if you are experiencing little or no pain.
Nothing feels normal. My eating and sleeping habits are suddenly off.
You may develop changes in eating and sleeping patterns. You may over-eat or under-eat, or may consume excessive amounts of alcohol or other drugs. You may also have nightmares, experience insomnia, or feel lethargic. You may have less energy, feel constantly tired, or sleep more than usual. It may feel impossible to get out of bed and face each day, or to concentrate on and complete even the most mundane tasks. Seeking support or counseling can help you work through these challenges.
Other physical responses
The response to sexual assault depends entirely on the survivor’s own unique character, circumstances, and support group. You may want to process what has happened, or you may want to avoid talking about it. You may also react by developing a preoccupation with disease and death, or become terribly fearful and avoid interpersonal interactions. It is also possible that you feel compelled to engage in exaggerated and self-destructive behaviors. It is important to recognize that all these behaviors are part of the crisis response and that psychological and spiritual counselors are trained to help you on the path to recovery.
Common Emotional Reactions to Sexual Violence
I feel humiliated and angry.
It is normal to feel humiliated, embarrassed, and ashamed, as if the very essence of your physical and psychological integrity has been shattered. This sense may be heightened by the extensive misinformation predominant in our society that denigrates the victim. Sometimes, these feelings of humiliation and embarrassment can result in tremendous rage. While anger is a natural and healthy response, it may, at times, be misdirected at those people close to you, such as family members and friends. Trained counselors can help you to deal with these feelings.
I feel ashamed. This feels like my fault.
A common response to sexual assault is self-blame. For example, you might attribute the assault to your own behavior, to something you did, wore, or said, or to being somewhere that you shouldn't have gone. This reaction may be your way of rationalizing such a traumatic experience. You may repeatedly run through the details of the event, attempting to figure out what you could have done differently to prevent the assault. Speaking with a counselor can help you to recognize that the perpetrator is entirely to blame for the assault — not you.
It is possible that you feel ashamed due to involuntary physiological responses or sexual arousal during the assault. This may be confusing and disturbing, but such responses in no way indicate that you consented to or enjoyed the assault. Involuntary responses are just that — involuntary.
Some male survivors do not come forward and report a sexual assault for fear of being perceived as homosexual. However, sexual assault is a violent crime unrelated to the sexual orientation of the attacker or survivor.
I feel guilty.
Similar to shame, guilt comes from the sense that the you could have or should have done something to prevent the sexual assault. Guilt can take the form of questioning what you did to deserve the assault and how you might be responsible for it. The key is that you, as a survivor, are not responsible for the assault.
Ingesting large amounts of alcohol or other drugs is a common trigger for both self-blame and guilt. It is important for you to recognize that your own level of intoxication did not constitute consent to sexual activity, and that the assailant’s possible intoxication, on the other hand, is not an excuse for committing sexual assault. The responsibility always lies with the individual who commits the assault.
I feel vulnerable and afraid.
You may feel intense fear and vulnerability, especially if the perpetrator is someone you know and perhaps lives in close proximity. Over time, the survivor may experience flashbacks and a more prolonged sense of being afraid. You might even feel mistrustful of others; especially if you knew or were acquainted with the assailant. Sometimes the fear will be generalized, for instance, to all men, to all locations that remind you of the assault, or to the time of day when the assault occurred. These feelings will go away, but it will take time for them to subside. Staying with a close friend or supportive relative for a while may be helpful. Talking with a counselor can be very important in helping you through this difficult time.
My life is out of control.
In a sexual assault, the perpetrator denies you the right to self-determination, and the experience is one of ultimate loss of control. Something very private was forcefully taken from you. This can create or reinforce the perception of being unable to protect yourself. This response can emerge whether or not you resisted during the assault. Sorting out how the assault occurred is one way you might attempt to regain control over your life.
You might find yourself considering how you might have prevented the assault — even though you couldn't have prevented it — as an attempt to overcome your feelings of vulnerability. One of the risks of thinking this way is that you may find it difficult to make decisions until you are able to regain a sense of control and self-confidence. Getting support, even if you have not yet decided or have decided not to file a complaint against the assailant, are very beneficial steps in recovering a sense of control, confidence and self-determination. Deciding to report the assault may also be empowering.
I feel concern for my attacker.
In some instances, you might feel concern about what will happen to the perpetrator if you report the incident. You may know or have cared about the person who committed the assault, and may be reluctant to engage the criminal justice system or the university’s equity grievance process because of possible consequences for the perpetrator. This is frequently the case when you and the perpetrator belong to the same friendship circle, or when alcohol or drugs are a factor in the assault. It is important for you to recognize that you are not responsible for the well being of the perpetrator, nor are you responsible for the assault.
I feel sad and depressed.
A deep feeling of emptiness, remorse, and unhappiness may follow a sexual assault. You may feel hopeless, immobilized, and unable to make decisions. It may feel like everything is going wrong, and that nothing will ever be resolved. Tearfulness and disorientation are typical reactions. You can alleviate this depression by sharing your experience and feelings with others, particularly trained counselors.
It wasn't a big deal — Denial
You might respond to the trauma of an assault by minimizing it. You may avoid talking about the experience, or try to block it out of your consciousness altogether. This is a typical response to trauma. The timetable and process for coping with a sexual assault is unique to you.
How to Take Care of Yourself
Get support from friends and family, from people who know you and can validate your feelings. If you talk to someone and they don’t make you feel good about yourself, don’t be afraid to try someone else. Some people know how to say the right thing and others just don’t. Your family can provide support, assistance, and encouragement. Because they are your family, they may also try to protect you or make decisions for you. The reasons for doing this are varied, but it may feel suffocating, stifling, and controlling. It’s important for them to understand that you need to take control and make decisions for yourself.
You should choose when, where, and with whom to talk about the assault. Set limits by only disclosing information that you feel comfortable about revealing. Some survivors decide to report the assault to the local police, while others decide to file a formal complaint through the university’s equity grievance process. Some choose to pursue both options. Whatever you decide, make sure it is your choice and not the choice of friends or family members. A staff person can talk with you about your options and support you as you make your own decision. They will not encourage or discourage you from reporting or pressing charges. That choice is yours.
Keep a journal.
Keeping a journal is one way of giving voice to your thoughts and feelings.
Use stress reduction techniques.
Exercises like jogging, aerobics, and walking can reduce stress. Relaxation practices like yoga, massage, music, and hot baths can reduce stress. Prayer and/or meditation can be relaxing. Engage in creative activities, anything you enjoy. Maintain a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet and plenty of sleep. Avoid overusing stimulants like caffeine, or depressants like alcohol.
Be kind to yourself.
Recognize that there will be times when you are stressed and unable to function as efficiently as you might wish. This is normal. Give yourself time and seek support from those who care for you whenever you are feeling overwhelmed.