Reactions of Sexual Assault Survivors
is frequently a private crisis owing
to the isolation that many survivors
feel because of a lack of support
or the tendency of some to blame us.
This creates a unique and difficult
set of reactions that may also be
experienced by women who have been
battered, sexually harassed, abused
as children, robbed violently, or
hurt by other forms of violence. (In
fact, sexual assault and battering
often go hand in hand.)
While no two women respond in the
same way, many feelings are common
among survivors. You may experience
a wide range of reactions immediately
after the assault or years later.
You are coping with a difficult situation
that never should have happened in
the first place. There is no one correct
or preferred way to deal with the
feelings and reactions you may find
yourself having. As you move through
a healing process, different reactions
may intensify or lose intensity. You
may experience feelings that you thought
you had already addressed.
and feelings of guilt. This is
probably one of the most common reactions
because of the false yet common myths
about rape. We may feel humiliated,
ashamed, or embarrassed about what
we were forced or coerced to do. We
often feel responsible for decisions
that we made before the assault that
we (or others) may later think led
to the assault. Even talking about
the sexual assault can be difficult
because we risk being disbelieved
or rejected. THE TRUTH IS THAT RAPE
IS NEVER THE FAULT OF THE VICTIM.
many victims of sexual attacks,
I was silenced by my shame, guilt,
and the mistaken belief, reinforced
by the police and society in general...that
I was "responsible" for what these
men did to me. It is that silence
that revictimizes rape and incest
victims, over and over again, and
I won't be silent anymore.
Fear, terror, and feeling unsafe.
Intense fear may be experienced
in many aspects of a woman's life.
If you feared for your life or the
lives of others during the assault,
you may be afraid that the perpetrator
will return. You may find that fear
and terror become generalized to other
areas or to situations that are similar
to the assault.
is nowhere that feels safe anymore.
When I'm home I'm afraid that someone
will break into my house; when I'm
out, I'm afraid that I'll be attacked.
My guard is always up.
Anger and rage. While it is
normal to feel angry, this emotion
can be difficult for women to express.
We have been socialized to be nice,
to hide our anger. For many women,
directing anger toward the perpetrator
may feel too threatening or may bring
intense feelings of terror. You may
sometimes direct your feelings of
anger toward others in your life,
where it feels safer. While this can
be confusing for loved ones, it is
feel angry all of the time, even
toward people who had nothing to
do with the rape like my kids and
turned inward. If you have a hard
time recognizing or expressing anger,
you may turn it inward. This can lead
to forms of depression and suicidal
thoughts, feelings, or even attempts.
If you experience signs of depression
that are long-lasting and don't seem
to be alleviated by talking about
it with friends, consider seeking
help through counseling. Many communities
have specialized mental health services
for survivors of sexual assault.
barely manage to function all day.
When I wake up in the morning I
just want to stay in bed. I feel
like there is a dark cloud following
me around. I feel sad and can't
remember what it feels like to be
Grief and loss. You may experience
loss in many ways. For many women,
rape or abuse may have conflicted
with our ideas of whom we can trust
or where we are safe. Throughout the
healing process, you may experience
grief over parts of your life that
you felt you missed. Some survivors
talk about a loss of innocence or
a loss of their sense of power.
feel like a part of me died, like
my life will never be the same.
Because I was raped by my boyfriend
as a teen, I feel like I missed
the chance to have a normal adolescence
when everyone says those should
have been the best years of my life.
of control, powerlessness. Rape
and sexual abuse rob women of the
power and control that they have in
that moment. You may feel powerless
in general or in certain situations.
life is not my own anymore; what's
the use of making decisions when
I have no power to change my life?
Isolation. You may feel as
though no one can possibly understand.
Or you may feel embarrassed that your
healing process is taking as long
as it is. Family members may be encouraging
you to "just put it in the past" or
"get on with your life" while your
feelings are still very real and troubling.
You may not want to talk to anyone
about the rape for fear of being disbelieved
can't think of anyone that I can
trust or talk to. I just want to
be by myself even though I feel
Flashbacks and nightmares. Flashbacks
and nightmares can feel overwhelming
and frightening, although they are
common and normal. A flashback is
a memory that is experienced with
one or more of the physical senses.
A nightmare is a dream that sometimes
involves aspects or pieces of the
assault but can be combined with other
events or aspects of the person's
close my eyes to go to sleep and
all I can see is the rape. I feel
as though it is happening to me
over and over.
seasons, smells, circumstances. Survivors
remember being raped with all of our
senses. Triggers are circumstances
that are the same or similar to those
that occurred during the rape and
that bring up feelings related to
the rape. Certain smells, sights,
places, or even times of the year
may bring about feelings related to
year around this time I start to
feel sad and have trouble sleeping.
Because I was raped during the springtime,
the signs that make everyone else
happy make me feel isolated and
in sexuality, intimacy. Changes
in sexuality are common for women
who have been sexually assaulted.
While you may experience fear and
aversion to sex and intimacy, on the
other hand you may want to have more
sexual experiences than before the
rape. This may change throughout your
want my partner's support, but I
can't stand the idea of having sex.
Even though it's been almost a year
since the rape, I feel afraid of
getting too close. I'm afraid that
he'll touch me and that I'll react
as if my partner is the rapist.
Spiritual crisis. Sexual assault often
results in an intense spiritual crisis,
especially for those who have operated
within a spiritual framework before
the rape. You may feel angry at a
supreme being or may lose your faith
completely. You may be told that the
rape is a punishment for your "sins."
The crisis of rape can create a crisis
of self at a very personal and deep
The God that I believed in would
never allow something like this
to happen. I've lost my faith and
sense of who I am.
Finding Ways to Regain Your Life
If you were sexually assaulted, you
may have experienced any number of
these reactions and others not listed
here. The process that you are going
through may feel overwhelming and
never-ending. Yet, it is very much
a process of healing and empowerment.
You have had your sense of control
taken away as a result of the rape,
and healing can occur when you begin
to regain a sense of power. Reflecting
on the following points can help you
move through the healing process:
assault was not your fault. Myths
about sexual assault get expressed
in any number of destructive ways:
"It must have been who she was, what
she was wearing, where she was...."
These have nothing to do with the
fact that you were assaulted. You
did not ask to be violated, and you
did not do anything to deserve it.
made the best choices and decisions
you were able to make. You may have
been forced to make life-or-death
decisions before, during, and after
the assault. Even if you feel you
would make a different decision today,
whatever you did at the time was okay.
is no right way to feel or to heal.
Your reactions and your healing process
are connected to who you are as a
person. Your culture and economic
background can influence your healing
process in both negative and positive
deserve support. Reach out to whomever
you think can be a support person
to you. There are rape crisis centers
in most locations across the country.
You may prefer to talk with a family
member or friend, a clergy member,
or a counselor. You may decide to
find a support group, or try other
kinds of healing support based on
art, music, writing, physical activity,
in your strength and your capacity
to heal. While the process of healing
may take time and may be difficult,
you will find ways to reclaim the
strong and capable parts of yourself.
If you have been raped, the first
thing you may want to do is take a
shower or bath and try to forget what
happened. What you do is completely
your decision, but consider two things:
is very important both physically
and emotionally that you receive
medical attention as soon as possible,
even if you have no obvious injuries.
bathe or shower if you think you
may later decide to prosecute,
as you will wash away evidence
that may be crucial to your case.
If you decide to go to a hospital,
try to have a friend, relative, or
local rape crisis counselor go with
you to act as an advocate on your
behalf. If you feel reluctant to go
because you may not be able to afford
it, be aware that most states have
passed legislation that assures that
rape exams are free of charge. If
you go to the hospital, bring a list
of any medications that you are taking,
bring a change of clothing if you're
still in the same clothes; if you
have changed clothes, bring the clothing
that you were wearing during the assault.
the hospital, you have three basic
concerns: your emotional well-being;
medical care; and the gathering of
evidence for a possible prosecution.
You can refuse to be examined for
evidence if you are absolutely sure
that you will not want to prosecute.
Some hospitals have specialized programs
that attempt to assure that sexual
assault survivors are given the best
treatment possible. These programs
are staffed by nurses or doctors who
receive extensive training in the
medical, legal, and emotional issues
associated with sexual assault. They
are set up to provide medical exams
that are sensitive and provide the
best evidence possible for prosecution.
Physical injuries to any part of the
body can result from a rape; therefore,
a thorough examination is necessary.
That examination should include and/or
result in the following:
verbal history of the sexual assault
and of related medical concerns. You
will be asked to give a detailed description
of the assault, which will be written
down. While it may be difficult to
talk about these details, they are
important so that the medical provider
will know where to check for injuries
and where to document evidence such
as bruises, scrapes, or other injuries.
Pictures may be taken or evidence
collected that wouldn't be noticed
unless this information is known.
Sometimes bruises may emerge later,
in which case you should be encouraged
to call the examiner back so that
they can be added to your record.
You will also be asked some questions
that may seem unrelated, such as whether
you have had sexual activity recently,
whether you may be pregnant, and whether
you use any birth control methods.
pelvic exam. In collecting evidence,
the practitioner will look for the
presence of semen. (It is also possible
to be raped vaginally with no semen
or sperm present.) She or he will
also comb your pubic hair for the
possible presence of the man's pubic
hair. All this medical evidence will
be available to others, including
the police, only with your written
permission. You or the person with
you at the hospital should check the
record for accuracy and objectivity
as soon as possible after the exam.
If possible, do this while the doctor
is still present. (If you were raped
vaginally, see chapter 24, Selected
Medical Practices, Problems, and Procedures,
for more information about a pelvic
exam. You will get a rectal exam if
you were raped anally.)
and treatment of any external injuries.
The practitioner will examine you
for any external injuries and may
photograph bruises or other marks
to document the assault.
for the prevention of sexually transmitted
disease (STD). The practitioner will
want to give you two shots of antibiotic
in your buttocks. If you don't want
this, be sure to say so. (Some women
may not want to be given an antibiotic
unless an STD is diagnosed; however,
it is used as a preventive measure).
Some STDs are not detectable until
six weeks later, so it is a good idea
to return for a six-week checkup (see
chapter 14, Sexually Transmitted Diseases).
for the prevention of pregnancy.
If you suspect that you will become
pregnant as a result of the rape,
the doctor or nurses may offer you
emergency contraception (see chapter
13, Birth Control). A pregnancy resulting
from rape cannot be detected until
several weeks later. If you find that
you are pregnant and are considering
abortion, see chapters 16, Unplanned
Pregnancies, and 17, Abortion.
about AIDS/HIV. There is a chance
that you could contract HIV through
a sexual assault. Should you want
to, it may be possible to get immediate
morning-after" medication to treat
potential HIV infection. If you are
offered testing for HIV, be aware
that it's too soon for HIV antibodies
to show up from the assault. Also,
testing results could become a part
of your medical and legal record and
could be used against you. For information
see chapter 15, HIV, AIDS, and Women.
follow-up exam. Although you may feel
physically recovered shortly after
the rape, a follow-up visit, to include
tests and treatment for STDs and a
pregnancy test if indicated, will
assure you that you are taking care
It is common for survivors of sexual
assault to experience changes in overall
physical health. Some find that their
sleep and eating patterns change.
Some experience headaches, body aches,
stomach and intestinal problems, and
fatigue. Some cope with the emotions
with drugs or alcohol. While all of
these are normal, it is important
to take care of yourself and get help
if any of them persist or get worse
since I was raped, my body doesn't
feel like my own. I have pain in
my back and I'm always on the alert
for signs of sexually transmitted
is never easy to decide whether to
prosecute a rapist. While improvements
have been made in the legal system,
prosecution can still be a painful
and difficult process. Most communities
have rape crisis centers that provide
advocates as you move through the
legal system. In many places there
are victim/witness advocates in the
offices of local district attorneys
who can provide information and support.
In some states you can report a rape
anonymously or without prosecuting.
Whether you report it or not, write
down everything that you can remember,
so that if you do decide to prosecute
later on, your statement will be accurate.
As you are deciding whether or not
to prosecute, here are several things
to keep in mind:
the legal system can be confusing
and difficult, it will help tremendously
to have a friend or rape crisis
counselor with you throughout
You will have to prove that you
were sexually assaulted against
your will and that the man used
force or threatened force against
is a crime against the state.
It is prosecuted by the district
attorney's office. You will be
the state's witness, and you will
not have your own lawyer unless
you can arrange for one to advise
trial can last from six months
to several years. You will need
to be prepared to continue thinking
and talking about the rape for
a long time, including giving
an account of the event over and
over while people judge whether
you are telling the truth.
will need to prepare yourself
for any outcome. Rape is one of
the most difficult crimes to prove.
Remember that even if your case
does not end in a conviction,
this does not mean that the rape
didn't happen or that you didn't
do your best to prosecute.
to Do If Someone You Care About
Has Been Sexually Assaulted
If you are a friend or family member
of someone who has been sexually assaulted,
you may feel that you don't know what
to say, or you may have feelings of
your own that get in the way of supporting
her. You can be most helpful if you
keep in mind that she is capable of
healing and that you are capable of
providing support. You are being supportive
when you do these things:
and believe her. If she feels ashamed
or guilty, reassure her that the rape
was not her fault and that her feelings
are normal. Although you feel you
might have reacted differently, remember
that her reactions are uniquely hers.
create a safe place for the survivor.
Help her to think about what changes,
if any, she would like to make that
will help her feel safer, whether
related to her physical surroundings
or to how she interacts with people
at home or at work.
her to express a full range of feelings.
The feelings of a survivor of sexual
assault can be very strong. Expressing
these powerful feelings in a safe
environment is an important part of
the healing process. If you can feel
comfortable supporting her in expressing
her feelings, this can be very helpful.
options, not advice. Survivors often
struggle with important and complex
decisions. You can be most helpful
by helping her identify all of the
options available and supporting her
in her decision-making.
myths about rape. You can help empower
a woman who has been sexually assaulted
by being prepared to help her dispel
destructive myths about rape and by
assuring her that you do not believe
these false ideas.
She may need someone to help ensure
that her feelings are validated and
her rights are upheld in the medical
or legal system.
in the possibility of healing. Let
her know that you believe that healing
is possible and that she has the strength
and capacity to heal.
Ourselves and Each Other from
Even though most sexual assaults are
committed by someone we know rather
than a stranger, we can take some
steps to protect ourselves. Listing
these suggestions reminds us how wrong
it is for women to be and to feel
unsafe in our homes and our communities.
Yet, until men stop raping women,
we need to take precautions. The most
effective protection comes from being
with other women. Arrange to walk
home together. Set up a green-light
or safe-house program in your neighborhood.
Get to know the women who live in
your apartment building or on your
at home. Make sure that entrances
are well lit and that windows and
doors are securely locked. Use only
your last name on your mailbox. Find
out who is at your door before opening
it to anyone.
on the street. Be aware of what is
going on around you. Walk with a steady
pace, looking as if you know where
you are going. Dress so you can move
and run easily. Walk in the middle
of the street, avoiding dark places
and groups of men. If you fear danger,
yell "Fire," not "Help" or "Rape."
Carry a whistle around your wrist.
Always check the backseat of your
car before getting in and keep the
car doors locked while driving. Avoid
groups of men on public transportation.
If you can possibly avoid it, don't
hitchhike; it is just too dangerous.
in social situations. Pay attention
to how you feel and trust your instincts.
If you want to end a date or leave
a party, say so, even if you are afraid
or embarrassed. If you drink alcohol,
keep an eye on your drink. Drugs are
available that can be slipped into
drinks to tranquilize a woman and
create a blackout. For example, a
drug called Rohypnol, or "Roofies,"
causes severe memory loss so that
a woman can be raped but will not
be able to remember anything.
These tactics can help you, but they
are not foolproof. Practice tactics
for the situations that make you feel
most at risk and least powerful. Try
to remain calm and to act as confident
and strong as you can.