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You're Not Alone: Common Responses to Sexual Assault

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Emotional responses of survivors will vary from individual to individual. Sexual assault can be extremely traumatic and life-changing. It's important to remember that your responses are normal reactions to a traumatic situation – sexual assault. Below are some common feelings survivors of sexual assault may experience but is not necessarily an exhaustive list of feelings experienced by survivors.

SHOCK AND NUMBNESS

This response may occur soon after a sexual assault. Survivors may experience feelings of disbelief or denial about what happened. Survivors may feel emotionally detached or drained, and at times may be unaware of what is happening around her/him. Other reactions to the emotional shock may include: crying uncontrollably, laughing nervously, withdrawing, or claiming to feel nothing or be “fine.” Survivors often may feel overwhelmed to the point of not knowing how to feel or what to do.

If you are a survivor, here are some tips that may help: Recognize that these feelings are normal reactions after experiencing trauma. Reassure yourself that these feelings will diminish over time. If you want company, it may be helpful to surround yourself with supportive friends or family. You may also want to think about what has helped you through a previous crisis. For example, it may help to practice breathing exercises or meditation, go for a walk, listen to music, or talk with supportive friends and family.

DISRUPTION OF DAILY LIFE

After an assault, survivors may feel preoccupied with thoughts about the incident. It may be difficult for survivors to concentrate, attend class, or focus on school work. It can be very upsetting to have reminders of the rape when trying to reclaim your normal life. Survivors may have nightmares, trouble sleeping, appetite changes, general anxiety, or depression. For the first few weeks or months after the assault, survivors may feel as though their life has been upset and may be wondering if it will ever be the same.

If you are a survivor, here are some tips that may help: It is important to be gentle with yourself and take steps to reclaim your life. After experiencing any kind of crisis, it is important to take time to grieve, to adjust, and to reorganize your life. Recognize that you will be able to go on with your life. The Counseling Center is here to support you if you find yourself struggling academically or if you think you might want some counseling resources to help you deal with the trauma.

LOSS OF CONTROL

Survivors may feel disoriented and overwhelmed. Survivors may also feel anxious, scared or nervous and often have a difficult time concentrating. Often, survivors feel unsure about themselves and they may temporarily lack their usual self-confidence. Decisions that were made routinely before may now feel monumental. Survivors may feel that because of the assault they have to change their lifestyle to feel safe.

If you are a survivor,  here are some tips that may help: Try to make as many of your own decisions as possible. Even making small decisions can help you regain a sense of control. You may want to make some changes in your life such as rearranging the furniture in your room or changing your routine by exercising in the morning instead of at night. Small changes can help you feel like you are taking back control. The Counseling Center can provide information about all of your options and support you to make a decision that is best for you. It is important to trust your instincts about what is right for you.

FEAR

It is not uncommon for survivors to fear people and feel vulnerable even when going through the regular activities of life. They may be afraid to be alone, or afraid of being with lots of people. They may find themselves not knowing who to trust. Survivors may have lost their sense of safety in their own environment, which makes them feel vulnerable and they may fear that they will be assaulted again. Survivors may also be more aware of sexual innuendoes, stray looks or whistles.

If you are a survivor, here are some tips that may help: Make any changes in your life that you need in order to feel safe. If possible, you may want to change your locks, take a self-defense class or stay with a family member or friend. Temporarily "not trusting" is a protective device that is an emotional coping skill. Most of these fears will go away or lessen over time. You will be able to trust when you have had a chance to heal and are feeling less vulnerable. The Counseling Center can help assist you with safety planning and support you in reclaiming a sense of security. If fear is getting in the way of your daily life, it may be helpful to speak with a counselor. Schedule an appointment by calling the Counseling Center ( 410.543.6070).

GUILT, SHAME, SELF-BLAME

Most survivors feel guilty and ashamed about the assault. Survivors often question if they    somehow may have "provoked" or "asked for it," or that they shouldn't have trusted the assailant, or that they should have somehow prevented the assault. Some of these feelings are the result of society's myths about rape and sexuality. Survivors will often start to doubt their ability to make good judgments or trust their own instincts. Sometimes blaming oneself helps a survivor feel less helpless.

If you are a survivor, here are some tips that may help: It was not your fault. No one deserves to be sexually assaulted - tell yourself that many times a day. Being sexually assaulted does not make you a bad person; you did not choose to be sexually assaulted. Realize that guilt and self-blame are efforts to gain control over the situation. Many survivors also experience blame from individuals they tell about the incident. These reactions are fueled by society's myths about sexual assault. It is important to surround yourself with supportive people. Counselors will never blame you and are here to support your decisions. Education about the facts surrounding sexual assault may also be helpful in dispelling shame and self-blame.

ANGER

Survivors feel angry for many different reasons. Anger is an appropriate, healthy response to sexual assault. It usually means that the survivor is healing and has begun to look at the assailant's responsibility for the assault. Survivors vary greatly in how readily they feel and express anger. It may be especially difficult to express anger if the survivor has been taught that anger is never appropriate. Anger can be vented in safe and healthy ways, or can be turned inward, where it may become sadness, pain or depression. Please be careful to avoid coping with anger in ways that are harmful, such as alcohol or drug use, cutting or other self-destructive behavior. Survivors can schedule an appointment at the Counseling Center (410.543.6070) to learn new coping strategies and ways to deal with their feelings.

If you are a survivor, here are tips that may help: Allow yourself to be angry. You have a right to feel angry. However, it is important to feel angry without hurting yourself or others. As part of your anger, you may find yourself more irritable at home, school or work. Anger can be expressed physically without hurting yourself or others. Some people find that physical activity (such as walking, running, biking, hitting pillows, etc.) can help release the physical tension that often accompanies anger. Writing in a journal, playing music or singing out loud to music are also helpful and healthy ways to express anger. Many people often find it useful to connect with other survivors. Contact the Counseling Center to learn about support groups for survivors.

ISOLATION

Some rape survivors feel their experience sets them apart from others. Often, survivors might feel differently or think that others can tell that they have been sexually assaulted just by looking at them. This is not true even though it feels that way. Some survivors do not want to bother anyone with their troubles, so they do not talk about the incident or their feelings. Survivors may withdraw or distance themselves from family and friends.

If you are a survivor, here are some tips that may help: You are not alone in what you are feeling. Many people benefit from speaking with other survivors. Contact the Counseling Center if you are interested in joining a group for survivors of sexual assault. Reading more about the topic can also be reassuring and validating. Contact the Counseling Center if you are interested in resources on healing. If you are feeling alone, call a trusted friend or family member, schedule an appointment at the Counseling Center or call the Life Crisis Center hotline (410.479.HELP). It can make all the difference to be with someone who cares about you and to know that you are supported.

ANXIETY, SHAKING, NIGHTMARES

Survivors may experience shaking, anxiety, flashbacks and nightmares after an assault. This can begin shortly after the assault and may continue for a long period of time. Nightmares may replay the assault or include dreams of being chased, attacked, etc. Survivors often fear that they are "losing it" and may feel that they should be "over it by now."

If you are a survivor, here are some tips that may help: These responses, as scary as they are, are normal reactions to trauma. These physical reactions are your emotions way of responding to the fear you are experiencing. It is important to be able to discuss your nightmares and fears, particularly how they are affecting your life. Keeping a journal to write about your feelings, dreams and worries can be a helpful tool in the recovery process. It may also be helpful to contact the Counseling Center to schedule an appointment to talk about your feelings and learn new coping strategies.

TALKING ABOUT THE ASSAULT VS. KEEPING THE SECRET

Some survivors may feel compelled to tell others about the assault, some feel it must be hidden from everyone or from certain people. Such risks are real, since some people may not be supportive or may not believe the survivor and blame him/her for what happened. It is extremely important for survivors to be able to talk about the assault, their feelings about it, and how it has changed their life.

If you are a survivor, here are some tips that may help: It's important to talk about the assault with people you trust. The assault was NOT your fault. It doesn't matter what the circumstances were that led up to the assault - if you flirted with the person, if you chose to have sex with the person before, or if you were drinking. Rather, the focus needs to be on the behavior of the perpetrator. Often, people who do not want to believe that sexual assault can happen to anyone, may respond with disbelief. It's important to remember these reactions, as painful and frustrating as they may be, do not change the fact that the sexual assault was not your fault. If you want to talk with someone who is knowledgeable about sexual assault and sensitive to the needs of survivors, contact the Counseling Center to schedule an appointment.

CONCERN FOR THE ASSAILANT

Some survivors express concern about what will happen to the assailant if the attack is reported or prosecuted. Others express a concern that an assailant is sick or ill or needs psychiatric care more than prison. It is human to show concern for others, especially those who are troubled, destructive and confused. Some of these attitudes may be the result of the survivor's effort to understand what happened, particularly if there was a previous relationship. These attitudes might also be the result of the survivor's blaming themselves for the assault. If a survivor feels sorry for the assailant, they might find it difficult to express their anger and indignation for what they have suffered.

If you are a survivor, here are some tips that may help: The sexual assault was not your fault. Only the assailant is responsible for what happened. You have a right to feel and express anger. It is important to hold the assailant accountable. You can have mixed feelings - you can love/like the assailant as a person and still hate what the person did. Pushing yourself to prematurely "forgive" the assailant may force you to bury your appropriate feelings of anger and rage. Reporting the sexual assault may be one way you choose to turn your anger into a positive action. Reporting may also be the only way for the assailant to get help. However, reporting is a personal choice and you should not feel pressured to report the assault if this is not what you wish to do.

SEXUAL CONCERNS

Survivors may experience a variety of sexual concerns after an assault. Some survivors may want no sexual contact whatsoever, others may use sex as a coping mechanism. Some people may experience some confusion about separating sex from sexual abuse. Particular sexual acts may provoke flashbacks and thus be very difficult for the survivor to engage in.

If you are a survivor, here are some tips that may help: Sexual healing takes time, go at your own pace. Be very clear with your partner about your needs and limits when it comes to any type of sexual touching or sexual contact. You have a right to refuse to be sexual until you are ready. Tell your partner what kinds of physical or sexual intimacy feel comfortable to you. Rape is not sex. Intimate consensual lovemaking should be pleasurable for both partners. A patient, gentle, intimate partner is helpful in your healing process. If your partner would like information on how to support you, let him/her know that they can also speak to a counselor at the Counseling Center.

POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD, involves a pattern of symptoms survivors may experience after a sexual assault. Symptoms of PTSD include repeated thoughts of the assault; memories and nightmares; avoidance of thoughts, feelings and situations related to the assault; and increased stimulation (e.g., difficulty sleeping and concentrating, jumpiness, irritability). One study that examined PTSD symptoms among women who were raped found that 94% of women experienced these symptoms during the two weeks immediately following the rape. Nine months later, about 30% of the women were still reporting this pattern of symptoms. The National Women's Study reported that almost 1/3 of all rape survivors develop PTSD, sometime during their lives and 11% of rape survivors currently suffer from PTSD.

If you are a survivor, here are some tips that may help: Treatment for PTSD typically begins with a detailed evaluation and the development of a treatment plan that meets the unique needs of the survivor. PTSD-specific treatment is usually begun only after people have been safely removed from a crisis situation. the Counseling Center can help you deal with the symptoms of PTSD.

 

Source: The Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education ~Volunteer Prevention Educator Training Manual 2007, The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities