It can be helpful to know how you might react in the aftermath of a rape or sexual assault. First of all, here is no such thing as a ‘typical reaction’. Everyone reacts differently, and there is no ‘should’ or ‘should not’, or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to feel or react. Your responses are your body and nervous system’s way of trying to protect you, and these are all individual.
For example, some initial feelings and behaviours that callers have described to us include feeling calm, detached, disbelief, denial, distress, crying, shock, withdrawal, confusion, panic, fear or feeling dirty or ashamed.
When physical concerns have been taken care of, emotional pain will probably still be there. Everyone deals with the effects of sexual violence differently, but it often takes time. Our free helpline at Mayo Rape Crisis Centre (1800 234 900) is available during office hours if you would like emotional support, or you can call the National Rape Crisis Helpline which operates 24 hours a day at 1800 778 888.
If you can, confide in someone you trust; talking about your feelings can help you to deal with them. However, never feel pressured to describe or disclose anything you feel uncomfortable about. Reliving the experience may or may not be helpful – trust your instincts.
Some of the emotional impacts of rape or sexual violence can include:
Powerlessness and loss of control
“I feel so helpless. Will I ever be in control again?”
Because all forms of sexual violation involve a wrestling of power from the victim, talking about what happened can facilitate the empowerment of the person affected. By having someone listen and respecting their decisions and choices, the survivor can begin to regain a sense of control of their life.
“I feel so numb. Why am I so calm? Why can’t I cry?”
After an assault has occurred, many victims experience periods of emotional numbness. This is a shock response and is often misinterpreted by those around them. For example, it may be taken as an indication that they are in control of the situation, are calm and relatively unharmed, or even that they are fabricating their experience of the assault. However, emotional numbness is not an uncommon reaction to severe trauma. It should be interpreted as a victim’s ‘frontline’ defence against the overwhelming reality that they have been sexually assaulted.
“Was it really sexual assault? I’m okay. I’ll be alright.”
Following the initial shock of the assault, or even months later, a victim may deny to others or to themselves that they have been assaulted. They try to suppress the memory of what has happened in an attempt to regain the previous stability of their lives.
Denial also plays a part in the ranking of types of sexual assault. For instance, some victims may feel that if the offender did not penetrate them they were not sexually assaulted, or alternatively, if the offender did not ejaculate then it was not as bad etc.
It must be remembered that sexual assault exists on a continuum and that all forms of sexual harassment and violation are experienced as threatening and can have devastating consequences for those affected.
Survivors of sexual assault often experience sleepless nights and/or nightmares. The nightmare may involve reliving the assault/s which indicates that they have unresolved issues pertaining to the assault. It is the counsellor’s role to support the victim in the process of sifting through these issues.
It is also important to affirm that as the healing process continues, the nightmares or sleepless nights will become less frequent.
Memories of the assault often return without warning. Sometimes these flashbacks will be so vivid that the victim feels as if they have re-lived the experience of assault. Counselling can reassure the survivor that flashbacks are not the result of irreversible psychological damage or an indicator of mental health issues. They represent a trauma response which, like nightmares, will decrease as issues are resolved and the healing process progresses.
“I feel as if I did something to make this happen. If only I hadn’t…”
Victims of sexual assault may feel that they could have avoided it by acting differently. These types of reactions are often strongly linked to the myths about sexual assault that prevail in the community, which frequently blame the victim rather than the offender. The behaviour and reactions of friends, family, police, lawyers and social workers may reinforce the victim’s own feeling that s/he ‘asked for it’.
The victim may also feel guilty that they have brought shame on their family and themselves by talking about it or reporting it to the police. Similarly, if they believe they could have resisted more forcefully they may also feel at fault.
This is particularly true for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse who tend to see themselves as they are now, as adults, rather than as they were at the time of the abuse.
Rape or sexual assault is never the fault of survivors; the responsibility rests solely with perpetrators.
“I feel so dirty, like there is something wrong with me now. Can you tell that I’ve been raped? What will people think?”
Many people who have been sexually assaulted feel intensely ashamed and embarrassed. They often feel dirty and in some way ‘marked for life’. This reaction may prevent victims from speaking out about the assault. Cultural background factors can intensify such feelings. Underpinning these reactions is the internalisation of the myths pertaining to sexual assault. Working through these assumptions can ensure appropriate relocation of responsibility for the assault to the offender.
Loss of confidence
“I feel I can’t do anything any more….even the simplest things.”
The experience of assault exposes the victim to the stark reality that they cannot always protect themselves no matter how hard they try. The assault is not only an invasion of the victim’s physical self but also the intellectual, social and emotional self. The experience of assault brings vulnerability issues to the fore which can devastate self confidence and destroy assumptions about the world and your place within it.
“I’m disgusted by myself, by the memories. I’m just worthless.”
Given that sexual assault disempowers, humiliates and degrades victims, it is not surprising that victims often experience low self esteem. Again, by exploring the reality of what happened the victim can begin to reframe their own part in it and to release themselves from self-blame and other entrenched responses which may contribute to a sense of low self-esteem.
While these feelings are real, that does not mean that you will always feel that way. Support is available. And you are never to blame for the actions of a perpetrator of rape or sexual violence.