Common Reactions to Sexual Assault
The psychological trauma caused by a sexual assault can be severe and long-lasting.
Because people react in very different ways to stress, it is not possible to predict
exactly how you will feel. It may be helpful, however, for you to know some of the
most common responses of sexual assault victims.
Shock and disbelief:
- "I feel numb."
- "I can't believe this happened to me."
- "I feel disconnected from other people and from my life."
Initially, most sexual assault victims react with shock and disbelief. You may feel
numb and dazed, withdrawn and distant from other people. You may want to forget about
what happened and avoid people or situations that remind you of the assault.
Remembering what happened and what it felt like:
- "Sometimes, I can't stop thinking about it."
- "For weeks, I couldn't wash away his smell."
- "It comes back out of nowhere. I feel like it's happening all over again."
There may also be periods when you are preoccupied with thoughts and feelings about
the assault. You may have unwanted memories or flashbacks and nightmares. When you
think about what happened, you may re-experience some of the sensations and feelings
you had during the assault, such as fear and powerlessness.
- "I feel very sad, like I lost a part of me."
- "I have this intense anger that I never felt before."
Many survivors experience intense emotions in the aftermath of a sexual assault. At
times, you may feel angry. You may also feel anxious or depressed.
- "I couldn't sleep through the night. I had trouble falling asleep and then I would wake up every night at the same time that the rape happened."
Some victims have physical symptoms, such as sleep disturbances, headaches, and stomachaches.
You may find that it is very difficult to concentrate on routine activities. You may
also experience changes in your sexuality, such as a loss of interest in sex or avoidance
of sexual situations.
- "Every night when I come home, I search my apartment. I look in the closets and under the bed to be sure no one is there."
- "I can't go out alone at night because I am too scared."
Fears about personal safety are an almost universal response to a sexual assault.
Survivors often become fearful in situations and places where they were never frightened
before. In many sexual assault situations, the victim feels powerless and/or terrified
of being killed or seriously harmed. Afterwards, you may continue to feel frightened
and vulnerable for a while.
Self-blame and shame
- "I felt like it was my fault, I trusted him...."
- "I wondered if guys would think I was damaged goods."
Feelings of guilt and shame are also frequent reactions. Because of misconceptions
about rape, victims may blame themselves, doubt their own judgment, or wonder if they
were in some way responsible for the assault. Feelings of guilt and self-blame may
be reinforced by the reactions of others, who, because of prevalent myths about rape,
may blame the victim or criticize his or her behavior. You may also feel ashamed.
Some victims describe feeling dirty, devalued, and humiliated as a result of a sexual
assault. Feelings of shame are sometimes a reaction to being forced by the assailant
to participate in the crime.
Each person is different....it takes time to feel better
- "One minute I feel okay and I think I can deal with what happened, and then the next minute I feel overwhelmed and weak. Sometimes it seems like it will never go away."
- "It's been 8 months since my rape. It's still always there, but I don't think about it every day anymore."
Each person is unique. Although many victims experience similar reactions, there are still individual differences in how they respond to the trauma of rape. You may experience some or all of these symptoms. They may occur immediately, or you may have a delayed reaction weeks or months later. Certain situations, such as seeing the assailant or testifying in court, may intensify the symptoms or cause them to reoccur after a period during which you have been feeling better.
*Source: Rape Treatment Center - UCLA Medical Center