The Emotional Impact of Sexual Assault and Rape

When a victim is raped or sexually assaulted, there is one particularly personal topic that their friends and family will want to understand, and that the victim may well be confused about themselves: their emotional and psychological reactions.

Rape and sexual assault can trigger a rollercoaster of emotions.

At the time of the violation itself, victims may feel immense fear, horror and shock. They may not be able to believe what is happening to them – especially if the perpetrator is someone they trusted, as is usually the case. If they had trusted the person, they are likely to feel utterly betrayed. Whether they knew the perpetrator or not, they are likely to feel devastated – or conversely they may feel totally numb.

These are all common initial reactions.

But it is important for victims’ loved ones to understand that even once the assault is over and the immediate physical danger passed, the victim is likely to continue suffering. They will still need your support, and the first step to giving that support is to try to understand what the victim may be feeling – this article will hopefully help with that.

If you’ve been raped or sexually assaulted, please know that there is no right or wrong way to feel – everyone’s experiences and reactions are unique. Whether you feel completely overwhelmed with emotion or totally numb, whether you can relate to the emotions I’m going to describe or not – everything you feel, whatever that may be, is totally justified and completely normal. Sexual violence is a terrible thing, and everyone reacts in their own way. Please believe that although what you feel is unique to you, you are not alone.

Fear

Fear is often one of the dominant emotions following an ordeal or rape or sexual assault. At the time of the event itself victims often feel extremely frightened by what is happening, and may fear “how far” the perpetrator will go. Afterwards, when they think back to the assault and remember it, they are likely to feel the same sense of fear – as if they are reliving it.

This leads onto my next point – victims’ fear of the court process. If a victim bravely decides to report the crime to the police, they will do so in the knowledge that they are likely to be ruthlessly cross-examined by the defence and forced to relive the assault all over again. It is common knowledge that defence barristers are merciless and try every trick in the book to try to break victims, to discredit them, to try to trick juries into thinking that the victim is lying – it’s nothing personal; it’s their job. There has been a recent high-profile case of a sexual abuse victim being so horrifically cross-examined that they committed suicide. Victims may very validly fear that the trial itself will be as traumatic, if not more so, than the initial attack.

Another massive fear that victims have is of not being believed, whether that’s by the police, the jury, or their friends – particularly if they share any friends with their abuser. The thought of not only being sexually assaulted, but of also losing friends if they choose to believe the perpetrator over them, is absolutely devastating and mortifying for victims.

Another, much darker fear that victims may have is a fear that the perpetrator will do it again – whether to them or someone else.

A final fear that any victim reporting the crime to the police will have is that the perpetrator will somehow get away with it – that they will be found not guilty or given a mere slap on the wrist for their actions. Such a miscarriage of justice is something that many victims cannot even bear to think about.

Shock

Victims will typically be completely shocked and horrified by what has happened to them. Most perpetrators of sexual violence are known to and trusted by the victim – they are people such as partners, friends and family members. They are “nice” people who we do not expect to do such a terrible thing.

Anger

Anger is an emotion that victims often encounter after they have recovered from the initial fear and shock of what happened to them. It is normal for victims to feel incredibly angry about what their abuser did to them. Victims of sexual violence were, by definition, not consenting – the perpetrator had no right to touch them so intimately, so completely against their will. It is only natural that victims are often furious with their abuser for disregarding their lack of consent; for taking away their dignity and their fundamental right to control what happens to their body.

Perpetrators often try to justify why they committed the rape or sexual assault. This is infuriating – there is no justification for rape or sexual assault. Nothing ever makes it OK. Perpetrators of single instances of sexual violence may simply brush it off as a one-off mistake that shouldn’t count against them. Such arrogance and self-delusion with regards to their own virtuousness will obviously make victims angrier still.

Furthermore, victims may feel angry with themselves if they have not yet reported the incident to the police. They may feel that they are letting their abuser “get away with it” – it is often when this anger grows stronger than their fear that they will finally manage to report the incident.

And finally, for those victims who have not felt able to report the crime to the police, or whose abusers have been found “not guilty” by a jury, there is of course the anger that their abuser gets to live a normal, free life, while in contrast the victim must live every day with the emotional and psychological consequences of what happened to them.

Guilt

This ties in with the haunting fear that the perpetrator may go on to abuse someone else. If this were to happen, the victim may feel intense guilt for not reporting their abuser to the police and “preventing” the later attack. Such guilt is, however, misplaced – the perpetrator alone is responsible for their actions.

Victims may also feel guilty if they have not told certain people what they are going through. Every time they pretend that everything is OK, they may feel like they are lying by omission.

Sadness

Usually, the abuser is someone close to the victim. They may be a spouse, partner, friend, or family member. The victim may have had a lot of good memories with the perpetrator, but these will now be forever tarnished and overshadowed by what the perpetrator did to the victim. It can be a very sad experience to lose someone who was once so close, once such a good friend. In such cases, although the victim may want to pursue justice through the courts, this will likely bring them closure and relief only, not happiness.

Humiliation and embarrassment

Rape and sexual assault are sexual crimes, so by their very nature they are humiliating and embarrassing to discuss with others. It may seem petty to worry about this, but many victims will feel uncomfortable about having to describe the intimate details of what happened to them to the police and in the courtroom.

Shame

Unfortunately there is a huge shame aspect to being a victim of sexual assault or rape. Even though it is never the victim’s fault, there is still this cloud of shame that hangs collectively over their heads – like embarrassment mixed with self-loathing. It is a result of rape culture, and it is a dreadful feeling to have to feel on top of everything else. Victims must remind themselves that they have nothing to be ashamed of. However, although it can be easy to believe this on a cognitive level, on an emotional level it can still occasionally creep in, insidious.

If you’ve been the victim of sexual assault or rape and you feel ashamed, please know that none of this is your fault – you are absolutely not to blame. Your attacker alone is responsible for their actions.

Cowardice

Victims may sometimes feel like they are a coward if they have not yet having had the confidence to report the crime to the police. It’s an awful feeling and is deeply mixed in with the shame mentioned above. Victims may hate themselves sometimes for this feeling of perceived weakness. It is important to remember that reporting a crime and taking it through the criminal justice system is a legitimately frightening prospect. If you’re a victim who has not yet plucked up the courage to report the incident to the police, you are not weak.

Worthlessness

If the victim clearly communicated their lack of consent, for example if they verbally said “no” multiple times, or turned away, or tried to escape, but the perpetrator continued regardless, this can lead to feelings of severe worthlessness in the victim.

Why? Because if the victim made it so abundantly clear that they weren’t consenting, then the perpetrator must have truly thought nothing of the victim to completely ignore them.

Bitterness

It is natural to feel incredibly bitter about this whole situation. The feeling of “Why did it have to happen to me?” is a powerful one. It is never the victim’s fault. No one ever deserves it. It is not fair.

Panic

Victims can sometimes be gripped with a strong sense of panic when they remember what happened to them, or if certain memories are triggered. Triggers can include someone unexpectedly mentioning the abuser’s name or saying something that reminds the victim of them.

Nightmares

Nightmares featuring the assault itself, or the abuser, or friends’ disbelieving reactions, or the court process, are all common. Persistent nightmares may be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or another disorder. If you’re worried, you should see your GP.

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