Healing and Recovery
Being sexually assaulted can be a very traumatic experience. Feelings of violation can evoke many reactions. This page is designed to assure survivors that they are not alone and their reactions are normal.
An individual who has experience trauma may respond in a wide variety of ways. Whatever you feel is a natural response to the sexual violence or violent crime.
Fear of the rapist
Because of direct threats made by a rapist or because media rape stores sensationalize rape, it is likely that a victim felt that they would either be brutally injured or killed during a rape attack. Normal fear responses may be quite generalized or specific to the rapist. The victim's fear may be particularly strong if the rapist threatened to have them again, as often happens if the rapist suspects the victim will report to the police. Fear of re-attack under any circumstances in a normal human fear. The victim is not crazy or paranoid to be fearful. They need positive reassurance from those around them that life is work living and they need to explore alternate ways of coping with the attack. Help the victim express and specify their fears. Encourage them to list all the things they can do to protect themselves, including some things that are unacceptable to them (such as staying home all the time behind heavily locked doors). Whatever they decide, their plan should be clear in their mind and simple to put into operation even when they are emotionally upset.
The rape victim's feelings of guilt are difficult for them to deal with and will likely have an effect on their decision to contact the police. Many victim's have internalized the prevalent mythology which emphasized the idea that victims are to blame for having been raped. It is important to let them talk and try to help them define in precise terms what they might have done "wrong" - and what they might have done differently. Talk to them about what is a 'Rapable Offense': hitchhiking? going on a date? asking your neighbor in for a drink? going to a singles bar? Help them to give responsibility for the assault to whom it belongs - the offender.
Loss of control over their own lives
The rapist has forced the victim to submit to something they did not want to do. Possible, they harbored some ideas before the rape that rape couldn't happen to them, that they would be able to resist or that they could take care of themselves. Since the rapist overcame their resistance by force or fear, they no longer feel sure of anything about themselves and their self-determination. Sometimes even little decisions like whether to have a cigarette or whether to each become momentous things. The victim practically has to repossess themselves after the rape took possession by force. The have to reassert the value of doing things for themselves, they have to insist to themselves that they are worthwhile and that they still have willpower and can control their lives.
The victim may be embarrassed to discuss the physical details of the assault. Our bodies and sexual activity have always been regarded as private and their privacy has been savagely stripped from them by another. Telling anyone at all, including medical and law enforcement personnel, may be painful.
Wondering, "Why me?"
Some victims wonder why the rapist chose them. What is it about them that separates them from others? These feelings arise from the common mistaken belief that rape happens to victims who "ask for it", or who in some other way made themselves noticeable. It may be helpful to them to know that this is a common, normal feeling of rape victims and that anyone can be raped. To help the victim see this, try to get them to tell you how they came in contact with the rapist before the rape occurred. The rapist probably maneuvered the situation to lead to the rape. In short, they should be reminded that the rapist made the decision to assault them.
This can be one of the more healthy feelings felt by rape victims, yet is is not commonly seen immediately after a rape. When it is seen in the early stages of the rape trauma syndrome, it is often misdirected anger (directed at family, the system, or generalized to all men, it it was a male perpetrator). If the victim is directing their anger at the rapist, they should be encouraged to express it freely. If they are misdirecting their anger, try to help them understand what they are doing, and help them to identify the person they are really angry at. It may be, also, that the victim is angry at themselves for allowing themselves to get into the situation; this is a form of misdirected anger.
How to help the healing process:
Many survivors find it helpful to talk to a counselor trained to understand and assist victims of sexual assault.
Counseling may be useful for recovering a sense of control over your life, thinking through the pros and cons of reporting, getting back on track academically, deciding who will be the best support during recovery, coping with not being believed, or dealing with self blame and loss of confidence.
Western offers a support group, Women Supporting Women, for sexual assault survivors quarterly. This group is open to anyone who has ever experienced any kind of sexual violence including:
- Child sexual abuse
- Acquaintance or "date" rape
- Stranger rape
- Attempted rape
Topics discussed in group include feelings, boundaries, assertiveness, building healthy relationships, healing your sexuality, anger, guilt and coping with stress.
Other ideas for coping and beginning the healing process:
- Writing in a journal
- Talking to a trusted friend
- Volunteering at the local rape crisis center or battered women's shelter
Source: Adapted from Crime and Sexual Assault Services (CASAS) website, Student Affairs, WWU