Adult Sexual Assault – For Survivors
Whatever happened to you, YOU were not the cause of the sexual assault. YOU did not make it happen.
Sometimes physical force is used, or the threat of force. An offender usually chooses someone he/she thinks he can dominate and control, or one they can overpower. Therefore it is natural to feel humiliated and powerless after you have been sexually assaulted.
Offenders make no exceptions – they assault young or old, people known to them or total strangers, male or female, rich or poor, attractive or plain, people with or without disabilities.
Most sexual offenders are male but women also sexually abuse. Most offenders are “average” men and women. Some may be more violent, some more insecure. Many are married or have partners. It is most likely someone you know and possibly even felt you could trust.
It is hard to know who will offend – a neighbor, a friend, your partner, a relative, your best friend’s partner, or a stranger.
Are my feelings normal?
Sexual assault is a violation of your body, safety and your rights to be in control of you – so afterwards you may have a lot of different feelings and reactions. Everybody reacts differently. There is no right or wrong way for you to feel. The types of feelings described below are all ‘normal’ reactions to what has happened to you. They do not mean that you are going mad – what they do mean is that you are hurting and need space to react in your own way.
Your feelings will tend to come and go and over a period of time you will probably begin to feel stronger and more able to cope with them.
Immediately afterwards, you may experience:
- A numbness, disbelief (“Did this really happen to me?”) and a feeling of isolation
- Fear; terror that you could have been killed. Sometimes there is also a feeling of relief that you have survived the ordeal.
- Feelings of humiliation, disgust and a wish to keep this secret from family and friends; A fear of what might happen if you tell.
- Guilt and regret certain actions (“if only I hadn’t …”)
- Feeling dirty and want to bathe more frequently.
- The need to cry/talk a lot or feel overly calm and controlled. Neither way is “right” or “wrong” if it’s your way.
- a decrease or increase in appetite; difficulty getting to sleep and once you are asleep you may have disturbing dreams.
- difficulty concentrating and continuing your work.
In the longer term you may still experience the emotional effects of the assault, including:
- Mood swings, which can place strain on relationships or how you function at work or school;
- The need to isolate yourself socially or you may not want to be alone at all. Meeting new people may be hard because you don’t know whom to trust.
- feeling vulnerable … and wonder if you will ever feel safe again. You may feel an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.
- Anger, lashing out at those around you.
- Low self esteem, not liking yourself, or feeling angry with yourself about the assault or how you have reacted to it. You may not like your body
- Depression, this can present as feelings of sadness, irritability, agitation or hopelessness.
- Flashbacks, that is, images or memories of the assault triggered by smells, sights and sounds associated with the assault. Or the flashbacks can manifest themselves in bad dreams.
- Sexual relationships – you may feel differently about sex. Some people feel they don’t want to have anything to do with sex for a long time. Sex may bring up images of the rape for you. Some survivors want to reassure themselves that they can still enjoy it, despite what’s happened.
Irrespective of what effects you experience, it is important to allow yourself the time you need to recover from the sexual assault at the pace and with the support that feel are right for you.
How Will My Family and Friends React?
It is important that you receive emotional support and reassurance from the people closest to you.
The people that love you will most probably be shocked, hurt and angry that you have suffered this sexual assault.
They may also, however, be confused about how to deal with their own feelings. They may express their concern in ways that cause you further pain:
- They may pressure you to report to the police before you have had a chance to think about whether that is what you want to do.
- They may believe that the best thing is for them to take charge when you simply need someone to understand and to validate your feelings.
- They may lecture you on getting into a dangerous situation
- They may berate and blame themselves for not having been able to protect you
- They may want to punish the offender themselves – take revenge.
- They may believe that not talking about it will make the whole thing “go away” more quickly.
- They may ask you questions about the assault, which show they don’t understand what it was like for you
Partners may avoid closeness with you or decide that immediate sexual intimacy will help you get over it. They may come over-protective in an attempt to deal with their own sense of helplessness or guilt.
While it can help to understand the feelings of the people who love you, this does not mean you should take responsibility for helping them cope. You are the person who has been sexually assaulted and you need to focus your energies on yourself.
You may feel that you can trust some of your friends and family members to react in a more sensitive way than others. It is up to you to choose who you tell about the assault and what you tell them.
If there is no-one in your life with whom you want to trust your feelings and experiences, or if you simply feel you want more support, you can contact a Sexual Assault Support Agency, where you will receive support and respect for the choices you make.
Will I recover from the assault?
The trauma of a sexual assault is not something that people tend to just ‘get over’. The physical wounds are likely to disappear long before the emotional ones.
Many survivors of a sexual assault describe their recovery as a journey. How you travel that journey is up to you. Recovery often means regaining the control that was taken from you during the sexual assault and allowing the assault to become part of your history rather than being present in your day-to-day life.
There are many “tools” that you can use on your path to recovery. Again, it is very much an individual choice as to what will be helpful. Some options to consider, include:
Counselling – a person trained and experienced in sexual assault counselling can help you to process what you are feeling about the assault. Survivors of sexual violence are usually eligible to access counselling services funded through ACC*. Contact your local sexual assault support agency to find out what counselling services are available in your area.
Video Nina Burrowes – Psychologist ” Should I get Therapy”
Support services – Many sexual assault support agencies offer general support for survivors. This support can be someone at the end of the phone to talk to when you need to, through to someone to accompany you to the police, court, medical examinations and so on.
Friends & Family – Sometimes it can help to talk to people that you can trust to provide support, including family and friends. However, some people may not understand about sexual assault and their reactions may be unhelpful. Talk to people whose judgement you trust, who will not gossip, who will listen carefully to you and who will not judge you.
Meditation – http://www.healingmeditations.co.uk/
Should I go to the police – This is a complicated issue and staff at ARCS can give you information that will help you make the decision that is right for you
Video Nina Burrowes – Psychologist “Should I go to the police”
Dealing With Specific Issues – the effects of sexual assault can lead to specific issues such as drug or alcohol abuse, anxiety, depression, and anger management. It may be beneficial to seek support from specialist services to deal with these issues.
Libraries – there are a number of books written on sexual assault. Try your local library or contact your local sexual assault support agency for recommended books. These resources can help normalize what you are experience and also offer suggestions for “tools” to use in your recovery.
Past Experience – consider strategies that may have helped you deal with stress and traumas in the past. It can be helpful to have a range of activities that can help you “switch off” and relax, e.g. exercise, listening to music, hot bath, gardening. You may also know of activities that have helped you process your emotions in the past, e.g. meditation and relaxation techniques, keeping a diary, drama etc.
*Accident Compensation (ACC)
Sexual assault is legally defined as an injury by accident. You are entitled to claim some of the costs of medical treatment and counselling and also rehabilitation costs in some situations (e.g. burglar alarms). You may also need time off work, which may be compensated by ACC.
An ACC registered counselor will help you complete the forms relevant to counselling claims. Your doctor can assist you to fill out the appropriate forms for documentation of the injury/assault if you are not attending ACC counselling.
Below is a short list of books that other survivors have found useful. All should be available through bookshops or libraries.
Benedict, Helen 1994 How to survive sexual assault: For Women, Men, Teenagers, Their Friends and Families, Columbia University Press, New York.
Braswell, Linda 1989 (last reprinted 2007) Quest for Respect: A Healing Guide for Survivors of Rape. Pathfinder Publishing, USA.
Eastelle, Patricia & McOrmond-Plummer, Louise 2006 Real Rape, Real Pain: Help for Women Sexaully Assaulted by Male Partners. Hybrid, Australia.
Leefman, Charlotte 2005 To Be Alive: An Attack and Afterwards. Auckland Sexual Abuse Help Foundation and Craig Potton Publishing, NZ.