Being sexually assaulted can have a long-term, lasting physical and emotional impact. What happens in the moments and days that follow sexual assault can reduce or compound those effects. Victimization may cause medical conditions that require attention, including injury, pregnancy, or sexually transmitted infections. The prompt collection of evidence increases the likelihood a perpetrator will be brought to justice.
The degree to which someone feels comfortable sharing what happened to them with their loved ones [and supported when they do] can affect healing and recovery in a myriad of ways. One of the best ways to support survivors is to become aware of common physical and emotional responses to traumatic events and where to find advocacy and other resources.
How Do People Respond to Sexual Assault?
Reactions to sexual assault vary, as do timelines for recovery. The following are a few of the normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. These responses are not specific to sexual assault, they’re common following any traumatic event.
It’s not unusual to feel:
- relieved [to have survived]
Other common reactions include:
- difficulty sleeping, nightmares, night terrors
- difficulty focusing and concentrating
- hypervigilance – being on guard or startled easily
- lack of trust
- loss of appetite
- loss of faith
- memory loss, gaps in memory
- reliving [intrusion] – having a visceral response, a panic attack, when confronted with certain reminders
- ruminating – having the event play over and over in one’s mind
- substance abuse
- suicidal ideation
- withdrawal [constriction] – pulling back from friends, family, hobbies
Following a Sexual Assault
Hopefully this is information you will never need, for yourself or your loved ones. The priorities following an assault are always physical and emotional safety. Someone who was assaulted has just experienced something unimaginable and traumatizing.
- first, ensure you’re physically safe and out of danger
- seek medical attention
- ask about a Sexual Assault Forensic Exam [SAFE]
- if the assault may have been drug-facilitated, ask for a screening
- record everything you remember, through an official police report or on your own
Medical vs. Forensic Examinations
Following an assault, a medical examiner will test for sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, and treat any internal or external injuries.
Forensic examinations are used to collect and preserve evidence that could later be used by law enforcement or in legal proceedings. To avoid inadvertently eliminating evidence, obtain a forensic exam prior to showering or cleaning up. Although some forms of evidence disappear within 48 to 72 hours after sexual assault, other types can be collected for up to a week.
Deciding to collect evidence is not the same as deciding to file charges or move forward with legal action.
Sexual Assault Disclosures
Sharing something as personal as sexual assault takes courage and trust. That person may have waited years before sharing. You may be the first person they’ve opened up to. Avoid letting your emotional responses to what happened to them override your ability to provide support. Keep the focus on them.
If someone comes to you:
- just listen, don’t press for additional information
- stay with them, let them know they’re not alone
- inform them about local and national resources
- let them know you understand it took courage to come forward
- thank them for trusting you with their story
- tell them you care about them and their safety
- avoid saying anything that could be construed as pity
- be empathetic
- let them know what they’re feeling is normal
- don’t dismiss, invalidate, or attempt to lessen their emotions
- if they start to express guilt or shame, emphasize that what happened wasn’t their fault
- let them know they can come to you again, encourage them to reach out for support
- know your limits, don’t promise specific support unless you’re sure you can deliver
- follow up, check in on them later
- engage in self-care [lots of it!]
Using an Empowerment Approach
Most crisis centers take an “empowerment approach” to interactions with survivors. To be sexually assaulted is to be treated as inhuman, as an object, it’s an unimaginably vulnerable position to be in. Someone who’s been violated had their ability to control what was happening to their own body taken away. Sexual assault is as devastating psychologically as it is physically. Worse yet, the person who perpetrated the act, the majority of the time, was someone the victim knew, trusted, perhaps even loved.
It’s vital that those who are supporting survivors during healing and recovery reverse the assault dynamic. They can do this, in part, by acting in ways that are predictable, and reestablish trust, while ensuring survivors retain their own voice and are making their own choices. To reclaim their power, victims must make difficult decisions about what is best for them, moving forward, even when those supporting them might disagree with their choices. Advocates are often taught to avoid doing things for survivors, no matter how much they feel the desire to, because “doing” for oneself is a small but crucial step in the journey from victim to survivor.
Trained victim advocates are available, locally, to assist and support those who’ve been sexually assaulted. Advocates accompany survivors of sexual assault during medical treatment, forensic exams, and also attend court hearings. They’ll explain all available options, victim’s rights, and provide referrals to other local resources.
National Sexual Assault Resources
The national sexual assault telephone hotline is 800.656.HOPE . Those who staff the hotline are not only trained to respond to someone in crisis, they can also refer the person calling to short and long-term local resources.
A multitude of helpful and informative resources can be found at RAINN [Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network]. The site includes content created specifically for survivors, friends, family members, advocates, medical professionals, and educators.
NSVRC [the National Sexual Violence Resource Center] provides research related to sexual violence in the workplace, the military, and Hollywood. They also have a podcast that covers a wide range of topics, including Designing Environments to Prevent Sexual Violence.
NAESV [the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence] was formed by state advocates, educators, and leaders, to “provide a missing voice in Washington for state coalitions and local programs advocating and organizing against sexual violence and for survivors.”