Surviving Sexual Assault
After sexual assault, it’s hard to know how to react. You may be physically hurt, emotionally drained, or unsure what to do next. Learning more about what steps you can take following sexual violence can help ground you in a difficult time.
Recovering from sexual assault or abuse is a process, and that process looks different for everyone. No one person's story is alike. No one survivor's experience is the same. It may take weeks, months, or years: there’s no timetable for healing.
The physical, mental and spiritual effects following sexual assault and rape are difficult to cope with. If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the following effects listed below, know that you are not alone and there are many resources that can help.
We believe in empowering survivors of sexual assault and rape. We understand how difficult the pain of these experiences can be, and we honor the process of acknowledging these effects with the goal to help guide each person’s individual path to healing.
After a traumatic experience such as a rape or an assault, it is common for a survivor to feel shaken or unlike him or herself. It is a complex form of trauma that breaches the physical, mental and spiritual trust of a person against their will. This can affect a person’s mentality, especially during youth when the brain is highly elastic during its formative years.
Below are some of the common mental effects of sexual assault and rape:
PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event. Some common symptoms associated with PTSD are flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping for a while. But with time and support, such traumatic reactions usually get better.
Depression. Depression is more than common feelings of temporary sadness. Symptoms can include prolonged sadness, feelings of hopelessness, unexplained crying, changes in appetite with significant weight loss or gain, loss of energy or loss of interest and pleasure in activities previously enjoyed. Depression can affect a person’s outlook, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness. This, in turn, can impact his or her thought process and ability to make decisions. In extreme cases of depression, people may even experience suicidal thoughts and/or attempts. If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, refer them to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK.
Dissociation. Dissociation usually refers to feeling like one has “checked out” or is not present. In some instances of dissociation, people may find themselves daydreaming. But in situations where dissociation is chronic and more complex it may impair an individual's ability to function in the “real” world, such as not being able to focus on work related duties or being able to concentrate on schoolwork.1
Coping with the effects of sexual assault and rape can be overwhelming. Some survivors may engage in substance abuse of drugs or alcohol to help him or her cope with the overwhelming feelings. Because a survivor’s control and sense of safety security have been taken away by the perpetrator, engaging in these self-injurious behaviors can also bring a sense of control over a person’s environment and serve as a release of tension. Although not always performed with suicidal intent, substance abuse can result in severe harm or death. And though these coping strategies may seem to bring immediate relief, that feeling is only temporary and these behavior can lead to more challenges in the future.
It is common for a survivor of sexual violence to experience an array of feelings that may be confusing and can create more anxiety, such as anger, distrust and feeling unsafe. It is also common to experience these feelings if you know someone who has experienced an assault or rape. Acknowledge these feelings, and make sure to practice self-care. There is no “correct” way to react to these experiences, and each person who experiences a traumatic event responds differently. The important thing is to be patient. Know that if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is not your fault and you are not alone.
Again, the effects of sexual abuse can vary for each individual. If you have a specific question, visit rainn.org to learn more about potential impacts.
In addition to these mental and emotional effects of trauma, sexual assault and rape are crimes that violate the body and bring many physical responses to the forefront. The perpetrator can impose physical harm on a victim. Sometimes, there is no physical injury or harm at all to a survivor—that does not mean what happened was not sexual abuse or assault. There can also be physical effects to trauma that that become apparent, either in the immediate aftermath of the experience or that manifest in waves later on. In the case of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections or diseases, some physical effects are biological responses.
The immediate physical effects a person can experience after a sexual assault or rape can include:
- Bleeding (vaginal or anal)
- Difficulty walking
- Broken or dislocated bones
Possible prolonged physical effects of sexual assault can include:
Sexually transmitted infections and diseases. There is a risk of sexually transmitted infection or disease, especially if the perpetrator didn’t use protection during the assault. Medical aftercare may be necessary to ensure that any infections and/or diseases are treated.
In approximately 5% percent of cases, rape results in pregnancy.2 A survivor who becomes pregnant after being raped might experience conflicting feelings about her pregnancy. It’s important to know it is common to have these emotions. It’s essential to treat this with compassion and acknowledge any feelings brought up when exploring best options for self-care. If you or someone you know is pregnant as a result of a rape, Planned Parenthood has comprehensive list of local and national resources.
Physical signs of a sexual assault or rape are not always evident. A person could also experience internal damage that may not be easily identifiable unless he or she sees a doctor.
Additionally, there can be emotional impacts that affect the mind, body and spirit of survivors. Due to high levels of stress created by the abuse, a person can experience chronic fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle tension, involuntary shaking, changes in eating and sleeping patterns and even sexual dysfunction. In women, issues with menstrual cycle or fertility are also common.
Other spiritual and emotional effects of trauma include:
- Changes in how we view trust
- Anger and blame
- Loss of control
- Sense of vulnerability
- Self-blame/guilt for "allowing" the crime to happen
- Feeling that these reactions are a sign of weakness
Know that these feelings are not uncommon for survivors of sexual assault, and the reason you are experiencing any of them is not your fault. The healing process takes time, safety and attention to self-care. Small activities that bring peace or joy, such as practicing meditation once a day, painting or cooking, can make a world of difference. Just as each person will react to a traumatic event differently, each person will heal according to his or her own methods and own time. Know that no one is alone in their healing process and that there are resources for those who want to seek them out and begin on the restorative pathway to healing.
Parts of this section have been adapted from content provided by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.3
1 National Alliance on Mental Illness, via rainn.org, “Dissociative Identity Disorder,” (2000). www.nami.org.
2 Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, “Who are the Victims? Breakdown by Gender and Age.” (2009). www.rainn.org.
3 Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, “Effects of Sexual Assault.” (2009).www.rainn.org.