We all have different reactions to difficult experiences and this is true for individuals who have experienced sexual assault. Each victim has a unique reaction to the assault and may respond to the crisis in a variety of ways. Some of the more common responses are described below to help victims and their loved ones better understand the impact of sexual violence.
If you are struggling to support someone who has been sexually assaulted, we invite you to contact us. We can help you process your own feelings and offer the support you need to be strong, respectful, and patient as you support your loved one.
We are here to help all people affected by sexual violence. Let us know how we can support you.
Many sexual assault survivors feel ashamed, embarrassed, and humiliated. This sense may be heightened by misinformation that victims should be able to protect themselves.
Shame and Self-Blame
Many survivors blame themselves for the assault – blame themselves for something they did or didn’t do, for what they wore, for not fighting back. This reaction is often an attempt to regain control. Remember, it is not the victims fault. Only the perpetrator had the power to prevent the assault.
Guilt comes from the sense that the individual could have and should have done something more to protect her- or himself or to prevent the assault.
Fear of People
Some sexual assault survivors thought they were going to lose their lives during the assault and some may still be in the presence of, or in close proximity to, her/his perpetrator, especially in small communities (e.g., family, social groups, rural communities). Over time, the survivor may experience flashbacks that make her/him feel intensely afraid or she/he may experience a less intense, more prolonged sense fear.
Feeling of Loss of Control
Sexual assault, in itself, is a traumatic loss of control. During an assault, an individual’s right to make decisions about their body and control the contact they have with another person is destroyed. After the assault, this loss of control may result in difficulty making decisions or asserting feelings and needs.
Concern for the Perpetrator
In some cases, a survivor may express concern about what will happen to the perpetrator if the assault is reported to the police. The victim may know, care about, and/or be dependent upon the offender (as in the case of an intimate partner). This is a valid reaction and, while it may be confusing or frustrating, a victim’s support system can be instrumental in understanding those feelings while keeping her/him safe.
An assault is a profound loss and is characterized by intense sadness. A survivor may feel her or his life has been shattered to such an extent that she or he will never recover. A strong support system can help relieve this grief and move the victim through the healing process.
A deep feeling of emptiness, remorse, and unhappiness may set in following a sexual assault. This reaction may result in survivors feeling hopeless, immobilized, and unable to make decisions. Depression often makes survivors feel like everything is going wrong and nothing will ever be resolved.
Some survivors respond to the trauma of an assault by minimizing the experience, refusing to talk about the assault, or by blocking it out of their consciousness altogether.
Anger and Irritability
Sexual assault can result in tremendous rage. While anger is a natural and healthy response, it may be misdirected towards family members, the law enforcement official, attorneys, or others who may be trying to offer assistance. However, sometimes this anger is appropriately directed towards people surrounding the survivor. A trained sexual assault advocate can help victims and loved ones better understand this reaction and guide healthy, safe expression of this anger.
Preoccupation with Disease, Pregnancy, or Death
Survivors may focus on the worst-case physical outcomes that may accompany the sexual assault. HIV infection is a common concern, and survivors may react to the assault by focusing on their potential mortality. It is important to take these concerns seriously. Some survivors may have still be in danger or may require medical attention.
Risk of Suicide
Some survivors of sexual assault may respond by contemplating and/or threatening suicide. It is important to be aware of this risk and to take any signs of suicide seriously.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that arises from emotionally traumatic experiences. These are situations in which one has felt intense fear, or helplessness. Prolonged symptoms such as flashbacks or nightmares where the trauma event is re-experienced; avoidance when the survivor tries to reduce exposure to people or things that might bring on intrusive symptoms; and hyper vigilance, or increased startle response, may indicate that someone is suffering from PTSD.
Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. It is when many symptoms persist for weeks or months, or when they are extreme, that professional help may be needed. The risk for PTSD increase with the number of times a person is exposed to trauma and with early childhood experiences.
Approximately 1/3 of rape survivors will develop PTSD.
Trauma survivors with PTSD often experience problems such as:
- Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep; severe nightmares
- Experiencing trauma memories, reminders, or flashbacks
- Reliving trauma memories, avoiding trauma reminders and struggling with feeling fear and anger
- Feeling a lasting sense of terror, horror, vulnerability, and betrayal
- Feelings of intense anger and impulses that may be taken out on loved ones
- Becoming overly dependent upon or overprotective of loved ones
- Loss of interest in social or sexual activities
- Feeling distant from others and emotionally numb
- Unable to relax, socialize, or be intimate without being tense
- Turning to alcohol or drugs to cope
- Experiencing dissociation where they go numb, leave their body, and do not feel anything
- Feelings of depression, loss, sadness, and hopelessness
- Feelings of guilt for not having suffered as much as others
- Becoming aware of one’s own mortality and the possibility of one’s own death
- Having anxiety, fear, and concern for their future safety
- Profound self-criticism over things done or not done during the incident that created the trauma
 National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, 2000.