AAMFT Consumer Update
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Rape Trauma

Girl sitting on floor thinking.Whether it was 10 days ago or 10 years ago, emotions and thoughts may seem overwhelming following a sexual assault. In learning the facts about rape and how to get help, women will discover that the symptoms they experience, while confusing, are to be expected given the trauma of such an attack.

Sexual assault is never the victim's fault--ever. No matter what was said or what clothing the woman wore, whether there was alcohol involved, or if the perpetrator was not a stranger. A woman's body is her own, and no one has permission to do anything against her wishes.

We often think of a sex offender as a faceless monster, but this just isn't the case. While stranger rape is what most women fear, it isn't the most prevalent type of sexual assault. Studies show that 76% of sexual assaults committed against women are by a current or former husband, lover, friend, or date.

There are some circumstances in which a woman is not able to give consent: when forced to engage in the activity; when harm is threatened (either personally or to another); if the woman is drugged, drunk or unconscious; if she is a minor; if she is developmentally disabled; or undergoing a medical procedure.

Sexual assault is defined as any sort of sexual activity in which a person is involved against her will. This is considered a horrible crime to most every man. While each has the tool to commit a sexual assault, a very small number has the cruel intent. We know that a sexual assault takes place approximately every two minutes; however, these numbers may be low because these offences are rarely reported.

The Phases of Recovering from Rape Trauma

One of the myths of rape is that after a certain period of time, the victim must be "over it." This is rarely the case, but if a long time has passed since the assault, she may not be able to connect current issues with the past trauma suffered. There are several phases of trauma based on the time frame since the assault:
  1. The Acute Phase.
    • The Acute phase begins during the attack and lasts several days to several weeks, and while the symptoms experienced during this phase are to be expected, it doesn't make them any less frightening and difficult. The victim may feel as if she can't erase the memory of the assault, have nightmares, or feel edgy all the time.
    • She may feel shock, confusion and denial, in which she doesn't fully acknowledge what's happened, or downplay the experience. Physical symptoms may include disturbances in eating and sleeping, infections, stomachaches, headaches, fatigue and sleeplessness, or soreness and bruising following the assault.
  2. The Reorganization Phase.
    • The Reorganization Phase comes next as she starts to resolve and integrate the sexual assault into her life. It's important for her to seek help so that she can resolve issues, such as lifestyle changes that might not be in her best interest, nightmares, phobias, fears and lingering physical issues. In addition, she may develop something known as "all or nothing" thinking, such as thinking all men are bad or that she's irreparably damaged.
    • Longer-term reactions following sexual assault can include depression, anger, shame, and guilt, social and sexual problems. Severe symptoms may signal Rape-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
    • The goal at this stage is to move from victim to survivor in an effort to regain control over one's life. It is typically at this stage that the woman may consider returning to work or changing careers, considering long-term therapy, self-defense courses and strategizing about having more contact with family.
    • Seeking help, particularly for a crime as intimate and intrusive as sexual assault, can seem overwhelming; however, there are many compassionate and skilled therapists and victim service professionals eager to help women through recovery. In addition, support groups for survivors and partners can prove invaluable during recovery. When a woman is able to recognize her own needs in terms of recovery, it can be helpful for building confidence.
  3. The Emotional Impact
    • While the absence of physical injuries is obviously preferable, the fact remains that there are emotional injuries that others cannot see. There are those who believe that the lack of physical injuries after a rape means that the victim was willing. This is another myth. Every victim does the best she can at the time, and those actions should not be questioned after the fact. The assumptions of others shouldn't be a barrier to recovery; it's best for the victim to be surrounded by those who will believe her and provide the compassion and empathy needed at this traumatic time.
    • Sex offenders often leave their victims with far worse emotional scars than physical, and the grief that the perpetrator visits on the marriage and family can reach proportions that may seem unthinkable. The intimacy that was once so comforting and special between a woman and her partner may have changed. Distance and a feeling of isolation, as if both partners are suffering separately, are not uncommon.
    • The woman's partner has experienced the trauma as well. Of course, the primary concern is the sexual assault victim; however, it's important to recognize that the spouse or significant other may be overwhelmed by what has happened, and having confusing feelings such as guilt, rage, and helplessness.
    • Many partners feel the need to do something and take action, and this is the time that the victim of a traumatic crime can expect to be comforted with unconditional love and support.
  4. The Physical Impact
    • The fear of touching and being touched following sexual assault is a tragic consequence and one that can be discussed with a therapist. Although it may take some time to develop comfort in discussing these subjects, it is an important investment in therapy.
    • Some women may also suffer from some long-lasting physical symptoms including chronic pelvic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, and premenstrual syndrome that make a sexual relationship difficult. Chronic disorders may also be present such as headaches, backaches and facial pain.
    • A victim's partner can be instrumental in recovery from sexual assault. Patience and expert guidance can help a rape victim better communicate her needs to her partner and build an intimate relationship through the sharing of this experience. The bond that is formed by partners who work through recovery together often strengthens a relationship beyond what was considered possible.

The text of this Consumer Update was written by Teresa Lauer, MA.

Use the AAMFT Consumer Update "Rape Trauma" pamphlets to market your practice.

Resources

Books Available on Amazon.com

Other Resources

  • Gift From WithinThis site provides education and support through the development of videotapes, articles, books, resources and a roster of survivors who provide peer support.
  • RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network): RAINN is the nation's largest anti-sexual assault organization providing counseling resources, prevention suggestions and more.

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