With Hollywood leading the charge, a national conversation on sexual assault and harassment has erupted. As sexual misconduct allegations against notable figures in Hollywood continue to surface, a myriad of women and men have come forward to share their stories for the first time. With the explosive popularity of the social networking hashtag #metoo, sexual assault survivors have created a platform to share stories and support.
Sexual violence remains an unfortunate commonality in our society. According to the CDC, nearly 1 in 5 women in the U.S. are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, often by someone they know and trust.
Now more than ever, the importance of coping with sexual assault has been brought to the forefront. While certainly possible, recovering from sexual trauma can be a complex process that looks and feels differently for every sexual assault survivor. Victims of sexual assault often face forms of stigma and similar obstacles that can impede how and when they undergo their own healing process. Potential long-term effects in the aftermath of the assault, such as depression or anger, may also impede a survivor's recovery. It's important to remember that recovery is possible, and that victims of sexual assault can regain safety and trust.
This article offers one guide to overcoming obstacles and healing after sexual assault. Sexual assault survivors may find other or similar methods to aid in their healing journey.
No matter the course, the first step to recovering from sexual trauma is to know and remember that what happened to the victim was not their fault.
Common Obstacles When Coping with Sexual Assault
Many advocates for victims of sexual assault denote the existence of a "rape culture" – or a societal system that promote, permit, and excuse sexual assault. Many sexual assault survivors report that they are met with a variety of personal, professional, legal, and societal obstacles when trying to understand, speak about, or report their sexual assault.
Sexual assault victims may encounter:
- Skepticism: Family members, friends, doctors, and even police officers may imply or state that the victim invited the attack via clothing, behavior, entertainment, location or other factors. Victims who come forward may be scrutinized by how, when, and with whom they share their story.
- Denial or erasure: Victims of sexual assault may also experience others' attempts to outright deny or erase their experiences by claiming they do not align with what is "considered sexual assault" or may even claim the assault didn't really happen. Sexual assault survivors may be accused of being "emotional," "dramatic," or erroneous in relating their experiences.
- Lack of support or options: Victims seeking legal action or filing a police report may be taken less seriously, met with hostility, ignored, or deliberately turned away. Others may find it too expensive or dangerous to pursue legal action or may be pressured to drop their case.
- Myths about sexual assault: Myths about sexual assault can isolate and stigmatize victims. Myths can include the idea that sexual assault is uncommon, invited, or committed by strangers or that it is easy to fight off or stop. Other myths deny the existence of date and marital sexual assault or claim that men cannot be victims of sexual assault.
In the aftermath of sexual assault, it's important for survivors to develop and utilize personal self-care methods to support their healing journey. Self-care often ranges on a spectrum, from resting often and eating well to seeking professional assistance in the form of a trained therapist or counselor.
Potential Long-Term Effects of Dealing with Sexual Assault
Dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault can be a difficult experience. Victims of sexual assault often report feeling shame, terror, depression, guilt and anger. Many blame themselves for the assault. Over time, these feelings can manifest in unhealthy behaviors, reactions, triggers, and thought processes that can impede the quality of a victim's life.
Some of the potential impacts on mental and emotional health in sexual assault survivors include:
- Depression and anxiety: Sexual assault can lead to feelings of loss of control. Victims of sexual assault may feel despondent or a diminishing sense of self-worth. These feelings can lead to mild or intense and suffocating depression. The fear of experiencing another attack may also cause intense anxiety, panic attacks, or chronic fear of certain traits or attributes.
- Post-traumatic stress: In the case of sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might manifest as anxiety, depression, and intense memories of the abuse. Intrusive flashbacks may occur and cause memory or personality disruptions, like mood swings.
- Addiction: Abuse survivors are 26 times more likely to use drugs to help numb the pain of the assault.
- Physical Complications: Sexual assault can leave other types of scars. A person who is assaulted may incur long-lasting health consequences from injuries and bruises sustained in attack. Some victims develop sexually transmitted infections or may become pregnant. Survivors may also experience health concerns such as chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, fertility problems, or other unexplained pains.
Warning Signs and When to Get Help
The first step to recovering from sexual trauma is to recognize the warning signs of sexual assault in yourself or others. Whether you are a recovering survivor or close to one, you can make a difference in someone's journey to recovery by offering support and compassion.
The warning signs of sexual assault or abuse may vary among age groups. Certain experiences like depression, anxiety, suicide ideation, self-harming behavior, or a decline in hygiene are common across all ages. College aged adults and teenagers may experience a sharp decline in grades and increased substance use. Young children exhibit inappropriate sexual behavior or knowledge, develop avoidance or attachment disruptions, and exhibit more nightmares and the fear of being alone.
It's important to notice and act on these signs early. Some victims of sexual assault may be receptive to support immediately; others may feel uncomfortable or react negatively to the involvement of others. Some survivors may not fully remember their assault or admit that they experienced it. Some survivors may not exhibit any of these signs or experience them often. This is okay and does not mean a survivor is less deserving of support.
Every survivor processes and recovers from sexual trauma in their own way. However, if you or a loved one begin to exhibit self-destructive or criminal behavior, consider seeking professional support. Many survivors find solace in a variety of options, including therapy, sexual assault support groups, physical or creative therapy, adopting a new pet and taking self-defense classes.
Chicago Lakeshore Hospital Women's Trauma Programs
Overcoming sexual assault can be a difficult, but not impossible, process. Survivors of sexual assault may face a variety of physical, emotional, mental, legal, and societal obstacles during their recovery, but have a myriad of options to aid in the recovery, including therapy and inter community support. Survivors who may be experiencing a sense of loss of control or fear of their own actions can find immediate support in a system or team dedicated to their full recovery. Chicago Lakeshore Hospital offers partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs for female victims of sexual assault. Ultimately, offering empathy, patience, and compassion is an important step of recovery from sexual trauma. With time, it will become easier to nurture and support overall healing in yourself or others. Contact us today if you or someone you know needs help overcoming sexual assault.