Reactions to sexual assault
Survivors of sexual assault may experience a range of emotional, physical, and mental reactions to the trauma of being sexually assaulted, including not having any reaction at all. It is imperative to understand that each survivor will respond and react to the trauma in a different way. There is no prescribed method of healing from sexual assault, because each person's experience will vary. It is common for a survivor of sexual assault, regardless of how long ago the assault was committed, to possibly experience some of the following reactions and/or symptoms:
- physical injuries, fear, shock, eating disorders, increased alcohol consumption or the use of substances as a coping mechanism, sexually transmitted infections, guilt, anxiety, despair, helplessness, low self-esteem, anger, sadness, rage, vulnerability, avoidance of loved ones or activities that were enjoyable prior to the assault, numbness, depression, embarrassment, humiliation, isolation, denial, hyper-vigilance, powerlessness, shame, mood swings, hopelessness, sense of disbelief, lack of trust, need to regain control, increase or decrease in sexual activity, intrusive memories of the assault, flashbacks, suicidal thoughts.
How you can help
As a friend, you are a good judge of what emotions and behaviors are common for your friend. If your friend, for no apparent reason, begins to act differently, don't be afraid to ask directly what is wrong. You may be the first person to respond to your friend's problem, and for a survivor of sexual assault, this is the starting point of recovery. Here are some strategies that you may find useful in helping your friend recover from the trauma they have experienced:
- Believe your friend. Studies have shown that the reaction of the first person to whom a survivor disclosed their story, whether positive or negative, will affect the way in which healing occurs. Believing someone when the person tells you they have been sexually assaulted without question or hesitation is the most important thing you can do for your friend.
- Listen non-judgmentally. Never question a person's actions, details of the assault, why your friend feels the way they do. If you are having difficulty understanding what your friend may be saying, clarify. Paraphrase or relate feelings back to the person to ensure that you are not assuming that your friend's feelings reflect your own beliefs or judgments.
- Assure your friend that it is not their fault and they are not to blame for the assault in any way. Survivors of sexual assault often blame themselves for what has happened. It is important to help them understand that no matter what happened, it was not their fault.
- Assure your friend that they are not alone. Survivors of sexual assault often feel isolated, scared, and powerless. You can be the most helpful just by being there. Your presence can reassure the survivor and allow them to work out their feelings in a safe environment.
- Empower your friend. Remember, it is always up to the survivor to make choices that will affect the healing process. Survivors may ask for guidance or advice. Providing resources and options for them to utilize will help them regain the control they have lost.
Things to avoid
Things to try to avoid when helping a survivor of sexual assault:
- More violence! We often want to respond to violence with aggressive action, and it is common to be angry when an assault happens to a friend or loved one. However, your friend has experienced an act of violence: a response like this may validate violence as an acceptable behavior and contradict your friend's supportive needs.
- Evaluating: using phrases like "you shouldn't, "you ought to", "you're wrong."
- Interpreting, analyzing, diagnosing: "you're doing that because..."
- Ridiculing, shaming: "What were you thinking," "why did you do such a thing?"
- Interrupting or dominating conversation: "Yeah, that happened to me once", "I never would have done that!"
- Warning, ordering, threatening: "If you don't do _____, you'll regret it."
- Criticizing, blaming: "This wouldn't have happened if you hadn't..."
- Interrogating, cross examining: "When did it happen, where did it happen, why did you do that?"
- Advising, offering solutions: "I think you should.."
- Giving too positive evaluations: "I'm sure you'll be fine, it will all work out."
- Distracting, diverting: "It isn't that bad, let's talk about something more pleasant."
FIRE Sexual Assault Peer Education, 2017.