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The Effects of Sexual Assault

This section speaks generally about the effects of sexual assault. WCSAP would like to note that we are in no way implying that ALL survivors of sexual violence are the same, nor will any act of sexual violence affect two people in the same way. This is simply an introduction to help better understand what a survivor may be experiencing.

As an advocate, support person or someone working with a survivor of sexual assault, helping to identify and normalize these reactions can be important.

Short Term (Acute) Effects

Immediately following an incident (days to weeks), many survivors report feeling:

  • Shame: Survivors thinking they are bad, wrong, dirty, or permanently flawed.
  • Guilt: Survivors feeling that the abuse was their fault. It is very difficult for survivors to place the blame on the offender. Often the abuser was a person close to them that they want to protect. Or it may be that by placing the blame on the offender they then feel an utter helplessness in the abuse.
  • Denial: Survivors saying, "It wasn't that bad." "It only happened once." "I am fine, I don't need anything."
  • Minimizing: Survivors thinking that their abuse was not as bad as someone else's. Minimizing the assault is a coping strategy. Sexual assault counselors should validate the impact of the abuse and that it is appropriate that the survivor is upset, traumatized, or hurting from it.
  • Boundaries: Survivors can be unfamiliar with boundaries, not knowing when or how to set them or that they have a right to do so. Many survivors need support developing and practicing boundaries.
  • Trust: Sexual assault is a betrayal of trust. Most survivors find it difficult to trust other people as well as themselves and their own perceptions. On the other hand, they may place an inappropriate level of trust in everyone.
  • Safety: Often survivors have an unrealistic sense of safety, assess unsafe situations as safe, and perceive safe situations as dangerous. It is important to check whether a survivor is now in a safe environment by asking specific questions: "Is anyone hurting you or asking you to do things you do not want to do?"
  • Isolation: This is a big issue for adult survivors. Many feel that they do not deserve support, that they are tainted, and that others will not want to be their friends or lovers. Often, survivors from marginalized communities do not want to expose their experiences for fear of bringing further judgment and attack on their community. Many survivors have been shunned from their families and/or communities.
  • Amnesia: A survivor may not remember what happened. In the long-term, if it happened before the development of language, the survivor may not have a verbal memory.
  • Dissociation: A survivor may have dissociated during the sexual assault incident(s). They may describe "floating up out of their body" or "looking over their own shoulder" during the abuse. Dissociation can happen even when the survivor is not being assaulted/abused; an event or memory can bring up emotions which trigger dissociation.
  • Anesthesia: The body is where the sexual abuse took place and many survivors feel betrayed by their bodies in various ways. They may have tried to numb/dissociate from their bodies in order not to experience the feelings brought on by the abuse.
  • Physical: Survivors may have somatic (body) complaints, eating disturbances, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and physical symptoms related to areas on their body affected by assault.
  • Emotional: Survivors may be very expressive (anger, sadness), disoriented (disbelief, denial), or controlled (distant, calm).
  • Cognitive: Survivors may be unable to block out thoughts of the assault, or alternately forget entire parts of it. They may constantly think about things they should have done differently; emotion and intellect may be conflicted. Nightmares are common. Survivors may also have thoughts of being in a similar situation and "mastering" the traumatic event.

Other related issues that may emerge are eating disorders, sexual difficulties, physical changes, substance abuse, self-harm, suicidality, anger, and mood disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress.

Long Term Effects

  • Long term reactions include healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms, which may be beneficial (social support) or counterproductive (self-harm, substance abuse, eating disorders).
  • Immediate reactions may persist and change the survivor's lifestyle. This adjustment stage (months or years) may include:
    • continuing anxiety
    • poor health
    • sense of helplessness
    • persistent fear
    • depression
    • mood swings
    • sleep disturbances
    • flashbacks
    • dissociation
    • panic attacks
    • phobias
    • relationship difficulties
    • withdrawal/isolation
    • paranoia
    • localized pain
  • These are normal reactions to a traumatic incident. If we look at these reactions through a "trauma lens" then the reactions make sense but are no longer useful to the healing process.
  • Some survivors may be diagnosed by a mental health professional as having Acute Stress Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Additional Online Resources

Reviewed: December 10th, 2014