Life after Rape: 5 Keys to Growth and Healing for Women

Woman walking in parkAuthor’s note: This article is written explicitly for women who have been sexually assaulted as teens or adults. Although many of the emotional and psychological issues resulting from rape are shared among all rape victims, survivors of child sexual abuse and men or teen boys who have been raped may experience different symptoms from, and have different needs than, those of women.

I rarely meet a woman who has experienced rape and is comfortable using that word. In fact, in my experience most try to avoid it and instead use language such as “I had an incident,” “You could say that he touched me,” or “I had sex with him but didn’t really want to.”

There is a stigma attached to the word rape that often makes victims feel that if they say it aloud, it somehow means they are tainted or damaged. So let me be clear: While being raped can make you feel you are coming undone, in time it can become a life experience like any other challenge—that is, an experience that allows you to deepen your understanding of yourself and others, helps you grow and develop new skills, and helps you learn that strength and vulnerability are not incompatible. In other words, while being raped can shake your soul initially, with the right help and guidance, it does not have to stay that way forever.

The stigma surrounding rape is so strong that many expect that the word “victim” not be used. We are told that there are no victims, that instead there are “rape survivors.” Well, I’m going to be a rebel today (as I am most days) and tell you that there are, in fact, victims. If you were raped, you were victimized. That’s the simple truth, whether we like it or not. The sad reality is that according to some estimates, almost one in four adult women will experience some form of sexual assault in their lifetime (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012); for most, it will feel like a victimization. But with time, psychotherapy, and personal growth, a woman who has been raped can feel empowered again, and eventually feel like her “normal” self—a woman who has had many life experiences: some wonderful, some difficult, but all of which contributed to growth.

There was a great scene in the television show NCIS: Los Angeles recently. Two federal law enforcement officers, Kensi (female) and Deeks (male and Kensi’s boyfriend), were talking when Kensi suddenly became quiet. Something in the conversation seemed to trigger a rape memory for her. Then Deeks said something along the lines of: “I know you want to forget it happened, but it will just keep screaming louder to get your attention until you acknowledge it.”

That’s what happens with rape. You want to pretend it didn’t happen and move on. I wish it were that simple, but there is something in our psyche that won’t allow that.

Here are five steps to slowly moving forward:

  1. Acknowledge it. Say aloud that you were raped. It may feel scary at first, but trust me—eventually it will likely feel empowering. In the beginning, it’s important to be selective about whom you tell. Some people are caught up in their own issues and thus unable to respond in an appropriately supportive manner. Your safest bet is a therapist. Many therapists are trained in helping you through rape recovery and are able to be supportive and compassionate. Best friends also tend to be pretty supportive and empathetic listeners. Start with one or, better yet, both. A rape crisis hotline is a good choice, too. (Note: If you were recently raped, going to the hospital for a rape exam and police report is an important first step.)
  2. Nurture yourself. It is very important to nurture yourself throughout this process. Be kind to yourself (don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a friend who was raped); be gentle with yourself; be patient with yourself; and do healthy things that make you feel good (a scented bubble bath, new hairstyle, exercise and yoga, buying yourself some flowers, etc.).
  3. Discover how you feel and get it out. There are two options for this step, and doing both is better than just one: write about your rape and talk about it. Talk about your rape with your therapist. Tell the story a few times. Tell it from different angles (for example, one time talk about what you were thinking and feeling, then another time talk about what your rapist was doing and saying). Tell a few more close friends, if you feel comfortable doing so. It’s OK to tell them that you don’t want or expect them to treat you any differently, but that you appreciate their sympathetic listening. Write in a journal. Perhaps even write a letter to your rapist. (In the vast majority of cases, it’s probably best not to send the letter—that’s something you can discuss with your therapist—but the act of writing the letter can be beneficial and help you sort through your feelings.)
  4. Learn. Learn about what other women have experienced. Learn about what is typical for you to be feeling, even if your experience was unique (and it was). Learn how to acknowledge and tolerate your difficult feelings. How can you do this? My favorite ways are books, workbooks, and support groups. Blogs, too! There is probably a sexual assault treatment center and/or support group in your city. Go check it out. Lean on others.
  5. Nurture yourself! Go back to Step 2! It can take a few years, and perhaps decades, to work through a rape. (Some might never quite work through it, but the important thing to remember is that it’s possible.) It’s important not to focus on it every day, while at the same time not ignoring your feelings. Staying the course will help you make progress and heal.

In closing, if you were raped, I want to say this: I’m sorry about what happened to you. I’m sorry you have to go through this; no, it isn’t fair. But even without knowing you, I know you can overcome this. The human spirit can overcome a lot and is stronger than you can ever imagine!

Reference:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Sexual violence; Facts at a glance. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Chantal Marie Gagnon, PhD, LMHC, CAP, SAP, therapist in Plantation, Florida

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 17 comments
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  • Audra

    February 17th, 2015 at 9:58 AM

    I know women who are adverse to admitting that this happened to them because there is still so much belief that it was probably their actions that brought on the crime. I think that we all know that this is not true, you would never ask for this to happen to you but there are still those people out there who somehow think that if a woman is raped then it is because of some message that she put out there and hey, what could a guy do but act on it? Crazy

  • charmaine

    February 17th, 2015 at 12:18 PM

    you want someone to feel that pain and anger but not feel sorry for you

  • Etienne

    February 18th, 2015 at 9:30 AM

    We have to come to terms with the fact this this was not our fault and that even though things feel like they will never get better, with time, they can.

    You have to own it, face it, and accept it yes… but not that you are responsible for the fact that this happened to you

  • lola

    February 18th, 2015 at 2:02 PM

    Thank you for admitting that we have been victimized. This doe snot mean that this is the only thing that will define us but it is important to understand that this was a horrific experience that we went through. We can come out survivors, yes, but we have still been made to experience a trauma that no one should ever have to go through.

  • Alison

    February 19th, 2015 at 5:08 AM

    For me healing came in the form of beginning to understand that I could have a life again after this happened to me. At first it felt like nothing would ever be the same again, and maybe I wouldn’t say that it has ever been the same, but I have my confidence back again and that is something that took me forever to regain. I was determined that this one event would not come to represent me forever.

  • celia

    February 19th, 2015 at 4:03 PM

    I would think that being a part of a support group of other women who have lived through the same ordeal could be emotional but so comforting.
    To see and hear the things that others survived and to learn that this could be you… I just think that that could be a real eye opener for many who are trying to learn to live again

  • Tom

    February 20th, 2015 at 10:32 AM

    Many years ago it was a serious taboo to even talk about this happening to you, but I think that times have changed and others are a little more open to having this conversation and talking about what the rape can do to people. I know that there are still thousands who never wish to talk about what has happened to them, and that is something that only they can decide for themselves. But i do know that the people who are willing to talk about their experience are the ones who have the best chance of overcoming that trauma and leading a better life for it.

  • tanner

    February 21st, 2015 at 9:25 AM

    Could anyone elaborate on why there are such extreme differences for women who have been abused this way and those that a man would experience?

  • Ty

    February 24th, 2015 at 3:54 AM

    Tanner- my thoughts are this could have something to do with the age at which this happens and then just the natural differences between what men and women think about sex, abuse etc, all sorts of different issues that could come up. The best thing that anyone who has been sexually abused in any way could do is to to seek help and counseling. This is not something that anyone should have to struggle through alone.

  • Frida

    February 25th, 2015 at 4:21 PM

    Burying those memories and refusing to deal with them only guarantees that there will be a time in the future when they will show back up and force you to face them. They don’t just go away simply because you are not ready to face them right now.

  • Dr. Chantal Gagnon

    March 5th, 2015 at 11:28 AM

    Thank you for the wonderful discussion everyone! I’m glad to see that acknowledging the complexities of victimization is helpful in validating and understanding a variety of experiences.

    Alison and Frida say it well – part of the healing process is coming to terms with realizing that we are not defined by others have done, and that hurtful experiences, whatever they may be, generally do not go away on their own. They require our attention to heal.

    Tanner, the differences are not necessarily “extreme”, but there are some differences. Ty is on the right track in saying that the age and developmental level of the victim has an impact (children’s brains process things somewhat differently than fully developed adult brains), and social and cultural beliefs about men and women can differ and that can also impact the meaning someone gives to the rape. There are many similarities as well, though, in how trauma in general is processed. In any traumatic experience, support and professional counseling are an important part of recovery.

    Thank you again for your comments, and feel free to email me topic suggestions for my next article!

    Dr. Chantal

  • tami

    November 7th, 2016 at 4:34 AM

    i have a child(young adult) 19 ys old that was victimized and its been a whole week now and cant even get her out of bed, i have tried and have given her space as per the Haven for abused women said it has to be on her own time, worried that she will lose her job, her self esteem is so low, just can someone help me cope with and help her i have no clue what to do, other than support and give her time, but i feel i need to be doing something!! thanks in advance

  • Adil

    December 31st, 2016 at 10:29 AM

    I think one really big problem is that rape restricts to sexual assaults. I think any abuse has potential as rape trauma. I am a man and I always used rape term to describe what I went through.. either way I can give public example – Justin Timberlake.! yes, he was raped by britney. they were both virgin and probably had very good feelings for each other. but britney broke that “never to be replaced” feelings by sleeping with morons. at least Justin was lucky that he had resources and artistic skills to express something. but look at way Justin relationships kept on breaking. I remember when britney lost her mind and shaved her head… the very first thing I was worried about was Justin.! and indeed Justin had to put all his heart out and come out in support of britney.!

    I went to something similar except that my gf really never respected me along with going out with morons.. but I was still responsible for her emotional state. she was suicidal and I had gone though so much trouble bringing her back to life… and I remember my own situation when she became frail again… I always put it like “only thing worse than being raped by her was to care for her emotional trauma”.

    I am not sure if anybody will ever understand… I find only Justin Timberlake example similar to mine… and mind that my girlfriend herself was “raped by deception”… that’s where she has given up on life… comparing her rape to mine is man rape I would say man rape is far far more troublesome and we don’t even get support group.! if we try to talk about it we are branded cheap or not man like immediately. so we have to suffer indefinitely and it is very very hard. in case you noticed – man can only be raped by someone he really really cares. I think only good thing is that it is very very rare. I hope nobody has to go through it.

  • Tuma

    May 10th, 2017 at 5:07 AM

    I have been raped at the age of 15, so the word rape itself is not very polite. I have been succumbed indoors due to stigma. Now that I came out of the closet I am free from stigma, I now have the courage to tell the whole world that am a survivor. Talking and writing can heal

  • Shae

    June 12th, 2017 at 4:41 PM

    An article that amounts to someone dishing out some pity to women that have been raped and saying the best way to cope is to nurture yourself???Nurturing yourself and getting a haircut is the last thing an women will care about when they are raped!!!
    Seriously? Rape is not about one event it’s about the constant raping of the person EVERY SINGLE DAY until they are ready to deal with their shame(at least that is what it can feel like when dealing with flashbacks) and some pokey suggestion like nurturing yourself gets added on an article?

    You see when you are raped, not only do you lose identity, you lose your sense of everything that made sense to you, you lose your confidence and how safe you felt in the world up till that point. You lose the ability to put the past behind you, because the past is lived through your reality EVERY SINGLE DAY, in ways that keep surprising you.Your sense of womenhood goes out the window as shame overshadows everything. I could go on, but the writer of this article has no idea just what happens to a woman when they are raped and how difficult it is to get over it and heal. It is a wound that involves the person who was raped to live in the crime scene (their body) until they are ready to face what happened to them. To suggest some randomly inane things like acknowledge and talk about it as the 5 things mentioned is just silly. It trivializes rape.
    I have never read such an ignorantly written article.

    How about writing an article that talks about the real issues to do with rape? That our society need to change how survivors are shamed into believing it’s their fault. How about writing an article encouraging women to speak up and make part of their healing ritual being able to voice publicly the shame they carry with so much secrecy??? Rapist a societal problem, and women should nothave to bare the shame alone, in fact I feel deeply that they have the RIGHT to be heard and to share their shame with society, because that is when true healing starts.

  • Aisha

    June 25th, 2017 at 2:38 PM

    This has been incredibly helpful and extremely supportive. Thankyou x

  • OddSocks

    July 21st, 2017 at 2:19 AM

    I hope its ok to share my petition here. The media has a lot to answer for in relation to stigma. This is my personal petition. I need 10,000 signatures to get it to parliament. I would be so grateful for all signatures and even more grateful for a share change.org/p/jeremy-corbyn-mp-encourage-the-media-to-adjust-their-terminology-regarding-rape-and-sexual-assault

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