Author’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 people of other genders 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:
- 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.)
- 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.).
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Sexual violence; Facts at a glance. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention
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