Beginning Recovery After Surviving Sexual Assault

A woman crouches against a brick wall and covers her face.The February 2011 sexual assault of CBS news reporter Lara Logan during her coverage of the Egyptian uprising is a stark reminder that any woman is vulnerable to assault, regardless of her public status. You don’t have to travel to a distant country during political upheaval to be at risk. According to the National Violence Against Women Survey (2000), 17.6% of American women have been victims of an attempted or completed sexual assault. And while men can be sexual assault survivors, 90% of rape victims are women.

Here are some statistics on sexual assault:

  • In the United States, someone experiences a sexual assault every 98 seconds.
  • 34% of rape survivors under 18 were assaulted before they were 12 years of age.
  • 64% of women who were raped, assaulted, or stalked after the age of 18 indicated they were victimized by a current or former boyfriend, partner, or husband (National Violence Against Women Survey, 2000).
  • 55% of sexual assaults occur at the victim’s home or near the victim’s home.
  • Girls between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely to experience sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.

Rape is a criminal act of violence. The victim is never to blame, regardless of the circumstances. However, the FBI estimates only 37% of completed or attempted rapes are reported to law enforcement officials.

What typically occurs following a sexual assault? Most survivors initially experience wide-ranging, intense and sometimes contradictory emotions. Anxiety, fear, and even disbelief are common. Individuals may be in shock and feel like their life has been destroyed. They may be afraid to socialize, travel, or even go to work or school. Developing trusting relationships may seem almost impossible. They may feel rage toward the perpetrator, yet experience irrational feelings of self-blame. Many victims question whether they provoked the attack by how they dressed or acted, wonder if they could have foreseen or prevented what occurred, and harbor feelings of shame.

Just as disturbing as the initial reaction are the long-term consequences. According to the World Health Organization (2002), sexual assault victims are three times more likely to become depressed, four times more likely to consider suicide, six times more likely to experience posttraumatic stress, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs. For example, some survivors develop symptoms of PTSD where they experience intense anxiety, flashbacks or nightmares of the event, and phobic avoidance of situations that are a reminder of the trauma. Some survivors also develop eating disorders or engage in self-injury such as cutting in an attempt to minimize or avoid painful memories. At a minimum, problems in relationships, sexual difficulties, and feelings panic and anxiety can persist for years.

Sexual assault survivors need information, support, compassionate understanding, and sometimes counseling to aid in their recovery. At first, individuals should seek medical attention, reach out to family and friends for emotional support. They may also consider whether to file criminal charges. It is surprising how often these steps are not taken due to fear of blame, public exposure, retaliation, or rejection from loved ones. Family and friends need to encourage their loved one to get the medical attention needed, encourage them to get information about their legal options, provide reassurance that they are not to blame, and help them recognize it is very common to exhibit a range of emotions and behaviors.

While initial reactions of anxiety, sadness, anger, and avoidance can be expected, if these reactions persist, significantly interfere with work, school, or social relationships, or evolve into more serious symptoms such as depression, PTSD, eating disorders, self-harm, or addictive behaviors, the individual may benefit from therapy. A variety of treatment approaches can be used to address different effects of the assault, depending on the symptom that the individual is experiencing. These can range from short-term, cognitive behavioral techniques for managing anxiety or intrusive thoughts to more intensive therapy that addresses coexisting symptoms such as an eating disorder or drug abuse. Couples therapy can be helpful when interpersonal anxiety or sexual problems interfere with a relationship. Some individuals also benefit from participation in support groups for survivors of rape or sexual abuse. Regardless of the type of support, it is critical that any person who is assaulted receive the support they deserve.

Helpful resources on sexual assault:

  • www.rainn.org – Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network
  • www.aardvarc.org – An Abuse, Rape, and Domestic Violence Aid and Resource Collection
  • www.stopfamilyviolence.com – A resource about domestic violence

© Copyright 2011 by Gail Post, PhD, therapist in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

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.

  • 15 comments
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  • Richard M

    Richard M

    March 24th, 2011 at 11:18 AM

    Surprising to read that such a high percentage of the crime is committed by a partner/husband/boyfriend…What this does is not just bringing along all the problems to the victim of the crime but also makes the victim question herself for having trusted the person and thereby make it difficult for the victim to trust anybody after the incident…A perfect recipe for withdrawing from one’s social relations and thereby inviting loneliness…

  • Hannah Richards

    Hannah Richards

    March 24th, 2011 at 11:37 PM

    The reason for sexual assault can vary a lot.But what happens after such an incident is very important from the victim’s point of view.The victim’s world often,if not all,seems to shake violently and it the level of depression can only be imagined.Support is one thing that is the least we can provide to any victim of sexual assault.Support from a friend,a family member,a partner,a neighbor,you could be anybody,but providing support is one very important and basic thing we can do.

  • Layla

    Layla

    March 25th, 2011 at 4:39 AM

    Way too few women speak up when an assault happens to them? Why? Well the evidence is here. many times it is enacted by someone that they know and by whom they thought loved them. Also they are afraid of what others will think about them, that maybe they did something to bring this on.

  • MT Heart

    MT Heart

    March 25th, 2011 at 10:06 AM

    Nothing is going to stop this growth in sexual crime except for stricter punishments. I want to ask one question here-If there would be death penalty for sexual crimes,do you think sexual crime would increase,decrease or stay the same?

    It is for a reason that punishments exist in the first place. And if one is not deterring criminals,then we ought to make stricter ones.

  • josh r

    josh r

    March 25th, 2011 at 7:13 PM

    almost everybody speaks of the physical suffrage of a victim and even those who speak of mental suffrage think that the problems are only with regard to the victim’s sex life. but we need to understand that everything changes for the victim after such a crime. and no aspect of the victim’s life remains free of this issue. right from having a meal to going out alone after dark-everything is bound to be affected. this is a sad but true fact.

  • Gail Post

    Gail Post

    March 25th, 2011 at 8:35 PM

    Richard,
    You make an important point about trust. When a woman is raped by someone she knows, her sense of trust in her own judgment can be destroyed. It can take a long time before she can learn to trust and allow herself to develop closer relationships.

  • maison

    maison

    March 28th, 2011 at 4:44 AM

    get help you cannot survive this alone you should not be made to feel like you have to survive it alone

  • Katherine

    Katherine

    March 29th, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    @MT Heart, the rate of sex crimes has actually dropped, not gone up. That’s the kind of thing that makes people paranoid, when people don’t look up the actual crime rate and just go by how often it’s reported in the media.
    That said, I’m all for the death penalty for pedophiles and life imprisonment at the minimum for rapists.

  • Johnny

    Johnny

    March 29th, 2011 at 11:57 AM

    The most under-reported rape I think is when a man gets raped. In fact, if someone is going to be raped, proportionately it’s more likely to be a prisoner than any other group. In the US Justice Department’s 2007 report “Sexual Victimization in State and Federal Prisons Reported by Inmates, 2007,” 4.5 percent of the state and federal prisoners surveyed reported sexual victimization in the past 12 months. That’s one in 20.

  • Shawn

    Shawn

    March 29th, 2011 at 1:46 PM

    There’s so much misinformation about rape. Some think that men can’t be raped. They can–and by women too. They don’t report it because the stigma of being dominated against your will by a woman is far worse than the inverse.

  • Adam

    Adam

    March 31st, 2011 at 6:46 PM

    @Shawn: The fact that there is a stigma in the first place is a problem. Anyone who can think negatively of a rape victim no matter their gender needs to resign from the human race and go back to whatever cave they crawled out of.

  • Gene

    Gene

    March 31st, 2011 at 7:25 PM

    The stigma and disbelief can be justified however in some cases. A handful of people, most of them women, have falsely accused men of raping them or their children. Even though they ruin someone’s life, they’re often not charged with lying under oath, slander, filing false reports, wasting police time, contempt of court, or anything else you do when you try to get someone in legal trouble. They should be in jail too.

  • Carol

    Carol

    March 31st, 2011 at 8:06 PM

    Shame on them! They undermine any genuine rape cases brought to court with their false claims too. Can’t they see the damage that does to women who have been raped and aren’t fully believed? Real rapists could walk free because of them.

  • Hope

    Hope

    March 31st, 2011 at 9:30 PM

    Some foreign countries blame women for rape because they claim they “seduced” the men. That’s a major problem I believe in mainland Asia and even some areas of the West. It’s incredible that would even make sense to a smart person in this day and age. The old “she asked for it” argument holds no water.

  • Simon

    Simon

    April 2nd, 2011 at 7:31 PM

    No matter what atrocity happens, you will always get the one who tries to shift the blame to another or something else. Or worse, people who try to justify rape. Those kinds of people are almost as bad as the rapists in my opinion. I wonder if they would feel the same if it happened to their own wife, son or daughter.

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