Sexual assault victims learn to live with the psychological trauma of their attack
Published: Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 21:07
“You’re a slut.”
The words sting, but don’t match the physical pain that follows as Ashley’s boyfriend lands a punch to her face.
In the time they had been together, Ashley never imagined he would hurt her. But something is wrong. Reeling from the blow, she doesn’t have time to brace herself when he shoves her down into the couch. He pins her down and muffles her screams with the palm of his hand. Ashley struggles, but he hits her again and she relents.
When the rape is over, he gets up and stares down at her.
“You know you wanted it,” he says.
What Ashley wants is to die.
The girl in the mirror
“I felt so ashamed and broken,” said Ashley, who is now in her mid-30s and a resident of College Station. “I wasn’t sure if I had the strength to tell anyone what happened.”
Ashley was 17 years old when her boyfriend physically assaulted and raped her. An hour before, they were at a party where he publicly humiliated her, accusing Ashley of cheating on him after he saw her talking with another male friend. When they left the party and arrived at her boyfriend’s house, Ashley, fed up with his jealousy and controlling nature, told him their relationship was over.
“He responded in silence,” Ashley said. “He just stared at me. I think in that moment I was more afraid than ever.”
Ashley attempted to call a friend to pick her up, but her boyfriend knocked the phone out of her hands before physically and sexually assaulting her. When it ended, she crawled to the bathroom and looked into the mirror.
“I didn’t recognize myself anymore, and it had nothing to do with the blood and bruises that were forming,” Ashley said. “The physical wounds healed fairly quickly. The emotional wounds took much longer.”
Guilt, shame, powerlessness
“What makes sexual assault different from other crimes is [that] the offense is one of a violation of trust,” said Cameron House, counselor at the Brazos Valley Sexual Assault Resource Center. “A sexual assault goes beyond the physical and has myriad and long-standing repercussions.”
Survivors of sexual assault experience a wide range of psychological effects, but the most common reactions include feelings of guilt, shame and powerlessness. Guilt is rooted in the fear of judgment from others. Survivors who experience guilt believe they did not do enough to stop the assault. Guilt leads the victim to reason that she deserved to be assaulted or in some way prompted the assault. Beth and Rebecca, both of whom were sexually assaulted by a male friend while students at Texas A&M, experienced similar emotions.
“I convinced myself that I had somehow brought on [the assault] by my actions around James,” said Beth, Class of 2009. “I blamed myself because I shouldn’t have been drinking, or at his place alone, and I shouldn’t have kissed him.”
Guilt may be further compounded by the negative social stigma that shifts blame to the victim. Instead of focusing on the actions of perpetuators, discussions often focus on victims’ attire, how they acted and whether or not they were intoxicated at the time of the assault.
“A massive hurdle to overcome is the stereotypes about a woman’s role in a sexual assault,” said Stefanie Baker, interim director of the Texas A&M Women’s Resource Center. “Often, the woman is blamed. People blame the victim in order to make themselves feel safer.”
Survivors of sexual assault are often left feeling that if they had been smarter, stronger and braver, the incident would have never occurred.
“I blame myself for my rape,” said Rebecca, Class of 2009. “I know I’m not supposed to feel that way, but I still do.”
Because rape is a traumatic violation of one’s sexuality, many victims’ first emotional response is shame. Combined with guilt, shameful self-blame can become a debilitating cycle in which the survivors accept a sense of filth, inadequacy and worthlessness. Instead of believing they were subject to a vile and indecent attack, victims who experience shame perceive themselves as vile and indecent.
“One of the reasons I didn’t tell anybody about my assault for so long was because I felt ashamed,” Rebecca said. “I felt dirty all over all the time and I didn’t want others to know.”
Following her assault, Rebecca increased her sexual activity and began using drugs to cover her emotional pain.
“I started sleeping with a lot of guys and would put myself in bad situations,” Rebecca said. “I thought I was dirty so I just kind of became that girl.”
According to Heather Wheeler, student development specialist at the Women’s Resource Center, Rebecca’s behavioral change is not an uncommon response following a sexual assault and is a manifestation of a much deeper issue.
“Eventually, a woman will attempt to regain control of her own sexuality,” Wheeler said. “One girl can do this by avoiding all intimacy and another can become more promiscuous. Two radically different responses to the same root desire: getting control back.”
PTSD and flashbacks
Asurvivor’s lifestyle is further disrupted by what is commonly called Rape Trauma Syndrome. According to the Rape and Abuse Incest National Network, all survivors experience some form of Rape Trauma Syndrome, which includes a wide range of psychological and behavioral responses. Survivors may experience symptoms such as loss of appetite, nightmares and panic attacks.
“Rape Trauma Syndrome can also trigger deep feelings of shame and embarrassment, depression and low self-esteem, as well as an adverse reaction to being touched,” House said.
Rape Trauma Syndrome is considered to be a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, a severe anxiety disorder commonly diagnosed among combat veterans. PTSD is unique among mental health conditions in that it results from a traumatic life experience. Sexual assault survivors may experience feelings of emotional numbness, over-exaggerated situational awareness and flashbacks.