Healing from Sexual Assault

Particularly with interpersonal traumas like sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence, or sexual harassment, survivors may think that they should have prevented the crime through changes in their own behavior. This makes it difficult to heal because survivors feel guilty instead of putting blame where it belongs: on the perpetrator. No one asks to be traumatized, and no one deserves to be traumatized, no matter what they do. It is the choice of a perpetrator to inflict a trauma, not the choice of the survivor. Survivors often have an easier time healing if they focus on what they did right during an assault rather than what they may have done wrong. Think about how the trauma was survived and recognize that, rather than blaming survivors for what they might have done differently.

Survivors have the right to be believed, and it can be very painful if someone questions whether the situation was interpreted in the right way or if someone does not believe a survivor. Especially with private traumas, like sexual assault or domestic violence, it may be hard for others to believe what happened. With sexual harassment or stalking, some people believe myths of flattery and may think survivors are overreacting.

Survivors should try not to take it personally if someone does not believe what happened, although some individuals find this difficult. People find sexual violence hard to believe for many reasons, and many survivors experience disbelief in one or more relationships. Remember, there are people in this community who will believe and support survivors, and finding a good advocate or a supportive friend will most likely help individuals have a less difficult experience when disclosing trauma.

-Information from the Resource Guide for Survivors of Sexual Assault, Stalking, Partner Violence, and Sexual Harrassment; UO Office of the Dean of Students & Alliance for Sexual Assault Prevention, 2004.

Stages of Healing

Everyone’s experience with sexual assault is different. These are some examples of what can happen as you heal from this trauma. Remember that healing is a process, and you may experience any, all or none of the following. It is important that you cope with these feelings at your own pace and in your own ways.

Acute Phase: This phase occurs immediately after the assault.. During this stage the survivor may:

  1. seem agitated or they may appear totally calm (a sign that they could be in shock);
  2. have crying spells and anxiety attacks;
  3. have difficulty concentrating, making decisions and doing simple, everyday tasks;
  4. show little emotion, act as though numb or stunned;
  5. have poor recall of the sexual assault or other memories.

Outward Adjustment Phase: During this phase the survivor resumes what appears to be from the outside their "normal" life. Inside, however, there is considerable turmoil which can manifest itself by any of the following behaviors:

  1. continuing anxiety
  2. sense of helplessness
  3. persistent fear and/or depression
  4. severe mood swings (e.g. happy to angry, etc.)
  5. vivid dreams recurrent nightmares, insomnia
  6. physical ailments
  7. appetite disturbances (e.g. nausea, vomiting, compulsive eating)
  8. efforts to deny the assault ever took place and/or to minimize its impact
  9. withdrawal from friends and/or relatives
  10. preoccupation with personal safety
  11. reluctance to leave the house and/or go places which remind the victim of the sexual assault
  12. hesitation about forming new relationships with men and/or distrustful or existing relationship
  13. sexual problems
  14. disruption of normal everyday routines (e.g. high absenteeism at work suddenly or, conversely, working longer than usual hours, dropping out of school, traveling different routes, going out only at certain times).

Resolution Phase:

During this phase the sexual assault is no longer the central focus in the survivor’s life. The survivor begins to recognize that while they will never forget the assault, the pain and memories associated with it are lessening. They have accepted the sexual assault as a part of their life experience and are choosing to move on from there. Some of the behaviors of the second phase may flare up at times but they do so less frequently and with less intensity.

 -Information borrowed from the EasternOregonUniversity ‘Sex Matters’ Website, copyright 2006.