20:1 - REACTIONS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT VICTIMS

Since every person and situation is different, victims of sexual assault will respond to an assault in different ways. Many factors can influence an individual's response to, and recovery from, sexual assault. These may include the age and developmental maturity of the victim; the social support network available to the victim; the victim's relationship to the offender; the response to the attack by police, medical personnel and victim advocates; the response to the attack by the victim's loved ones; the frequency, severity, and duration of the system; community attitudes and values; and the meaning attributed to the traumatic event by the sexual assault survivor (Koss & Harvey, 1991). Some survivors of sexual assault will find they can recover relatively quickly, while others will feel the lasting effects of their victimization throughout their lifetime.

Possible physical effects of sexual assault:

  • Pain
  • Vomiting
  • Injuries
  • Headaches
  • Nausea

Possible emotional/psychological effects of sexual assault:

Shock / Denial Diminished interest in activities or sexuality
Irritability / anger Loss of self-esteem
Depression Guilt /Shame / Embarrassment
Social withdrawal Impaired memory
Numbing / apathy /(detachment, loss of caring) Loss of appetite
Restricted affect (reduced ability to express emotion) Suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide or death)
Nightmares / flashbacks Substance abuse
Difficulty concentrating Psychological disorders

Possible physiological effects of sexual assault:

Hypervigilance (always being "on your guard")
Insomnia
Exaggerated startle response (jumpiness)
Panic attacks
Eating problems / disorders
Self-mutilation (cutting, burning, or otherwise hurting oneself)
Sexual dysfunction (not being able to conduct sexual activity)
Hyperarousal (exaggerated feelings / responses to stimuli)

In addition to these effects, a survivor of sexual assault may develop Rape-Related Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (RR-PTSD). According to the National Women's Study, nearly one-third of all rape victims develop RR-PTSD sometime during their lifetimes (National Center for Victims of Crime & Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, 1992). PTSD is a mental health disorder primarily characterized by chronic anxiety, depression, and flashbacks, which develop after experiencing significant trauma such as combat, natural disaster or violent crime victimization. RR-PTSD is diagnosed by a mental health professional when the biological, psychological and social effects of trauma are severe enough to have impaired a survivor's social and occupational functioning (Allen, 1995, p169). For more information on RR-PTSD and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, refer to the Get Help Series bulletins, entitled Rape-related Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

Courtesy of the Domestic Violence and Abuse Center

Last Updated: 8/13/14