Sexual assault is a personal and
destructive crime. Its effects on you and your loved ones can be psychological,
emotional, and/or physical. They can be brief in duration or last a very long
time. It is important to remember that there is not one "normal"
reaction to sexual assault. Therefore your individual response will be
different depending on your personal circumstances. In this section, we explain
some of the more common effects that sexual assault victims may experience.
Depression: There are many emotional and psychological reactions that
victims of rape and sexual assault can experience. One of the most common of
these is depression. The term "depression" can be confusing since
many of the symptoms are experienced by people as normal reactions to events.
At some point or another, everyone feels sad or "blue." This also
means that recognizing depression can be difficult since the symptoms can
easily be attributed to other causes. These feelings are perfectly normal,
especially during difficult times.
Depression becomes something more
than just normal feelings of sadness when the symptoms last for more than two
weeks. Therefore, if you experience five or more of the symptoms of depression
over the course of two weeks you should consider talking to your doctor about
what you are experiencing. The symptoms of depression may include:
- Prolonged sadness or unexplained crying spells
- Significant change in weight or appetite
- Loss of energy or persistent fatigue
- Significant change in sleep patterns (insomnia,
sleeping too much, fitful sleep, etc.)
- Loss of interest and pleasure in activities previously
enjoyed; social withdrawal
- Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or guilt
- Pessimism or indifference
- Unexplained aches and pains (headaches, stomachaches)
- Inability to concentrate, indecisiveness
- Irritability, worry, anger, agitation, or anxiety
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- If you are having suicidal thoughts, don't wait to get
help. Call us or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK
(8255) at any time.
Depression can affect people of any
age, gender, race, ethnicity, or religion. Depression is not a sign of
weakness, and it is not something that someone can make him/herself "snap
Rate your risk for depression
Flashbacks: when memories of past traumas feel as if they are taking
place in the current moment. These memories can take many forms: dreams,
sounds, smells, images, body sensations, or overwhelming emotions. This re-experience
of the trauma often seems to come from nowhere, and therefore blurs the lines
between past and present, leaving the individual feeling anxious, scared,
and/or powerless. It can also trigger any other emotions that were felt at the
time of the trauma.
Some flashbacks are mild and brief,
a passing moment, while others may be powerful and last a long time. Many times
you may not even realize that you are having a flashback and may feel faint
and/or dissociate (a mental process in which your thoughts and feelings may be
separated from your immediate reality). If you realize you are in the middle of
- First, Get Grounded:
The first thing to do is sit up straight and put both feet on the floor.
This will help you to feel grounded.
- Be In the Present:
It can be helpful to remind yourself that the event you are reliving
happened in the past and you are now in the present. The actual event is
over, and you survived.
Try focusing on your breathing. One way to do that is to count to four as
you breathe in. Count to four as you hold that breath and then count to
four as you exhale. If you do this and keep repeating it, you may find
that you can become calmer and can be in the present.
- Pay Attention to Surroundings: Another way to help yourself feel like you are in the
present is to pay attention to your surroundings. What is the light in the
room like right now? Touch something around you that is grounded like a
table or a chair. What does it feel like? Can you smell anything? Do you
hear any sounds?
Are there things that normally make you feel safe and secure like wrapping
a blanket around yourself or making some tea?
Also, remember that it can take time to recover. You are not crazy. This
is a normal reaction.
- Take care of yourself: Give yourself time to recover after a flashback. Reach
out to loved ones or counselors who will be supportive.
Rape Trauma: a common reaction to rape or sexual assault. It is a normal
human reaction to an unnatural or extreme event. There are three phases to rape
- Acute Phase:
occurs immediately after the assault and usually lasts a few days to
several weeks. In this phase, you can have many reactions but they
typically fall into three different categories:
- Expressed: when you are openly emotional
- Controlled: when you appear to be without emotion, and
act as if "nothing happened" and "everything is fine"
- Shocked disbelief: when you react with a strong sense
- Outward Adjustment Phase: resume what appears to be your "normal"
life, but inside you are still suffering from considerable turmoil. This
phase has five primary coping techniques:
- Minimization: pretending that everything is fine or
convincing yourself that "it could have been worse"
- Dramatization: you cannot stop talking about the
assault and it dominates your life and identity
- Suppression: you refuse to discuss the event and act
as if it did not happen
- Explanation: you analyze what happened, what you did
and what the rapist was thinking/feeling
- Flight: you try to escape the pain (moving, changing
jobs, changing appearance, changing relationships, etc.)
- Resolution Phase: the assault is no longer the central
focus of your life. While you may recognize that you will never forget the
assault, the pain and negative outcomes lessen over time. Often you will
begin to accept the rape as part of your life and choose to move on.
NOTE: This model assumes that you will take steps forward
and backwards in your healing process and that while there are phases it is not
a linear progression and will be different for every person.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: a normal human reaction to an extreme or abnormal
situation. Each person has a different threshold for what is perceived as a
traumatic event. PTSD is not a rare or unusual occurrence, in fact, many people
experience PTSD as a result of a traumatic experience such as rape or sexual
assault. You may be experiencing PTSD if you have experienced the following
symptoms for at least a month:
- Shown symptoms of intense horror, helplessness, or fear
- Experienced distressing memories of the event
- Regularly avoided things or triggers that remind you of
- Shown significant impairment or distress due to the
- Shown at least two symptoms of increased arousal (sleep
difficulties, difficulty concentrating, hyper vigilance, an exaggerated
startle response, or irritability or outbursts of anger/rage)
Pregnancy: Because rape, just like consensual sex, can lead to
pregnancy, it is important for female victims to be tested after an assault. If
you need additional information visit Medline Plus
Sexually Transmitted Infections
Victims of sexual violence are at
risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections.
- If you went to the emergency room for a rape exam, you
should have been offered preventive treatment (antibiotics) for sexually
transmitted infections and given information about where to go for
- If you need more information about this, or did not
receive preventive care, call us and we can help you figure out what
resources are available.
- If you did not get medical care after your attack, it's
still important to get tested for sexually transmitted infections,
- The Centers for Disease Control recommend follow-up
testing two weeks after a sexual assault and blood tests to rule out HIV
infection 6 weeks, 3 months and 6 months after an assault.
- If left untreated, STIs and HIV can cause major medical
problems, so it's very important to get tested (and treated, if necessary)
as soon as possible.
Some survivors of sexual assault may
get so depressed that they think about ending their own life. Suicidal thoughts
should be taken very seriously.
- If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts,
please get help immediately.
- If you have already taken steps, or feel that you
can't avoid harming yourself, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency
- You can also call the National Suicide Prevention
Lifeline for help 24 hours a day at 800-273-TALK (8255). If you are
having suicidal thoughts or you know someone who is, they can listen and
- If you are worried that a loved one is contemplating
suicide, it's okay to ask them about it directly. Suicide experts say
that asking someone about suicidal thoughts will not lead them to
consider suicide if they're not already contemplating it.
Effects for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Assault:
There are many reactions that survivors of rape and sexual assault can have.
But for adult survivors of childhood sexual assault there are reactions that
may either be different or stronger than for other survivors. These include:
- Setting limits/boundaries: because your personal
boundaries were invaded at a young age by someone that was trusted and
depended on, you may have trouble understanding that you have the right to
control what happens to you.
- Anger: as a child, your anger was powerless and had
little to no effect on the actions of your abuser. For this reason, you
may not feel confident that your anger will be useful or helpful.
- Grieving/mourning: being abused as a child means the
loss of many things: childhood experiences, trust, perceived innocence,
and a normal relationship with family members (especially if the abuser
was a family member). You must be allowed to name those losses, grieve
them, and then move forward.
- Guilt/shame/blame: you may carry a lot of guilt because
you may have experienced pleasure or because you did not try to stop the
abuse. There may have been silence surrounding the abuse that led to
feelings of shame. It is important to understand that it was the adult who
abused his/her position of authority and should be held accountable, not
- Trust: learning to trust again may be very difficult
- Coping skills: as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse,
you may have developed skills in order to cope with the trauma. Some of
these are healthy (possibly separating yourself from certain family
members, seeking out counseling, etc.); some are not (drinking or drug
abuse, promiscuous sexual activity, etc.).
- Self-esteem/isolation: low self-esteem is a result of
all the negative messages you received and internalized from your abusers.
And because entering into an intimate relationship involves trust,
respect, love, and the ability to share, you may flee from intimacy or
hold on too tightly for fear of losing the relationship.
- Sexuality: many survivors have to deal with the fact
that their first sexual experience came as a result of sexual abuse. You
may experience the return of body memories while engaging in a sexual
activity with another person.
Body Memories: when the memories of the abuse you experienced take the
form of physical problems that cannot be explained by the usual means (medical
examinations, etc.). These maladies are often called "psychosomatic
symptoms" which does not, as many people think, mean that it is "in
your head." Rather, it means that the symptoms are due to the connection
between the mind and the body. Physical problems that can come of these somatic
- Headaches, migraines
- Light headedness/dizziness
- Stomach difficulties
- Hot/cold flashes
- Grinding of teeth
- Sleep disorders
For more effects, please visit RAINN's Effects of Sexual Assault Page