Reading about sexual assault can be painful for survivors. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or dissociated, give yourself kind permission to take a break and do something you enjoy. This article describes effects of sexual assault, not assaults themselves.
Responses to sexual assault range from severe trauma to shrugging it off. If you have been sexually assaulted, you may have some, none, or all of the effects mentioned below. All your experiences and responses are valid. If you have some of these effects with no memory of sexual assault, that is also valid. You are the authority on your history.
Sexual assault includes rape, incest, and other forms of sexual touching without consent. Perpetrators assault people of all genders and all ages. It is a crime of violence and power, not passion or lack of self-control.
Sexual assault ruptures personal boundaries. The perpetrator says, “What you want doesn’t matter. Your wholeness has no value to me. Your personhood is erased.” The victim has an internal experience of invalidation and violation of self, causing profound grief. “This is not what I wanted.”
Sexual assault is one of the few crimes where the victim is put on trial more than the perpetrator. Instead of offering support, community members often engage in denial and hostile interrogation. “You imagined it.” “You misunderstood.” “You invited it.”
This gaslighting undermines survivors’ self-trust. While healing from an external attack, survivors also fight an internal battle for their own truth in the face of denial, confusion, and pressure to consider themselves less important than the perpetrator. Many perpetrators create plausible deniability through alcohol, manipulation, and brazen lies.
Contrary to the image of being assaulted by a stranger in a dark alley, the perpetrator is often known to the victim. Many perpetrators intentionally build trust before an assault, or take advantage of existing relationships such as within a family, school, workplace, or religious organization.
Sexual assault diminishes survivors’ sense of safety in their world. Assault by a stranger brings fear that it will happen again in that location or anywhere. Assault by a known person shatters trust in that person and damages survivors’ connections with surrounding community. Whether the survivor remains silent, confronts the perpetrator, or tells others, relationships are lost and altered.
When community members refuse to choose sides in the name of false “fairness,” the victim has to do the work to avoid further interactions with the perpetrator, if avoidance is possible. When perpetrators are family members, coworkers, fellow soldiers, or influential community members, it requires radical life changes to avoid them.
Dissociation from the body
Like any trauma, sexual assault can cause PTSD and general dissociation. In addition, it can cause toxic body shame and dissociation from affected parts, especially the pelvis. Survivors may perceive their bodies as fragmented pieces rather than one whole. Many survivors blame their bodies and physical responses for the assault, rather than placing appropriate blame on the perpetrator.
It becomes more difficult to be fully present, causing loss of both skill and enjoyment in physical activities. Survivors may avoid medical care, which is often invasive and rushed rather than compassionate.
Instead of connection and pleasure, sexual feelings become associated with objectification and pain. Sexual feelings may be avoided entirely or pursued obsessively. Sexually assaulted children lose the opportunity to develop their sexuality at their own pace as they mature.
Perceived loss of value
Society attaches value to people’s sexual status. Women “should” be virgins or monogamously married. Men “should” not be penetrated. Children “should” be innocent. Victims of sexual assault feel shame not just because of gaslighting and confusion, but also because they internalize society’s condemnation as “damaged goods.”
Survivors feel shame for not resisting enough, for not avoiding the rapist, for somehow “inviting” the assault. The perpetrator is the one who should feel ashamed, along with anyone who tries to shame the survivor.
Evaluating people on their sexual status objectifies them, and blaming people for a crime committed against them is the essence of injustice. Everyone deserves respect and approval irrelevant of their sexual status.
Pregnancy and children
Some rapes result in pregnancy. The survivor may not have access to abortion, or may choose to keep the child. All the physical, psychological, and social effects of rape intrude on the parent-child bond before and after birth. In some situations, the rapist may be able to claim parental rights, intruding even more on the survivor’s life. Children born of incest from a close genetic relative have a higher risk of genetic abnormalities.
When the innocent child resembles the rapist, it adds an extra layer of suffering. After being raped during the Rwandan genocide, a mother asked, “Can you tell me how to love my daughter more?”
End rape culture
Communities are slow to take action against predators in their midst. Confronting perpetrators is hard, especially when they hold positions of power and influence. Lack of community action leaves perpetrators free to continue committing assaults. Rape jokes, sexual objectification, and focusing on prevention by victims rather than perpetrators all support a culture that minimizes and allows rape.
Survivors of sexual assault deserve support, assistance, and care. Most of all, we deserve not to be assaulted. We all deserve a culture that endorses enthusiastic consent, shared power, and zero tolerance for sexual assault.
- Naomi Ardea’s book The Art of Healing From Sexual Trauma is carefully structured to be inviting rather than overwhelming. She bears witness to the possibility of healing while naming the daily difficult work it requires, and shares practical tools to smooth the reader’s path.
- “The Legitimate Children of Rape” is a compassionate article about rape culture and raising children of rape.
- This post about how to report sexual harassment went public as I was writing this article. The strictly moderated comment thread shows a lot of community support, and still has comments doubting that the harassment occurred and putting the victim on trial.