happened to me? How did this happen to me? Why
did this happen to me? Why did I act the way
that I did while it was happening? What will
I do the next time I'm in a similar situation?"
These are the questions that many women who
have experienced sexual victimization ask themselves.
The process of answering these questions can
be very painful. So painful that often times
the woman chooses to sort through them with
the help of a psychotherapist.
the plight of a woman who has been sexually
victimized one must first understand the different
terms that describe the victimization. Sexual
harassment refers to any unwelcomed sexual advance,
verbal or non-verbal, of an offensive sexual
nature. Sexual assault is a form of sexual harassment.
It involves unwelcomed touching of another person.
It can be defined as any unwanted physical activity
forced by one person on another. Sexual battery
is a form of sexual assault. It entails a particular
type of touch, namely penetration. Sexual battery
can be defined as forced anal, oral or vaginal
penetration by any object, except when these
acts are performed for bona fide medical purposes.
Rape is a form of sexual battery because it
entails sexual intercourse. Rape can either
be at the hands of a stranger, an acquaintance,
a date, or committed against the victim by more
than one person (e.g., gang rape).
exist and they hunt for people who will make
for easy prey. They hunt for women who appear
to manifest certain characteristics. Namely,
they look for those who seem to be (a) people
pleasers (b) unassertive (c) naïve about
the adversarial dynamics existing between men
and women and (d) drug and/or alcohol abusers.
It is not difficult for predators to find women
matching these characteristics on a college
campus. In fact, research consistently identifies
freshmen women as the most likely victims of
sexual crimes on campus. However, predators
are not looking for freshmen per se, they are
people who appear to them to be safe to victimize
(e.g., the kind of person who will not put up
too much resistance and/or will not give them
trouble afterwards). This does not mean that
the victim is to be "blamed" for having
these characteristics. It only means that she
may be more vulnerable to exploitation. She
is not responsible for the assault, and she
did not "ask" to be harmed. The predator
is the one who is responsible for causing harm.
Also, not all perpetrators have to fit the description
of a predator. The young man who gets drunk
to celebrate some successful experience and
in a drunken stupor forces himself sexually
on a woman also contributes to the rising number
What all forms
of sexual victimization have in common is that
they psychologically register as traumatic.
A traumatic event is experienced as sudden,
threatening and overwhelming. The reaction of
people who are traumatized (due to a rape, a
robbery, a car accident, or witnessing a tragedy)
often reaches a threshold that warrants the
clinical diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress
Disorder (PTSD). Even if they have repressed
the event (or parts of the event), the people
who suffer from PTSD know something is wrong.
The key elements of PTSD are: (a) intrusive
thoughts and feelings (such as flashbacks and
nightmares) making it seem as if she is reliving
the event, (b) attempts to avoid experiences
that are reminiscent of the event or elicit
negative thoughts and feelings related to the
event, and (c) hypervigillence, i.e., constant
surveillance of the environment so that they
are not suddenly threatened and/or overwhelmed
for PTSD primarily involves grieving and making
sense of what happened. For many people the
toughest hurdle to clear entails accepting that
bad things happen to good people. The victim
of a sexual crime typically attempts to sort
through who is to blame for what happened. Often,
the victim attempts to regain control by erroneously
taking responsibility for events for which she
had no control over at the time. This leads
to shame and self-blame. It also means that
she is less likely to confront the perpetrator
or pursue a chance at justice via legal means.
process is difficult but possible. Support from
significant others is extremely important. The
people the victim lives with are the people
most capable to detect that something is wrong
and to encourage her to get help. Moreover,
they can challenge any self-blaming arguments.
Sometimes the significant-other is so close
to the victim that they can be considered a
"secondary victim" and they too may
need to get help. Help is available.
University Counseling Center, University
of Notre Dame