Some say rape is about power.
It has been said that when a woman is raped,
her power is taken away. Not only is this notion
erroneous, but it is what keeps many woman silent.
The immense power within a woman cannot be destroyed.
It can be hidden under scars that feel like
they will last a lifetime. However, the lasting
effects of rape can be mitigated by uncovering
the power that may feel like it was cleverly
concealed. So many survivors believe that they
are alone on a journey. Their story may be theirs...but
the journey belongs to everyone.
Story of Ella
Ella was raped at 17 when she was walking home
from volleyball practice. The man who assaulted
her was someone that she knew from school. He
approached her asking her to help him lift something
in to his van. He said that he would be able
to give her a ride home afterwards. When they
reached the van, he proceeded to rape her. When
he was finished, he told her to get dressed
and get in the front seat. He drove her right
to her home without having to ask directions.
told anyone about the assault. She came home
that day, went up to her room, and took a shower.
After that, her mother asked her to come down
to dinner. Knowing that her absence would be
noticed, she sat at the dinner table pretending
as if nothing happened. When asked if there
was something wrong, she said that practice
had been difficult. After dinner, she completed
her homework and went to bed.
to put the assault out of her mind, never telling
anyone. However, after the rape, she started
having problems in school and became increasingly
anxious. She started having more arguments with
her parents as they were constantly frustrated
by her unwillingness to get up to go to school.
What her parents weren't aware of was that she
slept very little throughout the night due to
nightmares. Ella also began drinking more on
weekends and was smoking marijuana at night
just to be able to fall asleep. Her temper was
extremely short which created problems with
her friends. She began to isolate more and more.
At the request
of her parents, Ella went to see a psychiatrist.
She discussed the symptoms of depression and
her inability to sleep. Never was she questioned
about a history of sexual assault, nor would
she volunteer the information. She was placed
on a common antidepressant and sent on her way.
Family therapy was recommended as the majority
of problems seemed to surround her parents.
Soon she went
away to college and her drinking increased significantly.
She began dating a man who was verbally and
physically abusive. At one point, she was referred
by one of her professors to student services
after coming to class intoxicated. She was reprimanded
for poor judgment and placed on academic probation.
This only created more discord with her parents.
Fights with her boyfriend became more frequent
and at one point she began to cut her arms "just
to get a hold of herself." She started
to think of suicide.
again intervened and sent her to a therapist.
Again, she was not asked directly about a history
of sexual assault. She explained her irritability
and at times violent outbursts. She was diagnosed
with Bipolar Disorder and sent to a psychiatrist
who gave her medication. As many of her problems
were external, Ella felt that the medication
did not help therefore stopped taking it.
When Ella returned
home for the summer, her parents immediately
noticed a problem with her drinking. She was
placed in a residential treatment facility for
her addiction. The therapist asked directly
whether or not Ella had been raped or sexually
abused. For the first time, Ella told someone
about what happened on the way home from school.
Saying it out loud was her first step in
her journey to healing. In doing so, she
began identifying the underlying reasons why
she made some of the choices she had made. Ella
was able to recognize that on the day she was
raped, she began fighting the world and never
stopped. When she was raped, it made her feel
scared, damaged, and like she had done something
wrong. She had spent years wondering, "if
I had only..." Ella realized that the
way her life played out was a direct result
of what she thought about herself.
specific treatment, Ella was able to identify
that issues surrounding safety and self-worth
were at the heart of her troubles. She began
making choices that would insure her safety
such as putting up boundaries and not tolerating
abuse. She began treating her body respectfully
by discontinuing the use of alcohol and illicit
It was a constant
struggle to change her way of thinking and feeling.
She completed hours of exercises intended to
increase her self-esteem. She created meaningful
friendships with other women and started doing
volunteer work for a women's shelter. At the
end of the day she was filled with pride about
her actions instead of disgust about herself.
Ella had found the power of which she was searching
for so many years.
Truth About Rape
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations
Uniform Crime Report, Sexual Assault is the
most under-reported crime in the United States.
Survivors of sexual assault are often met with
intrusive questions, accusations, and fear a
losing battle of "he said - she said."
Although women are the majority of the survivors,
sexual assault does not discriminate. For many
women, it has the single most significant influence
on their life without them even knowing it.
of rape reach far beyond the physical injuries
incurred. What transpires is a journey where
trust is lost and the bedrock of lives becomes
quicksand. Rape survivors experience common
symptoms of flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety,
depression, and low self-esteem. Lack of services
and under reporting leave the survivor alone
in a journey along with scores of others who
also feel isolated. So close to each other,
yet so far away.
Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS) was identified by
Ann Wolbert Burgess and Lynda Lytle Holmstrom
in the mid-seventies after studying the typical
patterns of rape survivors. RTS describes a
process that rape survivors go through in response
to the fear experienced during a sexual assault.
Although each survivor has their own experience,
there are common characteristics some survivors
possess. These characteristics are the direct
result of the profound fear inherent in sexual
immediately after a rape varies with each individual.
This immediate response is described as the
Acute Phase. The Acute Phase can last
anywhere from a few days to a few weeks after
an assault. It is a response to a complete disruption
of one's life and the horrific experience of
being sexually assaulted. The Acute Phase produces
as many responses as there are survivors. Some
survivors may cry, others may laugh, and still
others may be completely silent. As you saw
with Ella, she went about her normal routine
for the evening.
It is important
to note that there is no "wrong" way
to cope with the immediate after effects of
sexual trauma. Each survivor is unique and will
process the assault in different ways. The various
responses to the initial assault fall into two
categories; expressed and controlled. Survivors
engaging in expressed responses are open with
their emotions and are in an emotional state.
Examples of expressed responses are
crying, yelling, showing anger, or agitation.
The second type of response is known as the
controlled. Survivors engaging in this
style of response contain their emotions and
focus more on keeping their composure. These
responses are a result of the survivor "regrouping"
after the situation that has occurred. Again,
neither response is superior to the other. They
are both responses to trauma.
Acute Phase survivors may feel disbelief or
in some way frozen. It has also been described
as if survivors "left their body,"
forever being unable to reconnect with the woman
or man who was raped. Survivors may feel humiliated,
confused, dirty, ashamed, or in some way at
fault for the assault; especially in the case
where the assailant was an acquaintance. Physical
concerns may arise during the acute phase as
well. These concerns may be the direct result
of the assault (i.e. bruising or soreness) or
fear of the possible physical ramifications
of the assault (i.e. pregnancy or STD's).
The Acute Phase
can be described as the world turning upside
down. Everything that was in place has fallen
in disarray. The basic orientation to life has
been lost by the survivor. This disturbance
can result in nightmares, heightened anxiety,
or a complete disconnection from one's emotions.
After the Acute
Phase, comes the Reorganization Phase
where the survivor attempts to reorganize her
life. This phase invites a myriad of emotions
such as fear, anxiety, denial, and most of all
the loss of security. The shattering of security
as well as trust is inherent in sexual assault.
This loss of the fundamental need for security
wreaks havoc on the survivor's life. The feeling
of being unsafe looms over the survivor causing
a heightened state of anxiety, difficulty with
intimate relationships, and hypervigilence such
as constantly checking one's surroundings.
The loss of
trust coupled with feelings of being unsafe
chip away at the personal relationships surrounding
the survivor. Relationships suffer as a result
of the survivor's isolating from their support
system either physically or emotionally. The
survivor may feel a general disconnection from
peers as a result of the perceived unique experience.
The shattering of trust can cause intimate relationships
to be diluted as survivors may have a heightened
suspicion of other's motives and feelings.
Reorganization Phase, the survivor attempts
to reorganize his or her life and create the
world that she or he once knew. Despite best
efforts though, this phase is often riddled
with feelings of guilt and shame. The survivor's
attempt to get back to his or her routine is
often plagued with feelings of anxiety and fear.
She may attempt to return to normal social functioning
(i.e. go out to social engagements), yet may
find herself unable to do so. His or her attempts
to re-establish in relationships may be hindered
by lack of trust.
Long term reactions
to sexual assault may also include the inability
to find peace within this world. Sexual assault
can change the individual forever as well as
the world as they know it. The end result is
a constant state of turmoil. At times, the survivor
may not even recognize what is happening within.
Sexual assault causes the body to be an unfriendly
environment leading the survivor to at times
feel dirty and ashamed. These feelings cause
the individual to disconnect from their body
entirely. Without a connection to their body,
the survivor is unable to listen to internal
states which assist her in navigating through
the world. This contributes to a feeling inherent
in many survivors, the feeling of being "lost."
Assault and the Body
The words "the scene of the crime"
speak volumes in criminal investigations and
movies. In the case of sexual assault, despite
where the event occurred, the scene of the crime
is the body itself. The body then becomes less
of a vessel for the spirit, and more of an enemy
always reminding them of what they long to forget.
Resolution of the sexual assault requires the
body to be empowered. Forming a loving relationship
between survivors and their bodies will enhance
their ability to care for themselves as well
as live with less anger and fear.
During a traumatic
experience, the body morphs into a different
creature, one who of which better equipped to
handle the situation. An assault at this level
is then captured by this "creature within"
who holds onto it to protect the individual
from having to deal with such an emotional upheaval.
Although its intentions are noble, it can only
hold on to so long. Eventually, the memories
and feelings start leaking out, causing the
body to remember what the mind has forgotten.
are body-based symptoms which may not be recognized
by the survivor as having a root in the assault.
Survivors may have increased somatic complaints
long after the original assault. These complaints
may come in the form of gastrointestinal problems,
migraines, or chronic pain. Sexual problems
may also occur such as pain during intercourse.
As stated above, the disconnection from one's
body causes symptoms to leak into the survivor's
life without his or her consent. These are known
as intrusive symptoms. They are appropriately
named as they intrude upon one's life. One symptom
known to many survivors is a "flashback."
This is when the survivor flashes back in to
a memory of the assault. Survivors may feel
as if they are seeing it or feeling it all over
again. Intense fear surrounds these flashbacks
as the survivor is not able to predict or control
when they will occur.
from a common symptom of sleep disturbance.
Survivors may have trouble falling asleep due
to their racing thoughts or inability to calm
their body. Some may attempt to put off sleep,
knowing that nightmares are most likely going
to wake them up in the middle of the night.
This lack of rest only serves to compound the
symptoms during the day.
also experience extreme emotions that may not
match the situation at hand. For example, some
survivors may have more of a "quick temper"
after the assault. Many are prone to depression
or heightened anxiety. What was a "normal"
worry is now an obsession that renders them
fearful or impulsive. Feelings are internal
cues that tell information about the world and
what we are experiencing. For the survivor of
sexual assault, feelings are more "flood
gates" that tend to open with the slightest
Sexual assault can rob a survivor of their safety.
This feeling of not being safe lasts long after
the assault. It's this lingering feeling that
causes a survivor to have what is called arousal
symptoms. A common arousal symptom is known
as an exaggerated startle response. If you have
ever seen a scary movie, you can relate to being
"on the edge of your seat." This feeling
may be entertaining for a short time for some
(hence the majority of the movies are action
packed), but to sustain this state is both exhausting
and damaging to the survivor.
A common arousal
symptom seen in rape survivors is hypervigilence.
When individuals feel safe, they are able to
attune to what they choose to focus on. In the
past, however, dangerous things happened "out
of nowhere." In order to protect the body,
the individual is hypervigilent to his or her
surroundings, always attuned to what is going
on in the background. This hypervigilence may
be exhausting to the survivor as well as those
around her. He or she may be accused of having
a lack of attention or focus.
Sexual assault creates an internal environment
so scary that survivors may avoid any reminders
of the event. Avoidance symptoms are
behaviors of which a survivor engages in to
avoid reminders of the event. When referencing
"reminders," though, one needs to
recognize all that was connected with the assault.
To illustrate, if one was raped in a park, they
may avoid large open spaces. They may be triggered
also by trees, the sound of birds, or a swing
set that was near during the assault. Perhaps
the assailant was wearing a certain cologne;
in this case one may avoid smells including
lotions, department stores, or other places
where their senses may get triggered.
may have been present during or after the assault
may be avoided as well. For instance, survivors
may avoid feelings of sadness or fear as they
connect them to the assault. They may see them
as signs of weakness and may correlate it with
being vulnerable. Many survivors will avoid
putting themselves in any vulnerable place even
if it is showing emotion or letting go of a
secret. A vulnerable position may lead to physical
and emotional pain. Survivors will go to great
lengths to ensure that the situation does not
get recreated. Hence, survivors may work on
escaping or avoiding both physically and emotionally
vulnerable situations at all cost.
can cripple a survivor emotionally as they have
taken themselves out of important facets of
life. Survivors of gang rape or date rape may
avoid gatherings or large crowds. Intimate friends
and partners are now no longer trusted. The
survivor becomes more and more isolated from
their peers as well as their own emotional experiences.
Ella found the peer interaction to be too overwhelming
and chose to retreat. Prolonged avoidance of
dealing with the trauma of rape can lead a survivor
to "hide out," causing them to work
long hours, and/or become obsessed with isolated
behaviors such as eating or exercising.
As the survivor
attempts to avoid the difficult feelings associated
with rape and its aftermath, many increase their
use of mood altering substances. They may use
alcohol or drugs to blanket the feelings of
anxiety or fear. Many find mood altering substances
initially comforting as they produce a feeling
of safety. Others find that the only way for
them to fall asleep through external means such
as a substance. The flashbacks are then contained
with drugs or alcohol. The amount needed to
numb the pain or contain the memories increases
until they become addicted. Many identify this
as a problem and seek to lessen their drug and
alcohol use. However, the less they use, the
more symptoms of the sexual assault may come
up. In these instances, the need for treatment
of substance abuse as well as the assault is
Cognitions Associated with Rape Trauma
Although some survivors are able to connect
their present feelings and symptoms to the original
trauma, many survivors use present day problems
to explain unhappiness. For example, they may
not identify the deep rooted trust issues of
which they may struggle. Instead, they believe
that their present relationships are "not
working out." A good look at an individual's
life will reveal the true beliefs they have
about themselves and the world. When one doesn't
feel worthy, it leads them to construe situations
to confirm their unworthiness.
In life, there
are certain "rules" we use in society
to create a safe and predictable world. For
instance, the fact that the sky is blue has
become a "rule" in our head ever since
we first learned our colors. We then use this
fact as a reference point to determine whether
or not something is amiss in our world. We have
also learned that a gray sky typically produces
rain. In this case, our world becomes predictable.
If the sky is blue, there is little chance of
rain. If the sky is gray, we need to prepare
"rules" and guidelines lay within
the human mind. These rules are called "cognitions"
or "beliefs." They are beliefs about
oneself which are perceived to be true based
on one's experience. Some common beliefs are
that people are good, the world is relatively
safe, sex is pleasurable, and we are in control
of our environment. A sexual assault can change
these beliefs at the core of the human being.
These beliefs infiltrate the survivor's life
without the conscience being aware. The beliefs
then morph into the feelings that people are
bad, the world is not safe, sex is something
that hurts, and the environment is out of control.
These beliefs about oneself and the body then
polarize the survivor from their body or their
world. However, rarely are survivors able to
articulate that they feel their body is an enemy.
Instead, they present with eating disorders,
substance abuse, or self injurious behaviors.
Here are some
common beliefs which may result from a sexual
world is not a safe place.
Typically, we are able to walk around in a relaxed
state free from the feeling of impending doom.
If this were not the case, we would walk this
earth on a heightened state of alert. Our heart
rates would be up, we would not be able to concentrate
on the task at hand, and we would be very suspicious
of those around us. This can be true of the
survivor. Prior to the assault, they took comfort
in a normal routine. Things were very predictable
until the unpredictable happened.
if the world is not safe creates a fearful environment.
Walking around in a fearful state is what leads
to the heightened anxiety. The sense of pending
doom lingers and the survivor seeks safety in
many ways. Safety in such a tumultuous world
means either fighting your way through life
or withdrawing all together. Relationships can
be tainted with suspicion and intimacy is nearly
If the assault
was in the home, many people try to avoid the
memories by moving. On the surface this may
look like a solution. As triggers tend to be
generalized, an individual may not feel safe
in the home wherever it is. This related belief
is that my home is not safe. In this
instance, there is no refuge for the survivor
until this belief is reversed.
2. I am
The feeling that the individual is somehow tainted
often follows a sexual assault. The fact that
the body is the scene of the crime, feelings
of shame become almost inescapable. This driving
belief may lead to sexual problems and feelings
of contempt for one's own body. Due to the contempt
felt by the survivor, the body becomes a place
that warrants harm instead of care. This can
lead to self-injurious behavior such as cutting
or burning. There is also no regard for the
harmful effects alcohol or drugs have on the
Ella is a good
example of someone who feels that she is somehow
damaged or "less than." She experienced
a great deal of abuse always believing that
it was her fault. She engaged in sexual practices
that she regretted. In this instance, she made
a decision based on her boyfriend's wishes outweighing
sexual acting out can stem from this belief.
After all, if someone feels as if they are dirty
or bad, they will expect people to treat them
as such. A good illustration of this may be
a survivor who enters into relationships with
abusive men. These men in turn treat the survivor
as if she or he was less than thereby perpetuating
beliefs about the self. Domestic violence can
ensue as the survivor continues to believe that
he or she is dirty or doesn't deserve love.
Positive relationships that may develop are
abandoned as they contradict what the survivor
believes to be true.
beliefs with this are; I am damaged goods,
I am worthless, I am here for other's enjoyment,
and I am dirty.
is something painful.
Sexual assault is often accompanied by physical
pain. Flashbacks during subsequent sexual activity
perpetuated this belief. What once was a pleasant
act to be shared between mutual partners may
now be a dirty despicable act to be avoided.
Partners are often unaware of the impact the
assault has had on the survivors. At times they
are unaware of the assault altogether. The feeling
that one is engaged in an act that has harmed
them in the past can lead the survivor to disassociate
during intimacy. Attempts may be made to avoid
any sexual activity all together.
cannot be trusted.
Although it is true that some people in this
world cannot or should not be trusted, a survivor
often loses trust in all people. In many cases,
the survivor was acquainted with the perpetrator.
This contributes to the survivor feeling as
if she somehow brought it upon herself. This
belief, which is extremely erroneous, leads
to feelings of over responsibility and shame.
are adversely affected as suspicion lingers
on the mind of the survivor. Support networks
that were in place prior to the assault are
not accessed as a result of this belief. Intimate
relationships developed after the assault may
be tattered with trust issues as well.
Part of the healing process is to uncover one's
true belief system. Often survivors identify
verbally that the responsibility for the assault
lies with the assailant. However, when you probe
into the workings of their mind, you uncover
lingering feelings as if they had somehow brought
it on themselves. Eradicating these beliefs
to the core then uncovers the strength beneath.
It is important
that the survivor seek the treatment needed
to resolve the underlying beliefs that result
in the troublesome aspects of his or her life.
It is a journey where the hidden power is uncovered.
Through connecting with other survivors, women
can share their stories and help each other
identify where they found their power. As with
any treasure hunt, the more people on your team,
the better apt you are to find the gold.
A sexual assault
can last from minutes to hours, but the lasting
effects can go on for years. The act committed
by another person may leave a mark on the survivor
so deep that at times they may not even see
it. The result is a cluster of symptoms that
can only be resolved with awareness and empowerment.
is amazing in its resilience and starts to heal
the moment it becomes injured. In becoming aware
of the symptoms related to the assault, one
can begin processing the events and come to
a resolution. Survivors are empowered to overcome
the beliefs instilled in them during the assault.
Power is then uncovered showing strength that
knows no limits. The spirit may have become
clouded, but it is never broken.
Rape Victims Advocate is an Illinois not-for-profit
organization made up of many individuals with
two primary goals: to assure that survivors
of sexual assault are treated with dignity and
compassion; and to affect changes in the way
the legal system, medical institutions and society
as a whole respond to survivors.
These Trauma Pages focus primarily on emotional
trauma and traumatic stress, including PTSD
(Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) and dissociation,
whether following individual traumatic experience(s)
or a large-scale disaster.
This is a link to local programs in your area
provided by the New York State Coalition Against
- Gateway to PTSD Information
- PTSD Resources for Survivors & Caregivers
has a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision,
is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and Certified
Addictions Professional. She is in private practice
and lives in Tampa, Florida. She is available
by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.