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.
The 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.
Ella never 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.
Ella attempted 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
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.
Her parents 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.
Through trauma 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 drugs.
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
The 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.
The effects 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
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
The response 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.
During the 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.
During the 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."
Sexual Assault and
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.
The results 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.
Ella suffered 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.
Survivors may 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 provocation.
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
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.
Emotions that 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.
Avoidance issues 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
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 for rain.
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
Here are some common beliefs
which may result from a sexual assault;
1. The world is not a
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.
Feeling as 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 lost.
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 less than.
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
Subsequent 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.
Associated beliefs with this
are; I am damaged goods, I am worthless,
I am here for other's enjoyment, and I am dirty.
3. Sex 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.
4. People 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.
Intimate relationships 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.
Treatment of Rape
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.
The spirit 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
Amy Menna 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.