Since every person and situation is different, victims of sexual assault will respond to an assault in various ways. To pastor well in times of trouble, you should be aware of this.
The number of occurrences of sexual assaults is staggering. At least 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are or will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. The only thing more staggering than the number of occurrences of sexual assault is the acute damage done to the victim. The effects are physical, social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual.
After a person has been sexually assaulted, it is normal to experience a range of feelings and reactions. Everyone copes in his or her own way. Some people have very strong responses after being sexually assaulted; others are calm or numb. Some feelings and reactions might be experienced directly after the assault or days and weeks later. Understanding that these feelings are normal and experienced by others who have been sexually assaulted may make the feelings and reactions less frightening.
Immediate physical effects may be pain and bodily injuries, especially if the perpetrator used force. Specific physical effects may include: bruises, broken bones, STIs, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and pregnancy. Longer-term physical effects may be disturbed sleep patterns, nightmares, insomnia, loss of appetite, and stomach pains.
Emotional and Psychological Effects
Sexual assault causes harmful emotional, psychological, or physiological effects that are more severe than the effects of other crimes. These effects include:
- Shame, guilt, or embarrassment
- Anxiety, stress, or fear
- Impaired memory, confusion, or disorientation
- Anger, hostility, or aggression
- Sexualized behaviors
- Loss of sex drive or sexual dysfunction (not being able to perform sexual acts)
- Interpersonal problems
- Erratic mood swings
- Depression or despair
- Social withdrawal
- Sexual effects (ranging from avoidance to compulsive promiscuity)
- Decreased energy and motivation
- Numbing/apathy (detachment, loss of caring)
- Restricted affect (reduced ability to express emotions)
- Disturbed sleep, insomnia, or nightmares
- Flashbacks or panic attacks
- Difficulty concentrating
- Diminished interest in activities
- Loss of self-esteem
- Loss of security
- Loss of appetite, eating problems/disorders, or gastrointestinal disturbance
- Substance use and abuse (alcohol and other drugs) and other compulsive behaviors
- Feeling powerless
- Feeling uncomfortable being alone
- Self-injury, self-mutilation (cutting, burning or otherwise hurting oneself), or substance abuse
- Suicidal thoughts
- Confusion of sex with love
- Extreme dependency
- Impaired ability to judge trustworthiness of others
- Body memories
- Feelings of alienation and isolation
- Hyper-vigilance (always being “on your guard”)
- Exaggerated startle response (jumpiness)
- Hyper-arousal (exaggerated feelings or responses to stimuli)
- PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
Social psychology research on attitudes toward sexual assault demonstrates that our culture holds prejudices and negative views of victims. Thus, victims suffer from the trauma of the assault itself as well as the effects of negative stereotypes. The result is that after an assault, victims feel socially derogated and blamed, which can prolong and intensify the psychological and emotions distress of victims.
Because sexual assault victimization is stigmatized in American society, many suffer silently, which intensifies a victim’s distress and disgrace. Research has proven that victims who are believed and listened to by others adjust better than those who are not. Victims that experience negative social reactions can have poorer adjustment.
Those serving in supportive roles to the victim need to be mindful of the various feelings and reactions following an assault in order to provide practical, compassionate, and informed support.
Victims of sexual assault frequently have a hard time finding the words to describe how they feel or what they are thinking in response to the trauma.
Because of this, it is often helpful that the language of pain be offered by those who are not currently in traumatic pain themselves, but are able to empathize and speak on behalf of those who are. Describing the pain is a way to normalize how the victim is feeling rather than alienating them by not talking about it at all.
To be continued.
Justin and Lindsey Holcomb are the authors of Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault