Sexual Assault: Trauma and Healing
During a sexual assault, most victims feel terrified, fearful, helpless, humiliated, and confused. Afterward, any of these feelings can persist and intensify, especially terror and fear.
Sexual assault is not simply an event that happened, ended, and now is over. It can have an impact on every aspect of life—faith, daily attitudes and emotions, self-image, relationships, and sexuality. These are not just past issues, but remain very real and current. Regardless of how long ago the assault took place, the traces of an assault can reach into the present life of a victim and trigger ongoing problems.
A sexual assault is a traumatic event. “Trauma” is a state of being negatively overwhelmed. It is the experience of terror, loss of control, of helplessness during a stressful event that threatens one’s physical or psychological integrity.
While some victims eventually experience a gradual decrease in the intensity of emotions and memories surrounding the assault, others re-experience the traumatic memories as though the original assault were presently occurring. Subsequently, they develop a host of responses now identified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, which is usually associated with combat war veterans.
Because sexual assault is traumatizing, victims arethree times more likely to suffer from depression, six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, thirteen times more likely to abuse alcohol, twenty-six times more likely to abuse drugs, and four times more likely to contemplate suicide.
As one expert said, many sexual assault victims suffer from a feeling of “total helplessness, profound emptiness, or total dislocation.”
In response to these emotions, victims can look to the gospel of Jesus in order to investigate the new emotions available to them and how they relate to the current emotions of their experience.
What grace offers to the victim experiencing disgrace is the gift of refuting distortions and faulty thinking and replacing those counter-factual beliefs with more accurate ones that reflect the truths about God, themselves, and God’s grace-filled response to their disgrace. Grace brings healing to where they are harmed.
Unfortunately, instead of the message of grace, the message victims hear most often is self-heal, self-love, and self-help. Research shows that self-help statements have been found to be ineffective and even harmful because they may backfire and make some feel worse rather than better. If the positive self-statement does not “stick,” the result is to return to one’s original negative self-perception and hold it more strongly.
The consequences are that positive self-statements are likely to backfire and cause harm for the very people they are meant to benefit: people with low self-esteem.
Our powerlessness to heal ourselves is evident. Victims don’t need platitudes and shallow theology. They need accessible gospel-based help, hope, and healing.
Internal trauma is not only done to, but also experienced by, victims. These internal—and deeply personal—places of a victim’s heart, will, and emotions need a clear application of the gospel of redemption.
What victims need are not self-produced positive statements, but God’s statements about his response to their pain. How can you be rid of your disgrace? God’s grace to you dismantles the beliefs that give disgrace life. Grace re-creates what violence destroyed. One-way love is the change agent you need. Grace transforms and heals; and healing comes by hearing God’s statements to you, not speaking your own statements to yourself.
Justin and Lindsey Holcomb are the authors of Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault