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Surviving Sexual Assault

Surviving Sexual Assault

Surviving Sexual Assault

By Hung Tran, Psy.D.

Sexual assault is any sexual act, which is unwelcome or unwanted. It is sometimes committed through use of manipulation, coercion, intimidation, threats, force, or a controlled substance. It can range from sexual battery, to threat of sexual assault, to rape.

For survivors of sexual assault, talking about your experience may by particularly painful and difficult. For every survivor of sexual violence, there is someone who also shares his or her pain be it a mother, father, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, or child.

This article is intended as an informational guide for both survivors, as well as allies of survivor. It highlights some of the societal myths about sexual assault and offers suggestions in the journey toward healing.


Some Common Reactions

After a sexual assault, it's not uncommon to experience numbness or detachment from oneself or one's own body. Some survivors may experience a feeling of inner turmoil, which may include an inability to feel "clean" or "wholesome."

Loss of appetite, hypervigilance, sensitivity to being startled, and sleep disturbances including vivid nightmares are common physical complaints. Common emotional reactions can include excessive feelings of guilt, shame, or feeling responsible for causing the sexual assault or not preventing the sexual assault.

Sometimes survivors can experience strong feelings of anger. These reactions are normal and ways of coping with an atypical and traumatic event. The person may feel alone and isolated and feel like no one can help. In some cases, these reactions may lead to a disruption in functioning including depression, which may indicate a need to seek professional help.

For Allies

For allies of survivors, it's important to not personalize the survivor's reactions and responses. Allies may also experience similar reactions through a process called vicarious trauma. For example, allies may also feel helpless and become frustrated by the behaviors of their loved ones, especially if they feel like they are being pushed away.

Allies can be helpful by taking a supportive and nonjudgmental stance and convey their genuine concern without pushing the person to do something they are not ready for. It is recommended to avoid use of language which directly or indirectly blames the survivor or implies that he or she could have done something to prevent the assault from happening.

Most importantly, being patient and letting the person know that you'll be there when they are ready to talk can be a tremendous source of comfort. It may also be helpful to encourage and support the person to seek professional help, such as talking to a counselor or therapist.

For Survivors

Surviving and overcoming sexual assault can be a difficult and slow journey and may take time. Healing may not happen overnight. It may be hard to begin trusting others again or regain a sense of safety. Remember that you do not have to do this alone.

Counseling and Psychological Services has a team of caring professionals that can help support you. Campus Advocacy, Resources & Education (CARE) has confidential advocates to help in sorting through your emotions, resources and options. Family, friends, and loved ones can be valuable sources of support. There are also many community resources available for information and support. Patience and kindness towards yourself can help in the journey towards healing.

For a quick guide on supporting students in crisis consult the Red Folder.

Red Folder

If this is a life-threatening emergency, call 9-1-1 or go to your nearest hospital emergency room.