April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but this is an urgent issue that faces men and women every day all across the world. Awareness, education, and resources surrounding sexual assault are more vital than ever with the ongoing Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis for people who are isolated with their abuser(s).
Sexual assault is defined by the Department of Justice as “any nonconsensual act…including when the victim lacks the capacity to consent.”
As the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) points out, sexual assault can take on many different forms, including attempted rape, fondling or unwanted sexual touching, forcing a victim to perform sexual acts and penetration of a victim’s body.
But the tremendous impact of sexual assault goes well beyond these definitions. As Rachel Youree, LCSW, EFT, EMDR, a New York City-based psychotherapist who specializes in sexual trauma, explains, “Any kind of coercion of a sexual nature is sexual violence.”
“If someone tells you they were aggressively groped on the subway, and they are very distressed, don’t minimize it because it’s not a ‘rape,’” she says, adding, “Any unwanted touching is a serious violation of the body and the mind.”
At the core of any kind of sexual assault, Youree says, “It’s the experience of the survivor that matters.”
The Mental and Emotional Toll of Sexual Assault
Since no case of sexual assault is ever the same, neither is the impact that the experience can have on its victims. “It is impossible to sum up the range of emotions that a survivor goes through because they might be dramatically different from person to person,” Youree says.
Raleigh-based relationship, sexuality, and trauma therapist Kate Double, LCSW, MSW, EMDR, says that while one person may feel elated that they survived, another may be so shocked that they disassociate entirely. “No two assaults and no two survivors are exactly alike and there is no right or wrong way to respond.”
In the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault, there may be alternating feelings of fear, rage, despair, negative thoughts, and self-blame explains Youree.
Other long-term issues, Double notes, can include depression, flashbacks, nightmares, social and/or sexual distancing or withdrawal, hypersexuality, hypervigilance to any perceived sense of threat, a sense of a foreshortened future, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
However, some people may experience all of these things at various points throughout their lifetime. As Double explains, “Trauma can feel resolved at one point in time, only to come up again.” She says that, oftentimes, a victim can be completely unaware of the ways that their trauma is affecting them throughout their lives, thus making it difficult to know when to seek help.
This is an especially big hurdle, as getting (and receiving proper) help and care can be crucial. “When assault victims get compassionate responses from medical personnel, counselors and their loved ones, they have a better chance of physical and emotional recovery,” says Youree.
Getting Help in the Wake of Sexual Assault
Seeking medical care after a sexual assault can be a scary and overwhelming thing to consider, but time can be of the essence. Youree points out that New York, for instance, encourages victims to get help within 96 hours of the attack.
If a victim arrives in an emergency room after an assault, Youree says that hospitals that are affiliated with a rape crisis program will contact a volunteer advocate who will be called in to support them throughout their forensic exam, as well as refer them for follow-up counseling and advocacy.
In a time of crisis, it’s quite difficult for an assault survivor to sort through their overwhelming thoughts and feelings,” Youree says, adding, “Hopefully they can wade through any self-blame or shame and seek out supportive care.”
Like any assault and the responses a victim may feel afterward, there is also no one therapy or healing process, Double says. However, seeking therapy in the wake of sexual assault can be extremely beneficial when it comes to processing the experience.
When seeking a therapist, Double says that the most important factor is finding one you feel comfortable with and have confidence they will be a good partner for you in your recovery.
There are also different kinds of therapies to consider, particularly for trauma survivors, including EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and mindfulness techniques. (Youree points out that if you don’t have insurance or adequate income, “many providers will offer a sliding fee.” She says that there are also non-profit agencies that offer lower fees, and there are funds available for victims of crimes.)
“In addition to considering the ‘fit’ between patient and therapist and therapy modality,” Double says, “they might consider the education of the clinician, the setting in which they practice, and if they have specialty in working with trauma in general and/or sexual assault survivors.”
However, if a survivor does not yet feel ready for therapy, until then, Double suggests things like reading books about sexual assault recovery, practicing mindfulness, practicing self-care and staying strongly connected to supportive friends and family.
Whatever your path towards healing may be, both Double and Youree want survivors to know there is not only help, but hope.
“Although you will never forget what happened to you, you can and will feel better,” Double says. “You can move forward with happiness, strong relationships, safe and satisfying intimacy, and accomplishments in all areas of your life. Your trauma does not define you.”
Additional Resources for Sexual Assault
If you live in the United States and need help or assistance in the wake of a sexual assault, you can call these numbers:
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: 1-800-656-HOPE
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender National Hotline: 1-888-843-4564
Department of Defense (DoD) Safe Helpline for Sexual Assault: 1-877-995-5247