How To Heal From Sexual Assault, According To Experts
Sexual assault can take on many forms and affect people of all races, ages, religions, and genders. However, there are a few truths that apply in all cases: It is never the survivor's fault, and recovery always requires time, patience, and ideally, some support from loved ones and/or a trained professional. If you're wondering how to heal from assault, keep in mind that just as each person’s experience of sexual assault is distinct, their journey to healing is as well. It is not clear-cut, nor does it happen on an exact timeline. That said, experts say that there are certain strategies that may prove helpful for survivors as they seek to move forward from their traumatic experience.
The unfortunate reality is that sexual violence is prevalent in today’s society. In fact, one in six women and one in 33 men in the U.S. have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. To be clear, rape is not the only form of sexual assault. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), additional kinds of assault can refer to any sexual contact or behavior that someone does not give explicit consent to, including unwanted touching, fondling, or penetration, or forcing a someone to perform sexual acts (such as oral sex).
A survivor may be assaulted by an acquaintance, an intimate partner, or a complete stranger. They may decide to report it, or they may not report it, due to shame or fear around not being believed, being blamed, or other repercussions of coming forward (it’s important to note that sexual assault is the most underreported crime, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center).
A 2018 report published by Samuel Merritt University on the effects of sexual violence revealed that while every individual copes in the aftermath of sexual trauma in unique ways, there are some common reactions that many survivors share. For example, they may struggle with boundaries or experience dissociation (which refers to feeling disconnected from one’s own body). Another study published by JAMA Internal Medicine in 2019, which examined the mental and physical health effects of sexual assault midlife women, revealed a number of common consequences, including anxiety, depression, and insomnia. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that other psychological effects survivors may face, particularly if they don’t seek treatment, are feelings of isolation, guilt, numbness, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war and combat, rape, or a violent personal assault. A common symptom of PTSD is reliving the event that caused your trauma, long after it’s occurred. According to RAINN, 94 percent of female rape survivors experience PTSD symptoms in the two weeks after their attack, and 30 percent continue to experience PTSD symptoms nine months later. Additionally, 70 percent of sexual assault survivors report experiencing moderate to severe, a larger percentage than any other violent crime."
“The lack of control that occurs over one’s body and boundaries during a sexual assault can have psychological, emotional, and physical effects,” Jodi Omear, vice president of RAINN, tells Elite Daily. “This may make it difficult for survivors to feel at home in their bodies, to trust others, or to form intimate relationships. For many survivors, a feeling of being alone in what happened to them can make it difficult to move forward with the healing process.”
Dr. Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist and Host of “The Kurre and Klapow Show" adds that sexual assault can be particularly traumatic because sexual activity is often associated with love, trust, and connection — all of which is stripped away when the survivor's body is violated.
“Because sexual activity and intimacy is generally regarded a pinnacle of human bonding, when it is used as a weapon, it violates our sense of what sexual intimacy, trust, and vulnerability are,” he explains. “The survivor has to relearn, if possible, that sexual activity, including all the pre-cursors (romance, attraction, feelings of sexual arousal) does not have to be aversive. They must essentially learn how to see sexual intimacy as pleasurable all over again.”
Fortunately, experts agree that there are a number of tactics that survivors can employ to facilitate the healing process.
“For many, starting to truly believe that what happened to them was not their fault is an important first step,” says Omear.
Victim-blaming refers to the suggestion that the victim’s actions or behavior, such as what they wore, their body language, or how much they had to drink, somehow put them at fault by making them a target for assault. Unfortunately, some of society’s reactions to reported assault have fueled this disturbing mindset, and as a result, many survivors are not only blaming themselves but too afraid to come forward and report their experience. Coming to terms with the fact that you are not at fault is key, because it can help to erode feelings of shame and guilt. Assault is always the product of the perpetrator — never the survivor. Another helpful strategy that can contribute to healing is self-care, which Omear says promote feeling “strong and grounded.” Self-care can mean different things to different people. For some, it’s making time for physical activity, and for others, it’s spending quality time with loving, supportive friends and family. Omear notes that spending time in nature as well has proved effective for many survivors, as has getting involved in advocacy work.
Additionally, journaling can be a powerful way to work through your thoughts and feelings, whether directly related to the assault or not, according to Dr. Laura McGuire, a trauma-informed specialist and sexuality educator.
“Taking the time to sit with what is going on is vital,” she explains. “You can push memories and emotions away for years or decades, but you can't heal from it if you can't name it and address it.”
Processing the experience can often be done most effectively with the help of a trained mental health professional — specifically, someone who specializes in trauma recovery, says Dr. Klapow.
According to Dr. Klapow, an important part of this processing is learning to differentiate the trauma from what sexual intimacy can — and should — be.
“This comes by seeing the assault as something foreign to sexual intimacy, not in the same category and not a part of what sexual intimacy (including love, romance, sexual attraction, and sexual activity) is,” he explains.
Resuming sexual activity does not happen on a specific timeline for survivors. One person may feel comfortable being intimate with their partner months after the incident, while someone else may need more time before engaging in intimate acts with someone new. Experts agree that the important thing is not how long it takes you, but whether you’re participating in sexual acts with someone who is patient, compassionate, and trustworthy, and who understands (to the best of their ability) the severity of this kind of trauma.
Experts say that sexual assault can likely have an impact on how you approach intimacy — at least in the immediate time frame following the trauma. And that’s totally OK. “Survivors may find that certain intimate situations or actions are no longer appealing to them or that the development of sexual intimacy must unfold in new and different ways,” explains Dr. Klapow. “It may come back slowly and completely. You may have to rethink what it means to trust and connect on an intimate level. This is not just about learning to have sex again — it’s about learning to see the assault as a non-sexual event and to re-engage in the world of sexual intimacy that is healthy and loving.”
Dr. Klapow emphasizes that the process of re-embracing intimacy must be slow and incremental, with check-ins with both your partner and yourself along the way. This will help the survivor to gradually overcome intrusive thoughts related to the assault. As a survivor, you should always feel comfortable expressing any and all of your concerns, hesitations, feelings, and desires, and your partner should be receptive to accommodating them. If they are not, you might invite them to a couple’s therapy session so that a trained professional can help to educate them on the nuances of recovering from trauma. Ultimately, however, it’s supremely important that you do not feel any form of pressure to resume sexual activity until you’re sure that you’re ready, and if your significant other seems incapable of supporting you in that, then you may need to step away from the relationship in order to fully heal.
Remember: there is no deadline for your healing. Omear says to be patient with yourself, and to give yourself permission to take as long as you need. Dr. McGuire adds that you shouldn’t minimize the trauma, criticize yourself for how long it’s taking you to move forward, or compare your trauma to others. “People who survive trauma will often try to tell themselves they should be over it by now or that it could have been worse and they should just move on — and those beliefs only make the trauma worse,” she explains. “This is not a straight path. You may think you have addressed it but years later have to explore a different dimension of the trauma. The good news is that you can learn to live at peace with it — and turn it into a tool for growth and resilience.”
Some survivors choose to embark on the healing process solely with the support of friends and family. Again, there is no right or wrong way to approach recovery. The important thing to remember is that your assault does not have to hinder you from reaching your goals, or having healthy, happy relationships. Through a range of tactics, from self-care to seeking therapy, countless survivors with varied experiences of assault have found a place of healing — and hope.
If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you’re not alone. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.