PTSD and Sexual Assault

Another hard post to write.

I spend many of my work hours talking with survivors of sexual assault of some type.  It’s not always rape, but it is always traumatic.

Whenever  you have  a dangerous, harmful, threatening or just frightening experience, coupled with a lot of negative emotion, you have trauma.  There are “small t” traumas that we recover from pretty quickly.  These can be things like taking a sudden fall, or losing a wallet or credit card.  They’re troublesome, but not overwhelming.

Then you have “Big T” trauma, which can mean different things to different people. As I’ve said before, these can include  being caught in hurricanes, tsunamis, flooding and other natural disasters;  mass shootings, bombings, wars, persecutions, torture, and so on. A key factor in this type of trauma is that the victim either feels or actually is helpless to escape or prevent what is happening.

Sexual assault is always traumatic. Sometimes the victims become angry at being considered victims. That’s normal and actually pretty healthy.  They are angry that they were in a situation in which they were violated on the most personal level possible, and could do nothing to stop it.

Worse, victims of sexual assault are often made to feel as if they are to blame for what has happened to them. Not only do they feel terrified, vulnerable and frightened; they also feel guilty and defiled. They are sure that everyone knows what happened, and that everyone is now looking at them with disgust.

The symptoms a victim experiences following sexual assault can include the full range of PTSD symptoms, but some are more marked than others.   Depression, lots of crying–uncontrollable, and often coming out of the blue.  Anxiety. A desire to isolate, to hide inside the house or bedroom; hypervigilance; a strong startle reflex; sometimes a tendency to dress in uncharacteristically “frumpy” or unattractive clothing; flashbacks of the assault, nightmares; and a strong aversion to being touched sexually or any other way.

Anyone who has experienced sexual assault could probably add to that list.  Everyone’s experience and reaction is unique to the person and to the incident.  If there was a weapon involved, that increases the fear factor.

I know someone who was raped after the guy put something in her drink–her non-alcohol drink, by the way. She wasn’t at a bar or in a club.  She should have been completely safe, but she wasn’t.  When she woke up and realized what had happened, she  was horrified.  In my mind, this is a completely despicable act on the man’s part.  To resort to such tactics is beneath contempt.  She is pursuing him legally, partly because a friend of hers pointed out to her that she probably wasn’t his first victim, and if no one stops him, she won’t be the last.

She is struggling with some PTSD symptoms, and it’s no surprise to me. The problem is, she’s trying to convince herself that it wasn’t really a trauma, that it didn’t rise to that level. She’s wrong, and I’m doing my best to convince her of that.

For a victim of sexual assault, I think perhaps the strongest reaction is the one of degradation, defilement, and guilt.  It’s not just in our society that the woman is the one on trial when she is raped (I know, men are also victims of rape and everything I’m saying here in the female pronoun applies exactly the same for them).  There are places in the world in which, if a woman is raped, her male relatives feel called upon to kill her because she has shamed the family.

I think of the story in the gospels in which some Pharisees self-righteously threw a woman “caught in the very act” of adultery at Jesus’ feet, demanding judgment on her.  I’ve always wondered what happened to the man she was with.  I guess he got away, or he would have been in trouble too, right?   And I love it that Jesus calmly stooped down and wrote something in the dust of the ground, and then told them that whoever was without sin among them could cast the first stone.

They turned and walked away, with their tails tucked between their legs. God does not look on a person who has been sexually assaulted as if she is no longer worthy.  She is not the one who is defiled.  The perpetrator is the one who is defiled.

I had a young couple several years ago who came for counseling help because the woman had not told her husband that she had been molested as a child until after they were married. When he knew, he wanted to divorce.  When I asked him, “But why?  She did nothing wrong!” his response was, “I wouldn’t have married her if I had known she wasn’t pure.”

She was not the one who was made impure. The molester was the one who was impure. So I asked him, “Well, if she’s impure, and now you’ve had sex with her, then I guess that makes you impure, right?”

“No, of course not.  I was deceived, and didn’t know!”

There’s a perfect example of that double standard we hear so much about. Good grief.  They didn’t come back, and I don’t suppose they’re still married.  So why didn’t she tell him before she married him?  Well, I asked her that, and her answer was no surprise to me. She said, “I was afraid. I’ve never told anyone, because the molester always told me no one would believe me, and they would know it was my fault.  I guess he was right.”

I want to emphasize the words in the picture at the top of this post. You are not to blame. You are not alone.  Help is available.  You do NOT need to spend the rest of your life suffering over what happened to you. The rapist is the one to blame.  There is absolutely no excuse at all; I don’t care how you were dressed, and I don’t care if he told you he loved you and then betrayed your trust. None of that matters.  Rape is as much a crime of power and control as it is a crime of lust.

One of my sons said something really important on this subject.  I don’t think he’ll mind if I use his words.  He said that he has seen hundreds of girls and women who were not particularly modest, some who were flagrantly immodest, and he’s never raped a single one of them.

What a predator does, he does of his own volition, his own decision, and his own will. Sexual assault is a crime. Period. Those who are assaulted are not to blame. They are to be shown compassion and help, not judgment.

Addenda: This is by way of a postscript, I guess.  I want to reaffirm that I am fully aware that boys and men are also victims of sexual assault. You can look up the stats yourself and see that by age 18, one out of every three girls has been molested in some way; one out of every 6 or 7 boys, the last time I checked.  Neither of these numbers is acceptable. I do not mean to denigrate in any way that men who have been assaulted are just as traumatized. I am not ignoring you. Everything I’ve said in any post related to these topics is true for both sexes.

6 thoughts on “PTSD and Sexual Assault

    1. I did. You must have missed it. I’m NOT going to keep saying “he or she,” “his or her.” It’s awkward and time-consuming and above all, silly. Al, we’ve had this conversation before, and I truly am sorry that you suffered that experience. I did state clearly that this post was addressed to both male and female. I just won’t get into the political correctness of the above contructs.

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  1. loopyloo305

    One thing that is very hard is that no matter how many years in the past, something will trigger a memory and you deal with it again. God bless you!

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    1. I will be addressing that very thing next week. EMDR works to help the victim separate the emotion from the event, so that it does NOT bring up all the original terror and so on. Thanks for the comment, and thanks for you ongoing support 🙂

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  2. amykk

    I was also molested by two different family members as a child and kept silent until the last few years. We are always made to feel we are to be ashamed, not speak of it, and heaven forbid, we may cause trouble within the family for our “lies”. It’s hard to live with the pain, but I’ve had to cut family out of my life to move forward and although it’s been painful, it had to be done. God bless you for writing this article and reminding us we’re not alone!

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