Did you know that every 68seconds, there’s an American who is sexually assaulted? Sexual violence is the most common crime across the world in different cultures and countries but it’s also the most underreported. The #Metoo movement that started in 2017 opened our eyes to common sexual harassment, sexual assault and everyday sexual microaggressions. These events unfold every day in our homes, on the streets, at work, in places of worship…. every place you can possibly think of. The victims of these crimes are all around us – if not us.
April is sexual assault awareness month and we would like to honor that by presenting this article to you. Hopefully, by the end of your reading, you’ll have learned about sexual assault, the trauma that comes with it, how to intervene and healing. This is by no means an easy topic to talk about but we need to shed light on this crime which is often the burden of the victim and it’s buried in silence, shame and guilt.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) defines sexual assault as, “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. Some forms of sexual assault include attempted rape, fondling or unwanted sexual touching, forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex or penetrating the perpetrator’s body, and penetration of the victim’s body, also known as rape.”
RAINN statistics show that young people, women, girls and some minorities are the most vulnerable. 1 in every 6 women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape. Ages 12 to 34 years are at the highest risk for sexual assault. Native Americans are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than any other race. 21% of transgender, genderqueer, non-conforming persons have been sexually assaulted in their life. 1 out of every 10 rape victims is male.
What you should know about sexual assault
- It’s not the victim’s fault no matter the circumstances; where they were, what they were wearing, what they said or didn’t say or their non-verbal cues. Nothing justifies sexual assault.
- The chances are very high that a victim of sexual assault will develop some form of long-term mental distress. The most likely diagnoses include; suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, complete withdrawal, psychosis and hyper-vigilance.
- Perpetrators are mostly people known to the victims which means that most acts of sexual violence are done by familiar faces. However, strangers can also be the aggressors as characterized by catcallers on the street.
How to respond to a victim of sexual assault
- Don’t judge, criticize or shame. They are already experiencing such heavy emotions and this is probably the worst thing that has happened to them. Respond with patience, compassion, and empathy. Create a safe space for them to cry or vent without rushing them. Emphasize your support for them at that moment and never blame the victim.
- You might be faced with their denial, rejection, excuses, or defensiveness. These are all responses to their trauma – be gentle with them. Don’t give up on them when they need you the most and don’t scold or yell at them. They’re processing their experience how their bodies know best.
- Keep things private. Now is not the time to announce to the whole world that you know the victim has been sexually assaulted. There’s a lot of shame and guilt they might be carrying which you don’t want to worsen by telling other people. Let them be the ones to tell their story when they’re ready to. If it’s an emergency, provide practical help by calling the relevant authorities or hotlines to intervene.
Recovery from sexual assault
Life can shift in an instance. One minute everything is seemingly normal and the next is filled with pain from sexual assault. I know how hard this can get. Here are some stages you might go through in your recovery journey:
- Denial that the sexual assault happened. You may not want to come to terms with the reality.
- Awareness of the sexual assault comes in form of flashbacks, withdrawal, or depression.
- Healing can be a struggle because you’re dealing with the emotional turmoil of the ordeal.
- Recovery after a lot of inner healing work. You become more resilient and a survivor.
We want you to get to the recovery stage but please remember that healing isn’t linear – you don’t know how long it will take you for you to feel like yourself again. Here’s how you can begin the process:
- Seek the support of your loved ones or professional support. Talk about your experience with someone you know will validate it. Put yourself in spaces that uplift you and surround yourself with people who hug you and cry with you. If you need confidential support, talk to sexual assault service providers through this hotline 800. 656.HOPE (4673).
- Start therapy and seek medical attention as soon as you can. In cases of physical sexual assault like rape, it’s useful to check in at a hospital so that they can treat any injuries and check on your sexual health in case of any transmissions. They’ll also give you a rape kit to collect DNA or blood samples of your perpetrator that may be used as evidence against them. Do this within 72 hours of the assault. A therapist is important to help you process the trauma you’ve been through. Your ability to cope normally is disrupted so it’s important to have a therapist walk with you to equip you with healthy coping skills.
- This recovery journey will require you to be so gentle with yourself. Extend as much grace as you can to yourself and exercise self-forgiveness and self-compassion. None of what happened was your fault but the voices in your head might try to convince you otherwise. Remember someone violated you – that can never be your fault. Go easy on yourself.
“Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending — to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, ‘Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.'” — Brené Brown