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What Happens When You Are Sexually Assaulted?

Shock, denial, and emotional distance are common reactions after sexual assault. It is important for survivors to reconnect with their bodies and their feelings, even if it feels scary or painful.

They may feel fearful of people, especially men, and be more aware of sex innuendos or whistles from strangers. It is often helpful for victims to learn more about their options, including reporting the assault and pressing charges.

Physical injuries

It is very common for a woman who has been assaulted to have a lot of physical problems – sometimes these may be long-term problems. Women often find it hard to eat and sleep, they can suffer from nightmares, they may be unable to concentrate, they can feel jumpy or on edge, and they can have trouble getting their body to relax.

Sexual assault can have a lasting effect on mental health, leading to depression, anxiety, and even PTSD. This can make it difficult for victims to have a good relationship with their partner, or to function at work and school.

It can be very upsetting for people who have been sexually assaulted to talk about it with others. However, it is important to do so to get the support you need. It is also important not to use drugs and alcohol to numb difficult emotions. It is better to talk about it and get upset when you need to, than to bottle up your feelings and eventually explode.

Emotional trauma

Sexual assault can leave survivors with emotional and psychological wounds. Survivors may feel depressed, anxious and fearful. They may withdraw from friends and family, and have problems with work and school performance. They may be afraid of physical intimacy, or find it hard to have any sexual pleasure. They can have nightmares, sleep disturbances or eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. They can also have thoughts of hurting themselves or others, and become easily irritable.

Some survivors want to report the assault to the police and prosecute the assailant. Others are reluctant to do this. They may have doubts about whether they could have prevented the assault or if their own behaviour might have made the situation worse. It can take time for them to decide what they want to do. Those around them should not push them to do things they aren’t ready for. They should help them by dispelling toxic victim-blaming myths.

Legal issues

Sexual assault can affect people in many ways and it can be difficult to know what to do about it. It’s a good idea to learn more about your legal options. This might help you decide if you want to report the attack to the police and/or pursue legal proceedings against your attacker.

Some people choose not to report their experience of sexual violence to the police and this is absolutely fine. However, it can be helpful to speak to a police officer who has been specially trained in supporting victims of sexual assault. They can offer you a forensic medical examination and help you make a statement about what happened.

It’s important to remember that it’s the rapist who should be held responsible. Many survivors start to question themselves and wonder if they could have done anything to prevent the attack from happening, but it is important to assign responsibility where it belongs – on your attacker.

Mental health

Victims/survivors often feel overwhelmed by fear, confusion, sadness or guilt. They may experience insomnia, nightmares or eating disorders. They may have thoughts of hurting themselves or others or attempt suicide. They may develop PTSD, or posttraumatic stress disorder. They may become irritable and short-tempered or have difficulty making decisions.

They may struggle with self-blame, feeling like they should have known what was happening and that they could have prevented the assault. It’s important for survivors to know that they did the best they could under extreme circumstances and that the responsibility lies with their attacker.

They may feel detached from people, withdrawing from social activities and not wanting to talk about the assault, or they may be overly attached, over-reacting and blaming others for what happened to them. They may also feel numb, depressed, tired or angry. A therapist can help them work through these issues by using cognitive processing therapy or prolonged exposure techniques.

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