Reactions to sexual assault vary from person to person; there is no "correct" way to respond. Some survivors experience very little disruption of their lives while others experience a range of physical, emotional, and physiological reactions. Survivors process their experience differently and at their own pace. Below is a list of reactions that are commonly reported by survivors of sexual assault. This list is not meant to raise fears; it merely intended to help survivors make sense of what they may be experiencing. Seeking support from friends, family, rape crisis counselors, and therapists is useful when symptoms do present. If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself, consider seeking support from the New School's Counseling and Medical Services. You may want to encourage others to do the same.
You may experience intrusive thoughts about the sexual assault, making it difficult to stop revisiting the incident in your mind.
You may have realistic nightmares and dreams about the sexual assault.
You may relive the event through flashbacks in which the traumatic event is experienced as if it were happening in the present. A flashback is a memory experienced with one or more of the physical senses.
You may have difficulty falling or staying asleep or sleeping too much or too little.
You may feel numb, emotionally dead, or in a state of denial about the trauma. You may notice the absence of feelings of any kind and have little interest in school, work, or family. Or you may feel embarrassed about the healing process, including the time needed to heal or recover. Others may urge you 'to put it in the past'; or 'get on with your life'; while your feelings are still very present and troubling. You may not want to talk to anyone about the sexual assault for fear of being disbelieved, rejected, or unable to get help.
You may not remember the details of what happened to you.
You may have difficulty remembering or concentrating, making it hard to complete daily tasks.
False but common misconceptions about rape and other sexual assaults may cause you to feel humiliated, ashamed, or embarrassed about what occurred. Survivors—and those around them—often rethink decisions made before an incident, considering whether or not they were factors leading to the assault. Remember that assault is never the fault of the survivor.
Survivors often experience terror and intense fears that are provoked in situations similar to the assault or even ones that are seemingly disassociated from the circumstances of the assault. Fears may be specific—the return of a perpetrator, for example—or vague, causing a general sense of uneasiness.
You may experience feelings of anger, ranging from irritability to rage. Survivors often report thoughts of hurting or killing the perpetrator of the sexual assault. If you are thinking about hurting another person, reach out for help.
Some survivors who struggle to acknowledge or express anger turn it inward. This coping mechanism can lead to forms of depression, including suicidal thoughts; self-injury (cutting, burning, or otherwise hurting oneself); and abuse of alcohol and other drugs. Consider seeking help from friends, family, and counselors. If you are thinking about suicide, or know someone who is, reach out for help immediately.
Survivors experience loss in many ways and commonly report concerns regarding who can be trusted and where one can feel safe. Throughout the healing process, you may experience grief over aspects of your life or identity that you feel have been lost or stolen. Some survivors talk about a loss of innocence or a loss of a sense of power.
Sexual assault takes away a person's power and control in that moment. After the incident, you may feel a lingering sense of powerless in general or in specific situations.
Survivors remember assault with all of their senses. Triggers—circumstances identical or similar to those occurring during the assault—bring up feelings related to the traumatic incident. Smells, images, places, sounds, or even seasons or weather conditions may summon intense feelings related to the assault.
Changes related to sexuality, including interest in or frequency of sexual activity, are common among sexual assault survivors. After assault, some experience fear and aversion to sex and intimacy; others, increased activity. These changes are normal and may remain in flux throughout your healing process.
Survivors, particularly those with a religious or spiritual practice, sometimes experience a spiritual crisis as a result of sexual assault. You may feel angry at a supreme being or may reject your faith completely, on a temporary of permanent basis.
You may notice exaggerated responses to stimuli or jumpiness after a sexual assault. You may find yourself paying undue attention to your environment, especially ones that feature trigger elements.
Survivors may turn to alcohol or other substances in an attempt to relieve their emotional suffering. These coping mechanisms can lead to addiction and therefore should be closely monitored.
Described as a victim's emotional bonding with his or her abuser, Stockholm syndrome develops subconsciously and on an involuntary basis. Associated behaviors include justifying the abuser's actions.
You may experience persistent feelings of depression, sadness, anxiety, numbness, and emptiness as well as symptoms of sleeping problems, fatigue, and decreased energy.
Your appetite may decline or increase. Eating patterns may reflect efforts to cope with feelings and emotions. These responses are common and may signal opportunities to seek help.
You may experience somatic memories—bodily sensations and physical manifestations of emotions—related to the sexual assault. Reactions may be intense and include headaches, migraines, stomach difficulties, lightheadedness or dizziness, hot or cold flashes, grinding of teeth, and sleep disorders. Check with your healthcare provider to rule out any medical problems first.
Dissociation is understood as a psychological mechanism in which the mind separates aspects of a traumatic event from conscious awareness. Assault survivors may undergo post-trauma dissociation as a means of finding relief from painful or frightening feelings. Dissociation may be experienced as a sense of detachment from their emotions, body, or immediate surroundings. If dissociative coping responses become chronic and difficult to manage, talking to a counselor is encouraged.
Survivors may experience sudden episodes of intense fear that develop for no apparent reason and trigger strong physical reactions. Panic attacks can be very frightening and feel as if one is losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying.
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You may experience reactions that are not listed here; the list is not exhaustive. This is normal. If you have concerns about your well-being, speak with a counselor specializing in sexual assault recovery. More detailed information about some of the above symptoms can be read here.
Remember that your reactions to sexual assault may also be influenced by other factors, such as identification as male, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex. Your physical ability, race and ethnicity, culture, family, economic status, country of origin, and previous experiences of violence all influence how you respond.
New School Policies
Sexual Violence Awareness and Prevention at TNS (PDF)
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New York State Law on Sexual Assault
New York State Law on Stalking