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Violence against women

Sexual assault
Learn about rape trauma syndrome, date rape, and the impact of rape on relationships

Domestic violence
Learn why it happens and how to get help.

Child sexual abuse/incest
Learn how to spot child sexual abuse and how to report it.

Sexual assault

Rape trauma syndrome

Women's Web gratefully acknowledges the University of Alberta Sexual Assault Center (UASAC) for granting us permission to repint its materials and resources on our website. Be sure to visit the UASAC website for additional information, resources, and link to other sites.

If you have been sexually assaulted, be sure to go immediately to your local hospital or police detachment. If you are unable to get to a hospital, call the police, your community sexual assault center, or your community's 24-hour crisis line.

Sexual assault is a serious crime. Compassionate support is available and such crimes must be reported to the police.

Rape Trauma Syndrome has three characteristic phases and may continue over a lengthy period of time. It is important to recognize that each survivor will go through the process at her own speed and intensity.

It is essential to remember that recovery time can vary a great deal because of each survivor's personalized experience of the assault and the events that followed it.

Phase one: the acute phase

Immediately following the sexual assault, the survivor may experience a very wide range of emotional reactions which result from being faced with a life-threatening situation. Shock, dismay, and disbelief are fairly common.

During this phase the survivor is constantly thinking about the assault. There are often a lot of triggers, flashbacks, and nightmares causing the survivor to experience a wide rage of emotional reactions. These emotional reactions are most commonly manifested in one of two ways:

Expressively

The survivor exhibits obvious outward expression such as crying, shaking, tenseness, restlessness.

Controlled

The survivor appears to be quite calm and rational about the situation.

Guilt, shame, and self-blame may be expressed. Anger and hostility, not just toward the assailant, but toward the people trying to help he, may be present. There may be a fear of infection or if the survivor is a female, a fear of pregnancy.

During the first few weeks following the assault, acute physical symptoms are often experienced which can include soreness and bruising on various parts of the body. There may be gynecological symptoms if the survivor is a female such as vaginal discharge, burning sensations, pain, or itchiness. Also, the person may experience tension headaches, fatigue, stomach pains, nausea, loss of appetite, or disturbed sleep patterns such as insomnia or nightmares.

In the period immediately following the assault, the survivor may have many practical problems to deal with:

  • informing family and friends
  • physical examination
  • question of pregnancy, venereal disease, sexually transmitted infections, or HIV/AIDS
  • fear of retaliation by assailant or fear of being alone
  • decision about pressing charges
  • concerns about publicity

Phase two: outward adjustment

In this next phase toward recovery, the realities of the survivor's life may be the focus while, the trauma of the assault appears to be less obvious. This is often referred to as "denial" as the survivor is trying to get their life back on track and trying to forget about the assault.

Anxieties and fears may become less prominent as the survivor begins again to involve herself in her normal activities. While she may seem to have forgotten the incident and gone on with her life, there is usually a high level of denial and repression of feelings around the incident.

The survivor will most likely not care to talk about the assault during this phase. She may begin making some practical decisions around the place where she lives, the people she considers friends, her work associates, and activities she chooses to continue or discontinue.

This phase can last a few months, to a few years or several years, until such time that the survivor experiences triggers/flashbacks that remind her that she hasn't "gotten over the assault." This event is what forces her into the next phase.

Phase three: long-term reorganization

In this phase, the survivor acknowledges the sexual assault and seeks to reintegrate the experience into her daily life. It is during this phase that the survivor is most likely to reach out for help.

Long-term adjustment to sexual assault depends on several factors that come into play around the event. Factors may include the degree of support experienced by the survivor from friends and family, the survivor's previous self-concept, her personal strength, treatment by professionals following the assault, involvement with the criminal justice system, the survivor's prior knowledge of the assault, and more.

Some of the difficulties of this phase are the need to integrate a new view of the self; the survivor must accept the event realistically. The survivor must resolve feelings about the assailant and her attitudes toward the gender or her assailant in general. Often the survivor will really want to talk at this stage. Many survivors feel they are losing control because they thought they had dealt with the assault in Phase Two, and they may think something is wrong with them because these feelings have come back.

Sexual assault

Web resources

These are third-party resources and links will open a new browser window. As these are third-party resources, Women's Web claims no responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the information provided.

Men Can Stop Rape
Men Can Stop rape mobilizes male youth to prevent men's violence against women. It does this by building males' capacity to challenge harmful aspects of traditional masculinity, to value alternative visions of male strength, and to embrace their vital role as allies with women and girls in fostering healthy relationships and gender equity.

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