Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center

Survivors of Sexual Assault Handbook

Survivors of sexual assault experience a wide range of reactions.  Some have said that after the assault their emotions go up and down or from one extreme to another.  It is important for you to know that what you are feeling and thinking right now is okay.  Your reactions are your own way of coping with the crime that has been committed against you.

There is no standard response to sexual assault.  You may experience a few, none, or all of the following:

Shock and numbness:  Feelings of confusion, being easily overwhelmed, not knowing how to feel or what to do, feeling “spacey” or “out of it.”  You may react in a way that is similar to your reactions during other crises in your life (for example with tears, irritability, nervous laughter, withdrawing).

What You Can Do:  Be aware that these are normal reactions to trauma.  Each person handles crisis differently, so think of things that helped you get through crises in the past.  Get help to sort out what you would like to do and how you may want to organize your time, thoughts, and decisions.  Be compassionate toward yourself; give yourself time to heal.

Loss of Control:  Feeling like your whole life has been turned upside down and that you will never have control of your life again.  Your thoughts and feelings seem out of control.

What You Can Do:  Try to get as much control over your life as you possibly can, even over small things.  Ask for information that may help you sort out your thoughts and feelings.  Use outside resources, such as counselors and legal professionals.  Ask how other people have handled similar situations.  Try to make as many of your own decisions as possible.  This may gradually help you regain a sense of control over your own life.

Fear:  Fear that the assailant may return; fear for your general physical safety; fear of being alone; fear of other people or situations that may remind you of the assault.

What You Can Do:  If you want company, do not hesitate to ask people who you trust to be with you day and night.  You may want to make your physical environment feel more safe (moving, making your home more secure, and/or getting to know your neighbors better).

Guilt and Self-Blame:  Feeling like you could have or should have done something to avoid or prevent the assault; doubts regarding your ability to make judgments.

What You Can Do:  No matter what the situation was, you did not ask to be hurt or violated.  Blaming yourself is sometimes another way to feel control over the situation, thinking that if you avoid similar circumstances, it will not happen to you again.

Isolation:  Feeling that this experience has set you apart from other people; feeling that other people can tell you have been sexually assaulted just by looking at you; not wanting to burden other people with your experience.

What You Can Do:  Recovering from an assault can be a very lonely experience.  However, you are not alone in what you are feeling.  You may find it reassuring to talk to others who have been assaulted or to an advocate at SAPAC who has worked with other sexual assault survivors.

Vulnerability, Distrust:  Feeling that you are at the mercy of your own emotions or the actions of others; not knowing who to trust or how to trust yourself; feelings of suspicion and caution.

What You Can Do:  Trust your instincts in regards to who you want to talk with about what happened to you.  Try to talk with people whom you have found to be the most dependable in the past; select those who have been good listeners and non-judgmental.  Feelings of general suspicion may subside as you begin to find people you can trust.

Sexual Fears:  Feelings that you do not want to have sexual relations; wondering whether you will ever want or enjoy sexual relationships again fears that being sexually intimate may remind you of the assault.

What You Can Do:  Try to tell your partner what your limits are.  Let your partner know if the situation reminds you of the assault and may bring up painful memories.  Let your partner know that it is the situation, not him/her, that is bringing up the painful memories.  You may feel more comfortable with gentle physical affection.  Let your partner know what level of intimacy feels comfortable for you.

Anger:  Feeling angry at the assailant.  You may find yourself thinking about retaliation.  You may be angry at the world since you no longer feel safe.  If you are religious, you may feel angry that your faith did not prevent this.

What You Can Do:  Be accepting of your anger.  Thoughts of being violent toward the assailant do not mean that you are a violent or bad person.  You have the right to feel angry about the violation you have experienced.  You may want to talk to people who understand this.

Disruption of Daily Activities:  During the first few days or weeks after the assault you may feel preoccupied with intrusive thoughts about the assault.  You may experience difficulty concentrating, nightmares, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, ‘startle reactions,’ phobias, general anxiety or depression.  You may have memories of a prior crisis.

What You Can Do:  Although these are common reactions, they can be quite disturbing.  Take things very slowly.  Some people find it helpful to keep a notebook in hand to write down feelings, thoughts, ideas, or details of the assault; keeping the thoughts and feelings in one place may make them feel more manageable.