Northwest College

Aftermath of Sexual Violence

Everyone responds differently to an act of sexual violence. Sexual violence can have emotional, psychological, and physical effects on a survivor.

Some responses may include: feelings of physical dirtiness, emotional distress, anger, guilt, shock, withdrawal, confusion, loss of self-control, loss of self-confidence, sleeping or eating problems, panic attacks, mood swings, embarrassment, numbness, fear, indecisiveness, and mistrust of others.

Learning more about the effects of sexual violence can help you or someone you know through the healing process.

The following information describes some of the more common responses to sexual violence. 

Depression

Depression is one of the most common reactions to a sexual assault. Depression is a mood disorder that occurs when feelings associated with sadness and hopelessness continue for long periods of time. Depression can interrupt regular thought patterns.

It is normal for survivors to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and unhappiness, but if these feelings persist for an extended period of time, it may be an indicator of depression (RAINN, 2016).

Flashbacks

The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network explains that a flashback occurs when memories of a past trauma feel as if they are taking place in the current moment. With sexual violence, it is possible to feel as if the experience is happening all over again.

Ordinary sense-related experiences, such as a person’s smell, can trigger a flashback.  Flashbacks can worsen over time if a person does not address them. They can also be an indicator of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For more information about flashbacks, how to work through them, and how to prevent them, see “Flashbacks”  via RAINN.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder that can result from a traumatic event. Though it is often associated with the military, it can apply to survivors of any type of trauma, including sexual violence (RAINN, 2016).

The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network indicates that survivors might experience uncharacteristic feelings of stress, fear, anxiety, and nervousness, which can be normal experiences. However, with PTSD, these feelings are extreme, can cause a person to feel constantly in danger, and can make it difficult for a person to function in everyday life (RAINN, 2016).

Three main symptoms of PTSD:

  • Re-Experiencing: re-experiencing an event feels as if you are reliving it through flashbacks, dreams, or intrusive thoughts
  • Avoidance: avoidance involves intentionally or subconsciously changing your behavior to avoid scenarios associated with the event. You may lose interest in activities that you used to enjoy
  • Hyper-Arousal: hyper-arousal involves a feeling of being “on edge” all the time. You may have difficulty sleeping, be easily startled, or be prone to sudden outbursts (RAINN, 2016)

Self-Harm

Some survivors of sexual assault engage in self-harm, meaning they deliberately harm themselves. Self-harm could include biting, scratching, hitting, burning, cutting themselves, or pulling out their hair.

RAINN states that self-harm is not necessarily a warning sign for suicide; however, it can be a sign that someone has survived a serious trauma. People might be trying to numb the pain, feel a release, or regain a sense of control. Unfortunately, this feeling of relief is often short-lived; the urge to self-harm can return, resulting in a cycle of self-harm that may cause damage, infection, and sometimes life-threatening medical problems (RAINN, 2016).

Substance Abuse

Survivors of sexual violence may be more likely to use substances like alcohol and drugs. Compared to the general public, they are:

  • 3.4 times more likely to use marijuana
  • 6 times more likely to use cocaine
  • 10 times more likely to use other major drugs (RAINN, 2016).

There are a number of reasons that survivors report using substances, such as:

  • Wanting to feel better
  • Trying to numb or escape the pain
  • Fear that family or friends won’t understand
  • Confusion of self-consciousness about the experience
  • Lacking an effective support system or care (RAINN, 2016)

Physical Effects

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 32,000 pregnancies result from rape every year. The highest rates of rape-induced pregnancy are reported by women in abusive relationships (CDC, 2016).

Long-term consequences of sexual violence can include chronic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, gynecological complications, migraines and other frequent headaches, sexually transmitted infections, cervical cancer, and genital injuries (CDC, 2016).

Social Effects:

Sexual violence also has social impacts on victims. According to the CDC, social impacts can include:

  • Strained relationships with family, friends, and intimate partners
  • Less emotional support from friends and family
  • Less frequent contact with friends and relatives
  • Lower likelihood of marriage
  • Isolation or ostracism from family or community (CDC, 2016)

Resources

If you or someone you know has experienced an act of sexual violence, consider contacting any of the following resources to aid with the healing process: