Understanding the Effects of Sexual Violence

Effects of Sexual Violence

Sexual assault is a crisis, and we all handle crises in different ways. Though each person and situation is unique, the following list summarizes the range of reactions to sexual assault that may help you know what is normal to expect.  Some express their emotions while others prefer to keep their feelings inside. Some may tell others right away what happened, others will wait weeks, months, or even years before discussing the assault, if they ever choose to do so. It is important to respect each person’s choices and style of coping with this traumatic event. Whether an assault was completed or attempted, and regardless of whether it happened recently or many years ago, it may impact one's emotional state and daily funcitoning. Some common emotional, psychological and physical reactions follow.

Short Term (Acute) Effects

Immediately following an incident (days to weeks), many survivors report feeling:

  • Shame: Survivors thinking they are bad, wrong, dirty, or permanently flawed.
  • Guilt: Survivors feeling that the abuse was their fault. It is very difficult for survivors to place the blame on the offender. Often the abuser was a person close to them that they want to protect, or it may be that by placing the blame on the offender, they then feel an utter helplessness in the abuse.
  • Denial: Survivors saying, “It wasn’t that bad.” “It only happened once.” “I am fine, I don’t need anything.”
  • Minimizing: Survivors thinking that their abuse was not as bad as someone else’s. Minimizing the assault is a coping strategy.  Sexual assault counselors should validate the impact of the abuse and that it is appropriate that the survivor is upset, traumatized, or hurting from it.
  • Boundaries: Survivors can be unfamiliar with boundaries, not knowing when or how to set them or that they have a right to do so. Many survivors need support developing and practicing establishing healthy boundaries.
  • Trust: Sexual assault is a betrayal of trust. Most survivors find it difficult to trust other people as well as themselves and their own perceptions. On the other hand, they may place an inappropriate level of trust in everyone.
  • Safety: Often survivors have an unrealistic sense of safety, assess unsafe situations as safe, and perceive safe situations as dangerous. It is important to check whether a survivor is now in a safe environment by asking specific questions: “Is anyone hurting you or asking you to do things you do not want to do?” 
  • Isolation: This is a big issue for adult survivors. Many feel that they do not deserve support, that they are tainted, and that others will not want to be their friends or lovers. Often, survivors from marginalized communities do not want to expose their experiences for fear of bringing further judgment and attack on their community. Many survivors have been shunned from their families and/or communities.
  • Amnesia: A survivor may not remember what happened.  In the long-term, if it happened before the development of language, the survivor may not have a verbal memory.
  • Dissociation: A survivor may have dissociated during the sexual assault incident(s). They may describe “floating up out of their body” or “looking over their own shoulder” during the abuse. Dissociation can happen even when the survivor is not being assaulted/abused; an event or memory can bring up emotions which trigger dissociation. 
  • Anesthesia: The body is where the sexual abuse took place, and many survivors feel betrayed by their bodies in various ways. They may have tried to numb/dissociate from their bodies in order not to experience the feelings brought on by the abuse.
  • Physical: Survivors may have somatic (body) complaints, eating disturbances, changes in sleep patterns, concerns about their safety, increased startle response, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, concerns about STDs or pregnancy, and physical symptoms related to areas on their body affected by assault.
  • Emotional: Survivors may be very expressive (anger, sadness), disoriented (disbelief, denial), or controlled (distant, calm).  Common emotions felt after an assualt include guilt, shame, self blame, embarrassment, fear, distrust, sadness, vulnerability, isolation, lack of control, anger or numbness.
  • Cognitive: Survivors may be unable to block out thoughts of the assault, or alternately forget entire parts of it. They may constantly think about things they should have done differently; emotion and intellect may be conflicted.  Nightmares are common. Survivors may also have thoughts of being in a similar situation and “mastering” the traumatic event.
  • Psychological: Survivors may experience nightmares, flashbacks, depression, difficulty concentrating, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, eating disorders, substance use or abuse, phobias, low self esteem.

Other related issues that may emerge are eating disorders, sexual difficulties, physical changes, substance abuse, self-harm, suicidality, anger, and mood disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress.        

It is important for you to know that any of the above reactions are normal and temporary reactions to an abnormal event. The fear and confusion will lessen with time, but the trauma may disrupt your life for awhile. Some reactions may be triggered by people, places or things connected to the assault, while other reactions may seem to come from "out of the blue."  Remember that no matter how much difficulty you're having dealing with the assault, it does not mean you're "going crazy" or becoming "mentally ill." The recovery process may actually help you develop strengths, insights,and abilities that you never had (or never knew you had) before.

Talking about the assault will help you feel better, but may also be really hard to do. In fact, it's common to want to avoid conversations and situations that may remind you of the assault. You may have a sense of wanting to "get on with life" and "let the past be the past." This is a normal part of the recovery process and may last for weeks or months.  Eventually you will need to deal with fears and feelings in order to heal and regain a sense of control over your life. Talking with someone who can listen in understanding and affirming ways, whether it's a friend, family member, hotline staff member or counselor, is a key part of this process.

Long Term Effects

  • Long term reactions include healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms, which may be beneficial (social support) or counterproductive (self-harm, substance abuse, eating disorders).
  • Immediate reactions may persist and change the survivor’s lifestyle. This adjustment stage (months or years) may include:
  • continuing anxiety                     
  • poor health                    
  • sense of helplessness
  • persistent fear                           
  • depression          
  • mood swings
  • sleep disturbances                     
  • flashbacks                      
  • dissociation
  • panic attacks                              
  • phobias                           
  • relationship difficulties
  • withdrawal/isolation                  
  • paranoia                         
  • localized pain    


What to Do?

Make space for healing.. You have been through a trauma and need to make space for your own emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual healing. You may be overwhelmed by many different emotions - fear, grief, guilt, shame, rage. It is important to seek support. There are many different options, such as talking with a counselor at the Health & Counseling Center, seeking support through community organizations,  joining a survivors group, or talking with a friend. People who receive counseling tend to recover from their experiences faster and with fewer lasting effects than those who get no help. Recovery from rape doesn't mean that it's as if the rape never happened. Recovery does mean that, over time, the survivor is not thinking about the rape-their emotions are not dominated by it. The survivor is able to envision a future, to set goals and work to achieve them. Their life moves forward.

Counseling On Campus:
SMU Health & Counseling Center - Oakland Campus
Open Monday - Friday between 8:00 - 5:00pm

Students at the SAN FRANCISCO PENINSULA and SACRAMENTO learning centers can access mental health services either on the Oakland campus or through the Sutter Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which will connect you with a provider in the community. Through EAP students will also receive up to 10 sessions per calendar year, free of charge. Please contact (800) 477-2258 to learn more about Sutter EAP.

Counseling Off Campus:
See these resources for information about finding an off campus mental health provider

Do not blame yourself. Be compassionate with yourself. You need to be assured that you are not to blame for the rape. Even if your body responded sexually to the rapist, it does not mean you "enjoyed" the experience or that it is your fault. Even if you believe you were naïve, not cautious, or even foolish, it is not your fault. Your behavior did not cause the rape; the rapist caused the rape.

Learn all you can about sexual assault and its effects. Here are a few resources for more information

R.A.I.N.N. Comprehensive Guide
Impact of Sexual Violence Fact Sheet
Rape Trauma Syndrome


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