Publication - Advice and guidance

Information and help after rape and sexual assault

Published: 22 Feb 2016
Part of:
Equality and rights, Law and order
ISBN:
9781785449895

Information pack for women and men over 16 who have been raped or sexually assaulted.

134 page PDF

323.7 kB

134 page PDF

323.7 kB

Contents
Information and help after rape and sexual assault
Section 2: How rape and sexual assault can affect people

134 page PDF

323.7 kB

Section 2: How rape and sexual assault can affect people

  • Feelings and reactions
  • Long-term health
  • Ways of coping

Feelings and reactions

Rape and sexual assault affect people in different ways. Everyone is different. We all feel differently about the things that happen to us in our lives. Whatever you feel and do is 'normal'.

What was happening in your life before the assault; whether you have people around you who believe you and support you; and your own circumstances all affect how you react to and cope with rape and sexual assault.

For example, men and women may share similar feelings but may react differently. Women may be more likely to cry and turn in on themselves. Men may be more likely to hurt themselves or damage things. But this is not always the case, and there is no 'right' or 'wrong' way for men and women to react.

Men may feel particularly vulnerable because of expectations that all men should be strong, in control and able to protect themselves. This may be made worse if there is no one they can confide in or they think that friends, family or others will be unsympathetic or unsupportive. This in turn may make it more difficult for men to talk about the assault.

Gay men may think that the assault happened because of their sexual orientation. They may have been taunted about their sexual orientation as part of the attack. Straight men attacked by a man may feel very confused and question their sexual orientation as a result of the assault or because of how their bodies responded during the assault. They may be more distressed by the sexual element of the assault than the violence and be reluctant to say anything because they are concerned that their heterosexuality may been undermined. However, sexual assault is not necessarily related to the sexual orientation of the attacker or the victim. You can be a victim of sexual violence regardless of your gender or the gender of the perpetrator. Anyone, whether or not they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex ( LGBTI), can experience sexual violence. Often the reasons and reactions are similar, but some LGBTI people may have to deal with additional issues, such as prejudice and stereotyping.

Rape Crisis have a dedicated leaflet on supporting LGBTI survivors of sexual abuse which is available from the Rape Crisis Scotland Website. www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk/publications.

Sometimes, you may think that your reactions seem out of proportion to what happened. This may be because you are reacting to something that happened to you before.

If you have been sexually abused or assaulted as a child, or in another context, further assault may bring back memories of what happened or make your feelings and reactions even more intense.

If your partner raped or sexually assaulted you, this may be one part of a whole range of abuse which happens regularly.

Your feelings can be very strong and can last a long time. For example, you may feel too upset to eat or sleep. You may suddenly cry or lose your temper. You may feel angry at the attacker, yourself and other people for not protecting you. You may feel ashamed, guilty and embarrassed. You may feel frightened of being alone, of being in crowds and of the attacker coming back or finding you. You may also feel anxious about what other people are feeling and that you need to protect them. And you may find it difficult to be close to your partner, children, friends or family.

Or you may feel none of these things. Whatever you feel is OK.

Many people feel overwhelmed by their feelings and worry they are 'going mad'. If this is how you feel, it may be reassuring to know that you are simply reacting, in a very natural way, to a traumatic experience. There are things you can do to feel better.

You do not have to cope on your own. You can talk privately to someone who has helped other people in the same situation. Section 4 lists agencies you can contact.

Reactions during an assault

People often say that if they were assaulted they would fight back or run away. But, in fact, most people do not. Their automatic reaction is to freeze and not do anything. This is because they don't believe this can be happening to them; they are frightened they might get injured or killed if they resist; and/or they feel completely helpless. If this happened to you, it does not mean that you agreed to the assault. You were trying to survive the ordeal.

Your attacker may have frightened or threatened you. Or you may have been drunk, drugged, unconscious or asleep at the time.

It is possible for people to have a physical (sexual) response. This is an involuntary body reaction which can be very confusing. If this happened to you, it does not mean that you wanted to be assaulted or enjoyed the experience. If you are a straight man, it does not mean that you are now gay or bisexual.

Reactions immediately after an assault

Immediately after a rape or sexual assault you may feel numb and shocked. You may be visibly upset. You may laugh uncontrollably, talk a lot, shout, cry or be tense and restless. Or you may be very calm and not want to say what happened. It is also common for people to talk about the attack as if it happened to someone else. Or you may feel very upset at some points and very controlled at others.

If you have not been fully aware of an assault you may feel confused and disoriented.

Factors which affect your reactions

The way you react can be affected by various fears including:

  • Fear that you will not be believed
  • Fear about how your friends and family will react
  • Fear for your safety and that it might happen again
  • Fear that people can tell what's happened by looking at you
  • Fear of sexually transmitted infections
  • For men, fear that you might be seen as weak as a result of the assault or concerns about your sexuality
  • For women, fear of being pregnant

Feelings immediately after an assault

You may feel some or all of the following:

  • Numb or as if you are in a daze
  • Helpless or powerless
  • Sore - you might not know which parts of your body were hurt
  • Confused about the detail of what happened
  • Unable to concentrate and generally 'jumpy'
  • Unable to sleep or that you want to sleep all the time
  • Sick or unable to eat (particularly if the attack was oral) or that you want to binge
  • The need to forget what happened and block out feelings by using alcohol, drugs, cigarettes or food
  • Dirty and want to wash repeatedly
  • Ashamed, embarrassed and angry
  • Guilty

These feelings are very common and are a natural response to what has happened. See below for some suggestions about ways of coping with these feelings.

As time goes on

It is common to try to live life as normal and to cope by blocking out your thoughts and feelings. But memories can come back and you may experience:

  • Panic attacks: the body responds as if it has a severe fright but with no obvious cause. This can lead to palpitations, dizziness, nausea, shaking, shortness of breath and sweating ( see below)
  • Flashbacks: can be brought on by something that reminds you of the assault or the attacker, for example when you talk about what happened ( see below)
  • Startle reactions: you may jump at the slightest thing and this can trigger a panic attack
  • Dependency: you may feel more dependent on others; not want to be alone; and be anxious that family or friends might reject you
  • Existing problems seem worse: you may find it more difficult to cope with any other problems in your life
  • Need for drastic change: it is common for people to make a drastic change particularly if they knew the attacker and they are still in the area. This might include moving house, changing job, altering appearance
  • Change of temperament/personality: you may become withdrawn and stop doing the things you used to do. You might not notice this

You may also:

  • Feel very alone
  • Feel ashamed and that you were to blame for what happened
  • Go over the assault in your mind trying to work out why it happened to you and what you could have done to prevent it
  • Feel unsafe and not want to go out if the assault happened outside your home or be at home if it happened there
  • Find it hard to be on your own but also find it hard to be in company
  • Be anxious about your sex life: sexual contact may cause flashbacks for some people; worry about being no longer attractive
  • For men who are sexually assaulted by men, you may be concerned about your sexuality or what other people think of your sexuality
  • Worry that your friends, family or community will reject you
  • Be more aware of media reports of sexual assaults and, as a result, feel anxious and powerless
  • Feel generally scared and anxious

You might recognise some of these feelings and reactions. They are 'normal' and a common response to what's happened.

Longer-term reactions

You may feel angry at what has happened. It is very common for people to blame themselves rather than their attacker. If you have no outlet for your anger and continue to blame yourself or feel ashamed this can lead to depression, or self-destructive behaviour such as drinking too much, taking drugs, getting into fights or putting yourself at risk in other ways.

In the process of trying to regain control over your life you may end up becoming very 'controlling'. You may try to control people and things over which you can have no control.

You may find it difficult to trust and become withdrawn and suspicious of other people.

You may find that you become increasingly dependent on the people close to you and feel a strong need to be accepted and kept safe by others.

Other people's reactions

Friends and family members may react in unexpected ways. They may be very shocked and distressed for you and want to help in any way they can. Or, if you were assaulted by a family member, there may be reluctance to support you or cause 'upset' in the family.

You may come across some people whose attitudes are very unhelpful. Unfortunately this might include professionals such as employers or other influential people.

Even people who are well meaning may not understand your situation or what you are going through. People generally do not know very much about rape and sexual assault. What they see on TV or in newspapers may not help.

Your family and friends may not know how to handle the situation and so may avoid you. They may not know how best to respond if you are irritable or withdrawn. They may have unrealistic ideas about how long it might take you to 'recover'. And they may need some help themselves to cope with their own feelings and be strong enough to support you. It may help to:

  • Think about who you tell and make sure that this is someone you trust
  • Take care of yourself first. You are not responsible for how other people feel
  • Give this pack to people you are close to so they can find out more about what you are dealing with
  • Suggest they contact an agency such as Rape Crisis or Victim Support for advice on how they might support you

Moving on

People adapt to difficult and traumatic experiences in different ways. You may wonder if you will ever recover from a sexual assault. People do, in the same way that they recover from other forms of loss. But it may change the way you see the world, and it may take a very long time to come to terms with it. You may need help at different times to cope with practical, health or emotional issues.

Some people tell no one and find a way of carrying on with their lives as if nothing happened. But many people say that talking to someone helped them. Talking to someone early on can prevent longer-term problems. There are many agencies which you can phone in a crisis and for ongoing support. They can also put you in touch with services in your area. See section 4.

You do not have to cope on your own.

Whatever you feel is OK.

You may have very strong feelings and reactions or feel numb or calm. This is natural.

It is OK to be angry. Being angry means that you are starting to come to terms with the assault. Try to find ways of expressing it that don't hurt you or other people.

If you can, avoid alcohol or drugs as they can just make things worse. If you do use them, try to do so as safely as possible. See also page 49 for ideas of other forms of coping.

Whatever has happened, you have a right to help and support.

Try to find someone you can trust to confide in.

Ask for help if you need it.

There are things you can do to feel better.

Long-term health

Everyone's experience of rape and sexual assault is different. People respond differently to traumatic events and come to terms with them differently. Some people recover quickly. For others, there can be long-lasting physical and emotional effects and these are briefly described below. They are a natural response to what has happened and there are things you can do to feel better.

If you are concerned about any of these things, you do not have to cope on your own. You can make an appointment with your GP to explain how you are feeling or you can contact any of the agencies listed in section 4. They will be able to give you more information and also tell you about services in your area which have helped other people going through the same thing. You can talk to them in private.

If you have been sexually abused as a child, the effects of a recent sexual assault may be particularly distressing. You may be more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress and symptoms such as flashbacks or panic attacks ( see below). This is a natural reaction and is not a sign of weakness. It is important that you receive good help and support. You can contact agencies listed in section 4 or see www.survivorscotland.org.uk.

Physical symptoms

These can include a whole range of problems such as lower abdominal pain and lower back pain, headaches, difficulty in defecating and bowel disorders and (for women) gynaecological problems. These can be linked directly to physical injury from an assault, the memory of the injury and can also be associated with health problems such as stress and depression.

Depression

This is a common reaction to being raped and sexually assaulted. Feelings of anger, self-blame, sleeplessness, lack of energy and low mood are a natural response to an assault. You have every right to feel this way. It may help to talk to someone about how you are feeling; to express strong feelings such as anger through exercise; and to take the time to look after yourself. But if these feelings continue without getting better, you may benefit from extra help such as counselling, therapy or medication.

Panic attacks

Panic attacks are a normal response to stress. But they are disturbing and unpleasant. The body acts as if it has had a bad fright but there is no obvious cause. This means you feel dizzy, short of breath, sick, your heart beats fast and you sweat and shake. This can be very alarming and make you feel frightened of panic attacks. They tend to happen when you are stressed or if you are in a situation which reminds you of the rape or sexual assault. They might happen when you talk about the assault. You cannot stop them from happening but there are things you can do to control them or reduce the impact they have on you. To find out more see www.mind.org.uk

Flashbacks

Flashbacks are a memory of a frightening or painful experience. They are a normal response to what you have experienced. They are not like an ordinary memory but more a sudden and unexpected intrusion. You may feel as if you are reliving the event and it can feel almost as real. They can happen at any time, anywhere and often occur without warning, even when you are feeling OK. They can be triggered by anything that reminds you of what you experienced such as someone who resembles the attacker, a smell, a taste or a sound. They take different forms: visual (you may see an image); auditory (you may hear voices); sensory (you may feel like you are being touched). They can last from a split second to several days. You cannot stop them from happening but there may be things you can do to make them easier to get through. To find out more see www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk.

Eating difficulties

Some people develop eating difficulties which may take the form of compulsive eating, anorexia and/or bulimia. These affect women and men and may be a response to oral assault and to feelings of self-blame, self-hate and the need to be in control.

Self-harm/self-injury

Some people harm themselves to relieve emotional distress. This can take many forms including cutting, burning, throwing themselves against things and overdosing. Physical pain is often easier to cope with than emotional pain and self-harm can make people feel temporarily relieved and calm. It is not an attempt to die. It is a way of coping with intense feelings. There are things you can do to minimise any harm. To find out more see www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk.

Drugs/alcohol/cigarettes

Some people drink too much or become dependent on other substances to help them relax or to forget about the assault. This can lead to a whole range of other problems with health, money and the people around you.

Suicidal feelings

Suicidal feelings are a natural response to fear, guilt, anger and flashbacks. Suicidal feelings are frightening and when you feel overwhelmed by everything, it is often the hardest time to ask for help. If you feel this way, contact one of the agencies in section 4 for help.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ( PTSD)

PTSD is the name given to a collection of symptoms which may develop in people who have suffered severe trauma. Many victims of crime experience PTSD. But they are less likely to develop these symptoms if they get good support early on. Symptoms of PTSD include chronic anxiety and depression, sleeping disorders and nightmares, constant flashbacks and intrusive thoughts about the assault, and prolonged feelings of detachment from self and others. PTSD is complicated and having any of the above symptoms does not mean you have PTSD.

Further information

The support agencies listed in section 4 can give you further information on the above. You can also speak to your GP or see online at www.nhs24.com.

Ways of coping

This section tells you about some of the things that other people have found helpful after they have been raped and sexually assaulted.

Getting support

You don't have to cope on your own. There are people and agencies who want to support you. Think about the support you have around you. Is there anyone you can speak to? It may help to talk about what has happened but make sure you speak to someone you can trust. If you are worried about the reactions of your family or the people around you, you don't have to speak to someone from your own community. You have a choice about who to tell.

The people you go to for help should listen to what you say and should believe you. If they don't, speak to someone else.

You can speak privately to any of the agencies listed in section 4.

Keeping safe

There are lots of aspects to keeping safe. Do you feel safe where you live, at your work or in your neighbourhood? If not, you may need to think about contacting the police for help ( see Section 1 - contact). Or you may want to make a practical change like your phone number. Are there any physical health risks as a result of the assault? It may be worth getting yourself checked out ( see Section - Your health). It's also important to take care of yourself and avoid things which might make everything worse. For example, some people blot feelings out through alcohol or drugs; or take it out on themselves or others; or get into risky situations such as driving when drunk. If you think you might be at risk of any of these, try to find some other outlet or speak to someone about what is going on.

Putting yourself first

Often the last thing people think of is being kind to themselves. It might be hard for you to find something you enjoy at the moment. But is there anything you could do that you might find relaxing or comforting? Try to think of something which is not connected with the assault.

Looking after yourself

If you are going through a hard time it's easy to neglect yourself. If you neglect yourself physically it can be more difficult to deal with emotional pain. So, it helps to take care of your physical health. You may be finding it difficult to eat, sleep or exercise. Is there anything you can do to care for your body? Examples might be to have your favourite food or a hot bath. Try to get some exercise suitable for your fitness level. It's also important to get yourself checked out physically in case you need medical attention.

Keeping it simple

Often people find it helps to focus on day-to-day things that are easy to do like watching TV, playing computer games or a familiar sport or hobby. Is there anything small to get you started?

Try to cut down the stress in your life so you are not under too much pressure at work or at home.

Try to relax by breathing deeply.

It may help to write things down or draw or paint, depending on your interests.

Try to keep some kind of normal routine without overdoing it.

Being angry

You have a right to be angry. Expressing your anger can help you feel better as long as you do this without hurting yourself or other people. Are there things you can do safely? Some examples which other people have found helpful are walking or running, punching pillows, shouting, writing and painting.

Taking time

It may take a long time to feel that you are back in control of your life. You may go up and down. You may have to make a lot of difficult decisions. And there may be further stress such as a court case and having to give evidence. A lot depends on who you are and what kind of support you have. It helps if you give yourself time and don't expect too much of yourself.

Counselling, medication and other therapies

As time goes on, you may find that you are not coping with your everyday life and that you need some extra help to express your feelings or feel a bit better. This might include counselling, complementary therapies such as aromatherapy or relaxation techniques, medication for physical symptoms such as ongoing pain or depression and/or other professional assistance. Your GP may be able to help you or may refer you to other health services. You can also contact the support agencies listed in section 4 for further advice and information.

There are services and individuals who want to support you.

There is information on websites ( see section 4) and in books. You may find it helpful to read more about the subject and accounts of other people who have had a similar experience.


Contact