Recovering From Sexual Assault

Being sexually assaulted can make a person feel ashamed, disgusted, fearful, confused, and/or horrified, among many emotions. It can disrupt a person’s sense of self and ability to trust. These are normal reactions to an abnormal (and horrific) experience. You do not have to go through recovery alone, however.

It’s common to be confused about sexual assault

A number of the people I have worked with over the years have found it difficult to refer to what they experienced as “sexual assault.” That is sometimes because people around them have blamed them for what happened or questioned them in an accusatory way.  Statements such as, “you must have said or done something to invite it, right?” or “you didn’t say no” or “what did you expect when drinking?” are completely invalidating and harmful things to say. In addition, our culture often ignores or minimizes sexual assault and many perpetrators go unpunished. This makes it hard to talk about sexual assault openly or can lead the person who was assaulted to blame themselves.

Another reason why someone may be confused about whether they were sexually assaulted is because they do not remember everything that happened. Sometimes this is because drugs or alcohol disrupted memory. But this can also happen because highly stressful experiences can shut down the parts of the brain responsible for memories.

Was I sexually assaulted?

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network), the definition of sexual assault is “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim (RAINN, 2021).” Examples include:

  • Attempted rape
  • Fondling or unwanted sexual touching
  • Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex or penetrating the perpetrator’s body
  • Penetration of the victim’s body, also known as rape

“Fondling or unwanted sexual touching” is often where people feel unclear if what they experienced was sexual assault or not. It’s common that people I work with may have consented to cuddling or kissing but did not consent to sex. They may be sexually attracted to someone, but not actually want to have sex with the person for any number of reasons. They may say yes to going back to someone’s place, but not want to have sex. They may have engaged in one type of sexual act, but do not want to engage in others. Sometimes they feel pressured or coerced into having unwanted sexual acts. These are all examples of unwanted sexual contact. Consenting to sexual acts is an active process that must be clearly understood and agreed upon by both/all parties involved.

Common Experiences After an Assault

It is common to have the following experiences in the aftermath of sexual assault:

  • unwanted, intrusive thoughts/memories/images/dreams about what happened
  • feelings of self-blame and/or shame
  • feeling intense emotions or mood swings
  • feeling “on edge” or irritable
  • wanting to isolate
  • avoiding people/places/things that remind you of the assault
  • difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty sleeping and eating
  • difficulty having sex

These are all normal experiences to have to an extreme event like being assaulted.

When to get Professional Help

If you are having difficult emotions and thoughts related to sexual assault, please consider speaking with a mental health professional. Talking about your sexual assault experience with a safe and trusted person can be beneficial and part of the recovery process. Some people feel they can share with a friend or family member, but many people benefit from speaking with a professional.

There are some key differences between speaking to friends about what happened versus a professional. While having a supportive friend or loved one listen is important, they may not know how to help you manage distressing symptoms (e.g. see the “common experiences after an assault” above). A professional can offer evidence-based treatments that have been shown to help people recover from this difficult and painful experience.

How to choose the right treatment if you’ve been sexually assaulted

There are several treatments out there that help a person recover from sexual assault. One treatment is called Prolonged Exposure (PE). Thinking about or being reminded of an assault is usually really painful and scary and people tend to avoid reminders. This is understandable to want to not think about something so painful, but unfortunately this tends to make things worse. In PE, the therapist creates a safe space to talk about what happened so that the person can process it more effectively. While this doesn’t get rid of the memory, it makes it less powerful and less intrusive. PE also involves learning to approach people, places, and things that feel scary and are a reminder of the trauma, so that the person can regain control of their life. For example, a person may avoid walking alone after a sexual assault, but might want to be able to do that at times.

Written Exposure is another treatment that is helpful in processing sexual assault. In this treatment you write about the details of what happened over the course of five therapy sessions and share your experience about the writing process with your therapist.  Written Exposure helps the person process the trauma by making connections between what happened and how they think about themselves, others, and the world in more healthy ways.

In my practice I offer both Prolonged Exposure and Written Exposure, which are evidence-based treatments. What that means is that these treatments have been through clinical trials and have been shown to be helpful for most people. On a personal note, I have seen these treatments help people get back their lives. It is truly an honor to witness people reclaiming their power and live freely again. If you are interested in exploring these options, please consider reaching out to a trained professional. We are here to support you.  

Author: Priyadarshani (Priya) Loess, Ph.D.

Priyadarshani Loess, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist at Portland Psychotherapy. Priya specializes in working with adults who have experienced sexual assault, as well as who have depression, social anxiety, and health anxiety.

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