Rape Survivor Feelings
Council on Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence
There is no "typical" response to rape. Survivors of rape may vary dramatically in their response to other people. Some survivors may appear very calm and describe the assault with little or no emotion. Other survivors may express feelings verbally or by shaking, crying, restlessness, or tenseness. Remember, rape survivors have just experienced a terrifying event. Any response to the assault – whether it looks like the right response to you – is her way of dealing with the rape.
Survivors of rape report feeling a number of different emotions after the assault.
- Fear of the Rapist
- Sense of Vulnerability
- Loss of Control Over Her Life
- Anxiety, Shaking, Nightmares
- Concern for the Rapist
- Wondering – Why Me?
Fear of the Rapist
Most women who are raped, whether by a stranger or an acquaintance – just want to live through the experience. During the attack, many report feeling that there life was in danger even if physical force or a weapon were not used. Rapists often scare a woman into silence by threatening to kill her or returning if she tells anyone what happened. Fear of another attack under these circumstances is both rational and normal. She is not crazy or paranoid to fear the rapist or the possibility of being assaulted again.
Encourage her to develop a plan on what to do if the rapist returns. Does she think he’ll come back? If so, how can she protect herself (e.g. possible escape routes from every room in the house, talking with neighbors to have them call police if they hear screams, or see his vehicle, etc.) The more she talks about her safety plan, the better off she will be.
A survivor’s feelings of guilt and self-blame will have an effect on her decision to reach out for help. Many women have internalized the idea that women are to blame for rape. No matter how strongly you believe that rape is not the victim’s fault, it is important to let her talk and help her define in precise terms what she feels she did "wrong".
Feelings of guilt seem to vary depending on the extent of physical injury and the type of prior relationship with the rapist. Women who have experienced severe physical injury during the rape may feel less responsibility because there is obvious evidence of their injuries and/or resistance. These survivors may resolve their guilt more quickly. Survivors of stranger rape may also have diminished feelings of guilt.
The woman who was raped in her own home or who knows her assailant may have the most difficulty in resolving her guilt over the rape. She may feel she provoked the attack through her appearance or behavior. She may also feel responsible for ‘not knowing any better’ or not paying attention to negative feelings she may have had prior to the rape. She may not even identify what happened as rape. Regardless of her actions, she is not to be blamed for the crime committed against her.
Sense of Vulnerability
Many rape survivors begin to fear people in general. The process of restoring self-confidence is particularly difficult for the victim when the attacker was someone she trusted or loved. In this case, her faith and trust in her own judgment may also be threatened by the rape. Over time and with support, she will regain trust in herself and others.
Loss of Control Over Her Life
Before the assault, she may have believed that rape could never happen to her, that she would be able to resist, or that she could take care of herself. Since the rapist overcame her resistance by coercion, force or fear, she may no longer feel confident about herself or her ability to protect herself.
Sometimes even little decisions become momentous. The survivor has to reclaim herself and reassert the value of doing things for herself. She has to insist to herself she is worthwhile and that she still has control over her life.
In American society, our body and sexual activity have always been regarded as private. This privacy has been stripped from her by the rapist. Not surprisingly, many survivors feel embarrassed about the assault. Many rapists use offensive sexual language. She may be uncomfortable or embarrassed to say these words. If the rape involved sexual acts that she may perceive as "deviant" (e.g. anal or oral penetration), she may have a harder time finding the words to describe what has happened to her.
The medical exam can be especially violating and traumatic. Her body is again exposed and is an object of attention and inspection by strangers. She is likely to feel that her body, her appearance, and her whole being is offensive and disgusting. She may be too embarrassed to admit her uneasiness and discomfort during the exam. Help her recognize that any person would be embarrassed under these circumstances. What she is feeling is normal.
Anxiety, Shaking, Nightmares
After the attack, many survivors react by shaking and appearing anxious. The relief of having survived and the thought of how close to death she was are expressed in this way. She may have nightmares and relive the incident. She rethinks what she could have done differently, and what he could have done. Continued support and reassurance that she is physically safe and can do things to protect herself will help reduce these feelings.
Concern for the Rapist
If the rapist was someone the victim knew or cared about, she may express concern about what will happen if she reports the attack to the police. She may have very negative attitudes toward the criminal justice system or feel guilty reporting the crime. Some survivors want counseling for the rapist rather than jail time. It is human to show concern for another human, especially one in trouble. However, she must not let this feeling obscure the fact that he did attack her. Feeling sorry for him does not mean she needs to deny or repress anger.
Some women wonder why the rapist chose them. These feelings arise from the common belief that rape happens to women who "ask for it" or who in some other way made themselves noticeable. It may help her to know that anyone can be raped. To help the survivor see this, ask her to tell you what happened before the rape and to describe what the rapist did at this time. Did he break into her home? Did he tell all her friends he would make sure she got home safely? Looking back, she may be able to see that he had been planning the assault for a long time, waiting until he had the opportunity to act. In short, remind her that the rapist made the decision to assault her.
Shame involves destruction of self-respect, the deliberate efforts by the attacker to make her do things against her will, to make her feel dirty, disgusting, and ashamed. That she "allowed" the rape to happen at all, even at knife point, may also make her feel ashamed. Society’s attitudes towards sex and different sexual acts are all reflected in her shame. The survivor who feels she has been violated needs to see the rape as an attack, not her choice. Remind her that she had no choice and did everything possible to survive.
Feelings of shame may also affect her decision to report the crime to the police or to reach out for help. Because of actions which occurred prior to the assault (e.g., hitchhiking, drinking) she may believe others will blame her. She may also believe her previous sexual experiences and details of the assault will be scrutinized.
Anger is a healthy response to being raped. She may be angry with herself for her "bad" choices. It is also common for rape survivors to generalize and extend their anger to the people who are trying to help her. It is important for her to direct this anger in an appropriate way – at the assailant. By being angry with her assailant and the situation, the survivor is letting go of feelings of responsibility for the assault. She can vent this anger in several ways, such as pressing charges, telling other women about the attacker or the situation leading up to the attack.