Sexual assault trauma syndrome is the reorganization process that occurs as a result of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. This syndrome includes behavioural, physical and psychological reactions to an extremely stressful and life-threatening situation.
Rape is not a sexual act. It is an act of violence with sex as the weapon. It is not surprising that the victim/survivor experiences a syndrome with specific symptoms as a result of the attack made upon her. Sexual assault trauma syndrome is usually a three-phase reaction:
The Acute Phase – Disorganization
Following the sexual assault, the woman may experience a wide range of emotions. Feelings of fear, anger, and anxiety are common. These feelings may be masked in a calm, composed manner, or they may elicit behaviours such as sobbing, restlessness or tenseness.
Physical reactions may include soreness, bruising, headaches, fatigue; sleep disturbances, edginess, stomach problems, nausea, genital disturbances, infections and eating disorders.
Emotional reactions range from fear, humiliation, and embarrassment to anger, revenge and self-blame. Self-blame stems from the attitude of blaming women for sexual assault crimes (an attitude prevalent in our society). Women often internalize these attitudes. Another common emotion is fear of death and physical violence.
The Reorganization Phase – Long Term Process
Victims/survivors experience disorganization following a sexual assault. Various factors affect their coping behaviour regarding the trauma (ego strength, social network support, and the way people treated them as survivors/victims). This coping process begins at different times for individual women.
Long term effects may consist of efforts to regain a sense of control over her life, sometimes through changing residence. Survivors/victims often move to ensure safety and to facilitate her ability to function in a “normal” way. Some women take trips out of the province or country. Another common reaction is to change home phone numbers to unlisted numbers – as a precautionary measure or in reaction to threatening/obscene calls. Many women turn to family members, not normally seen daily, for support.
Many survivors experience vivid dreams and nightmares. These often involve reliving the assault. Dreams can act as a catharsis, in which a survivor may experience the overpowering or killing of her attacker.
The Reintegration Phase
This is a time when the survivor feels better able to deal with fears and other emotions. It is at this point that many survivors are able to feel in charge of their life and in control of what will happen in the future.
It is important to note that survivors of sexual assault need support and encouragement throughout this difficult process. Being able to openly discuss their feelings and reactions with supportive listeners is helpful. Support can come from a friend, teacher, family member or therapist.