Common Reactions to Sexual Assault

It is important to remember that reactions to sexual assault vary from person to person. Some survivors feel unclean, blemished, and wish they were dead. Some blame themselves, while others have the added problems of friends or relatives who blame them for the attack. Most survivors worry about pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and what others will think about them. Others must deal with religious and moral beliefs.

Emotional responses to rape will vary not only from person to person but also in the same person over time. Some individuals may:

  • Refuse to talk at all and completely withdraw.
  • Seem quiet and guarded in their speech while still others project an air of indifference or composure.
  • Be overly outgoing and expressive, talking rapidly on a variety of subjects.
  • Express their anger openly at any one of a number of targets: the assailant, the hospital, the police, the advocate, or herself.
  • Display tears, restlessness, shaking, and even smiling and laughing (ways of avoiding ones feelings and denying that anything is wrong).

Any of these responses is normal. Be careful not to interpret excessive talking, apparent indifference, or composure as evidence that a rape has not occurred or that the victim is coping satisfactorily with one that has. True feelings may emerge in a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days; meanwhile the survivor needs emotional support.

Some ways to provide support for the survivor are:

  • Assure them that the rape is in no way their fault; it is the assailant who is to blame.
  • Explain to any family members or friends that the survivor will need to undergo tremendous adjustment. Stress how important their support, rather than blame, can be.
  • Leave the STSM telephone number and urge the survivor and family members to call at any time.
  • One of the most important things you can do for a survivor is inform him/her of typical survivor reactions. Reassure the survivor that if these feelings occur, he/she is not going crazy. The survivor is experiencing appropriate responses to a frightening, emotionally shattering event.  The body and mind are coping with the trauma and attempting to protect the survivor from further assault.