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Coping With the Aftermath of Rape
Terry could not believe it had happened. It did not seem real. She trembled as she sat in the waiting room of the rape trauma center. The previous night, she had been raped in her apartment by a man she had considered a friend. Like many other survivors of rape, Terry faced many decisions in the hours, days, and months following the rape.
Rape: One of Many Types of Sexual Assault
Rape involves forced penetration or intercourse. It is one of many types of sexual assault. Sexual assault is any type of sexual activity that you do not want or agree to, ranging from inappropriate touching to penetration or intercourse. It includes:
- Attempted rape
- Child molestation
- Sexual harassment
Sexual assault can happen in a number of different situations, such as date rape, domestic or intimate partner violence, or violence by a stranger.
If You Have Been Raped
The first step for you is to go to a safe place. Next, call the police to report the crime if this is something you have decided to do. You should then call someone who you can trust, like a close family member or friend. There are also rape hotlines that you can call for support and guidance.
Remember that it is important that the evidence from the crime does not get ruined. Because of this, you will need to avoid:
- Taking a shower
- Cleaning any part of your body
- Combing your hair
- Changing your clothes
- Touching anything at the scene of the assault
Take care of yourself by going to the hospital. Many hospitals treat rape survivors without payment up front, even if they have no health insurance. You will be checked and treated for injuries, including internal injuries, as well as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. This will likely involve blood tests and a pelvic exam and swab. During the exam, evidence will also be collected that may help identify the perpetrator, such as hairs, semen, saliva, clothing, and fibers.
Deciding Whether to Report the Rape
There are many decisions that come up after being sexually assaulted. One challenge is deciding whether you want to report the crime and seek prosecution. Counselors with experience working with people who have been sexually abused can help you to examine the pros and cons of reporting the rape.
You may choose to report the rape because you want the perpetrator to be punished and you want to protect others from being assaulted. Reporting the rape may also help you to feel more empowered and ease feelings of being a victim.
You may choose not to report the crime for a number of reasons, such as having been treated poorly by the police in the past or not feeling confident in the court system. Or, the perpetrator may have threatened to harm you or a loved one if the crime is reported. You may also feel a range of emotions, like guilt and shame, and decide that you do not want to further share this traumatic event with other people.
Dealing With the Effects
Rape is a traumatic event that can have a huge effect on your life. It is common to feel confused, fearful, guilty, numb, hostile, or tearful. You may feel like withdrawing from others. You may have difficulty concentrating, making decisions, and sleeping. It may be hard for you to talk about what happened.
During the first few months after the rape, you may experience the following behaviors and symptoms:
- Self-protective behaviors, such as changing your telephone number or moving to a new residence
- Nightmares, particularly about the rape
Developing phobias, such as:
- Fear of being indoors or outdoors depending on where the rape took place
- Fear of being alone
- Fear of crowds
- Fear of being followed
- Sexual fears
- Having problems in relationships, especially with your partner
- Having physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, or loss of appetite
In some cases, the emotional impact of a rape can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent nightmares, flashbacks of the rape, social withdrawal, anxiety, depression , and emotional numbness. There are different types of therapy and prescription medications that can be part of a treatment program for PTSD.
Moving Toward Recovery
Recovering from rape can be a long and difficult process. Be patient with yourself. Each person has a different way of coping and healing. Some people want to carry on with their routine. Others find it helpful to take time off from work and other responsibilities. Here are some things you can do to help yourself heal.
Seek Support From Family and Friends
Seek support from people who can offer comfort without blame or control. It is good to have a mix of people who can support you in various ways. For example, some people are better than others at dealing with intense emotions. Others may be good at the more practical things, like watching your kids while you go to an appointment.
A rape crisis center can be a good source of support for you. These centers usually have a hotline that you can call for information and guidance. Depending on the agency, you may also have access to individual therapy, support groups, and advocacy. Another option is to get a referral to a therapist who has experience working with people who have been sexually assaulted. Since being raped can trigger a range of difficult emotions, it is important that you talk to a counselor who can help you find ways to recover.
Try a Support Group
Most communities have support groups for victims of sexual assault. These groups help break down the isolation, secrecy, and shame felt by many victims. Members of the group are at different stages of healing. They share their experiences, coping strategies, and progress.
Recovery from rape can be a slow process. You may find that the rape has permanently changed your life in some ways. As you go through the stages of recovery, you will find that, in time, you think less and less about the rape. It will no longer dominate your emotions. As you set goals and achieve them, your life will eventually move forward.
Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network
Women's Health—US Department of Health and Human Services
Mental Health Canada
Women's Health Matter
After sexual assault. Safe Horizon website. Available at: http://www.safehorizon.org/images/uploads/misc/1272296041%5FAfter%5FSexual%5FAssault%5FBklt.pdf. Accessed March 11, 2014.
Getting help. Rape Treatment Center website. Available at: http://www.911rape.org/getting-help/what-to-do-if-you-are-raped. Accessed March 11, 2014.
If you have been sexually assaulted. After Silence website. Available at: http://www.aftersilence.org/what-to-do.php. Accessed March 11, 2014.
State crime victims compensation. Benefits.gov website. Available at: http://www.benefits.gov/benefits/benefit-details/4416. Accessed March 11, 2014.
Safety planning. Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network website. Available at: http://www.rainn.org/get-information/sexual-assault-prevention/safety-plan. Accessed March 11, 2014.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 03/2014
- Update Date: 03/13/2014