What Are Common Reactions From Sexual Abuse Survivors?
What Are Common Reactions From Sexual Abuse Survivors?
Written By: Simona Jellinek, Counsel
CONTENT WARNING: This blog discusses some of the most sensitive topics in our society today, including sexual assault and abuse. We understand that these realities may be difficult for many people to discuss. We encourage you to care for your safety and well-being. If you ever feel unsafe, please call 911.
There is no hierarchy when it comes to sexual abuse and sexual assault. Any unwanted touch of a sexual nature is, by definition, sexual assault. In some instances, the assaults can result in physical injuries beyond the emotional and psychological damage this type of violation can cause to a person. The abuse may occur over a long period of time or be limited to a single experience.
But the individual circumstances of these crimes should not be used to diminish any survivor's experience. Assault is assault. Everyone feels and responds differently after being subjected to these crimes. There is no 'right' way to respond.
When my clients tell me their stories and describe how they felt or responded after an assault, they will often ask: "Is this reaction normal?" The answer is invariably: yes. Sometimes a survivor's "normal" is not society's "normal." Yet being assaulted or abused can be such a traumatic experience for a person that they will react in ways other people may not understand.
The uneven power relationship with their abuser prevents some people from revealing the abuse. For others, there may be a sense of guilt or shame about what has happened to them, and they may unfairly blame themselves or explain away their abuser's actions. For some, the assault(s) may be part of their personal narrative until life circumstances force them to deal with the trauma and damage done. A few survivors even suppress memories of the assault(s) and may only react later in life when triggered by something they see or hear.
There is no single "right" way to respond to sexual abuse and assault. This attack on a person's bodily autonomy can cut to a person's very core. However, they respond, whether by choice or by circumstance, is what they feel they need to do to survive.
Sexual abuse and sexual assault survivors take many different paths to recovery and healing. Some choose to go to the authorities. Others seek assistance from counsellors and/or crisis centres to help them process what has happened or while they are in treatment for other, and often related, mental health issues such as depression, anxiety disorders or PTSD. Still, others may begin to unpack the damage the abuse caused when seeking addiction treatment. They may start to understand that they have turned to certain substances or activities as a way to escape their painful trauma. Once they can deal with the underlying cause of their addictions, they often have more success in abstaining from these activities or moderating their consumption.
Disclosing what has happened to another person can be a supremely powerful moment in a survivor's life. There are times when I am, or someone else from my office is the first person to hear their story, and we always do so with compassion and without judgement. As we witness them taking back control over their lives by telling their story in their own words, we often see their relief, sadness, anger, fear, or determination. Usually, it's a combination of these complex and sometimes conflicting feelings.
In the next part of this series, I discuss why coming forward can be such a difficult decision for many survivors, and I examine some common fears about what will happen when they do.
At the beginning of this post, I asked you to picture the face of a sexual abuse or sexual assault survivor. Whether you pictured someone you knew, someone you don't know, or a person in the abstract, I hope this post has encouraged you to think about how survivors deserve to be heard on their own terms, without judgment. By affirming this courageous step, they can feel empowered to continue to do whatever they need to help themselves recover from these heinous acts.
Every person faces their own personal challenges in life that we may never know about. It is incumbent on all of us to be kind to each other so that we do not add to these challenges.
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