Similar to mental illnesses, sexual assault is a topic that has a large stigma around it. Sexual assault is disturbingly common, and the horrifying statistics help paint the picture of this grim reality:
- Nearly 1 in 4 female college students have experienced unwanted sexual contact carried out by force or threat. Source
- 70 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone who the victim knows. Source
- 42 percent of sexual assault victims did not report the incident to authorities because they “did not want anyone to know.” Source
- Only 2 percent of sexual assault victims were incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. Source
- Out of every 1,000 instances of rape, only 7 will lead to a felony conviction. Source
- Only 2 to 8 percent of rape allegations are false. Source
- 94 percent of women who are raped experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms during the two weeks following the rape. Source
- 13 percent of women who are raped attempt suicide. Source
Unfortunately, this is a topic I am all too familiar with. For me, part of breaking down the stigma of sexual assault is being able to openly discuss my past experiences and no longer feel ashamed or embarrassed. I have had my own history of trauma with sexual assault, starting with chronic childhood sexual abuse by my paternal uncle throughout my youth. The abuse began when I was two or three and lasted until I was about eight or nine years old. This led me in a direction to get re-traumatized, which is very common when someone experiences a trauma – they are more at risk to experience trauma again.
The summer before college, I was staying the night at my boyfriend’s apartment. I decided to go to sleep early, and I went to my boyfriend’s room to pass out. A few hours later, my boyfriend came into the dark room, and I woke up, happy he was joining me in bed. He got on top of me and started to kiss me and take off my clothes. I was pretty out of it from just waking up. We started to have sex, and as I became more aware, I noticed something felt “off”. I asked him a question and an unfamiliar voice responded. I immediately realized this man was NOT my boyfriend, so I freaked out and tried to get him off of me. But he wouldn’t let me get up, and finished. Once it was over, I was horrified. I couldn’t believe my boyfriend’s friend had done that. At the time, I didn’t realize that my boyfriend had left to go get some dinner to bring back, and his friend opted to stay at the apartment. I felt dirty. Ashamed. Guilty. Was this my fault? Had I let it happen? How could I NOT know it was my boyfriend for all those minutes? Did this count as rape? Did I cheat? I was confused and overwhelmed, and immediately climbed into the bathtub to wash myself off and cry. I was in shock.
I later told my boyfriend, which made the trauma of the sexual assault much much worse. He didn’t believe me. He got angry and accused me of cheating and doing it on purpose. He wouldn’t talk or listen to me. He dismissed me, and told me to get out. I went home, still in shock and even more confused and horrified about what happened.
I didn’t tell my parents until days later, and at that point, it was too late to do a rape kit. I knew who he was, and we tried to prosecute him from the little evidence we had.
I can still see the look of utter sadness and grief my parents had in their face for their daughter. I wanted to hide away in my room. I couldn’t look at anyone, nonetheless myself in the mirror.
Sexual assault IS a trauma, and traumas impact our mind, body and soul. It may be helpful for someone who has been sexually assaulted to talk to a mental health professional and get extra support to process what occurred. The vast majority of rape victims will suffer from physical and psychological conditions from the trauma, such as depression, loss of interest, irritability, decreased concentration, insomnia, emotional overwhelm, loss of sense of the future, hopelessness, shame and worthlessness, little or no memories, nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, mistrust, generalized anxiety and/or panic attacks, chronic pain, headaches, substance use, eating disorders, feeling unreal or out of body (otherwise known as dissociation, where you can feel detached from your body, feelings, or reality), self destructive behavior, and loss of sense of “Who I am”.
Even if our mind is able to block out the memory, our body still remembers, and may get triggered during exercise, (for example, during yoga), or when someone touches you in a certain way. It’s important to let your body release the emotions and body memories when it comes and when you are ready and feel safe and supported.
Some of the most common negative beliefs held by someone who experienced sexual assault, including ones I experienced are:
- I’m Not Safe
- It’s All My Fault
- I’m “Dirty” or Gross
- I’m Damaged / Defective
- My body is Shameful
- I’m a Bad Person
- I’m Powerless
EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is the treatment I specialize in, and like I mention anytime a trauma comes up such as Child Abuse, it is one of the most renowned treatments for trauma and PTSD. I am a big advocate of it because not only do I use it with my patients, but I am also an EMDR patient and I continue to use it as my primary treatment with my own therapist.
EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to help integrate both sides of your brain, tap into our amygdala (where trauma can be stored) unlock those memories, and helps you to reprocess and desensitize them so it is no longer disturbing to you, and so it feels more neutral. It doesn’t erase the memories, but it helps you grieve and process through them in order to come to a place of peace and neutrality, as difficult as that is to believe you can get there. It’s possible.
Only through EMDR have I begun to clear those negative cognitions and replace them with healthier, more adaptive beliefs about myself that I started to actually believe about myself for the first time in my life. I still have much to work on, and I’m still working towards healing with my therapist. Therapy is by far one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life and overall healing journey. Yoga has also really helped me release my body memories.
EMDR can be a much quicker, more effective therapy than other conventional talk therapies, and is really helpful to those who don’t want to, or aren’t ready to talk about what happened. There isn’t much talking needed to complete the trauma protocol.
EMDR isn’t the only type of therapy out there. There are over 100 types of therapies, and many more therapists, so it’s important to keep in mind that not every type of treatment or therapist is going to be a good fit for everyone. If you are considering going to therapy, I encourage you to do some research and schedule appointments with several therapists so you can find someone you fit and vibe with. Your relationship and comfortability with your therapist is what will make your treatment successful vs unsuccessful.
You also have to have these three ingredients: Ready, Willing, and Able. The “able” piece could come from extra help and support such as professional help, treatment, or medication. But you must be ready and willing to start your healing journey, and if you aren’t ready or willing or both.. that’s OKAY. We’re all in different places, and it didn’t take me until I was 22 and in grad school to be ready to fully start that journey.
To find a therapist near you, please visit www.psychologytoday.com.