Life After Sexual Assault
Brock Turner was a swimmer at Stanford University in 2015 when he sexually assaulted a 23-year-old female student. He was sentenced on June 2, 2016, to six months' incarceration in the Santa Clara County jail to be followed by three years of probation. He was released three months early. The judge, Aaron Persky, cited that prison time could have a “severe” impact on Turner’s life as the reasoning behind the lenient six-month sentence.
According to Statista, over 400,000 men sexually assaulted women in the United States in the year 2019. And according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Conversely, out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 995 perpetrators walk free.
I am angry about how sexual predators receive a mild sentence when convicted of assault, all the while the survivor often lives with the trauma in horribly disturbing ways... and often for the rest of her life. A life sentence for the survivor, and merely a slap on the wrist for the predator. People need to know/SEE the severity and the longevity of the trauma. This project is one effort towards doing just that.
Following the moments after a sexual assault, a survivor spends several hesitant seconds, deciding whether it is safe to open their eyes. The moments following a sexual assault are best described as a ‘heavy fog’. After surviving a rape, a woman’s sense of security and safety is entirely altered. The nights following a sexual assault consist of hiding away due to an overwhelming sense of fear and panic. Following rape, a woman will go to great lengths to hide away from people.
For some victims, sleeping in a bed, in the middle of a room creates too much exposure. The fear of something coming at them in any given direction is real. Sleeping in a closet, on the other hand, offers some protection, safety.
Many survivors are unwilling to report their sexual assault because they are embarrassed, or they feel others might think it wasn't that big of a deal. Fear of invalidation. Fear of blame. Fear of judgment. Fear of playing a role. These are all emotions associated with the shame experienced after sexual trauma.
“I must have done something to deserve this. Maybe it’s not as big of a deal as I am making it?” Internalized blame is commonly associated with the lack of self-worth experienced following sexual trauma. Thoughts of loneliness and humiliation can become very heavy.
“I can’t feel this pain anymore.” “I can’t go through one more conversation having to explain how I said no.” Many turn to mind-altering substances as a means of detaching from emotions and thoughts following sexual trauma.
Studies are beginning to show that chronic illness can develop out of trauma. Trauma can heighten the stress response, sometimes permanently, and the increased inflammation from a heightened stress response can lead to autoimmune disease. The Central Nervous System is directly correlated with our Parasympathetic Nervous System. Our somatic responses are triggered by heightened inflammation within the body. These illnesses can then become their own traumatic experience. Lupus, for example, has no cure and can be severely debilitating.
Many women experience a sense of drowning; as if the mere need to adhere to and maintain obligations simply become too much. Women can develop patterns of self sabotage without being aware that they have internalized shame and blame. Women may carry a sense of ownership of their assault; resulting in punishing themselves – rather than the perpetrator being brought to justice.
Sleep disturbance is a common result of sexual assault, possibly lasting for years or even an entire lifetime. One manifestation of this is waking up out of breath, gasping for air. The term ‘panic attack’ is often misused by the layperson. This term is acutely correlated with the feeling of being incapable of slowing the heart rate, resulting in pressured speech, shallow breathing, and a profound and impulsive need to escape the immediate surroundings.
Questioning their own role and sanity. Many women experience internalized blame as a result of being met with invalidation and doubt from outsiders. Self-doubt is the common result of being met with minimization and dismissal of feelings.
Repressed memories are the brain’s protective mechanism to attempt to seal accessing painful and traumatic images.
This physiological impact is the detachment from the person and body. Many victims of sexual trauma will struggle with recognizing their own bodies and reflections. Women may develop patterns of avoidance of viewing mirrors; often resulting in the development of Body Dysmorphia. Many women begin to view parts of themselves as distorted or damaged.
Numbness is the inability to access a full range of emotions. Emptiness is the result of living with confusion, uncertainty, self-doubt, fear, panic, reluctance, and a profound sense of detachment from the self. Emptiness is an un-earthing emotional experience due to the lack of certainty in thoughts and ability to make clear decisions.
Ruminating thoughts can be a significant symptom experienced after sexual trauma. Perseverative patterns begin to develop in the mind as a result of one’s questioning of their experience.
The ability to establish trust and emotional and physical safety with others is greatly impacted. Many women will develop patterns of isolation as a result of feeling misunderstood by the outside world. Some women will form isolative lifestyles as a means of minimizing risks and exposure to questions and perceived interrogations.