What are the effects of Sexual Violence?
This information is for women and young people over the age of 18. If you are looking for information and you are under 18 please follow this link.
There can be many different feelings/effects that survivors experience during sexual assault/abuse and in the days, weeks, months and years following sexual violence.
There is no right or wrong way to respond, and each survivor will react differently.
Survivors can be affected in many different ways, and responses to sexual violence can also be very different. This page hopes to help survivors and the people who care for them understand some of the potential effects of sexual violence, normalising some of the behaviours, feelings and ways of coping.
During the Abuse:
At times of great fear/trauma our brain takes over to help us survive. This response is very often described as the ‘Fight or Flight’ response. However common responses can also include ‘Freeze, Flop and Faint’. Remember these responses are not decisions but reactions taken by the brain to aid survival. You do not necessarily decide how you will react.
Here are some examples of what these fear/trauma responses may look like in everyday life:
- Fight –someone responds physically or verbally.
- Flight – trying to get away from the situation, e.g. by running or backing away.
- Freeze - when you want to move but you can’t.
- Flop – this is similar to freeze, but the muscles won’t work and feel floppy.
- Faint – the incident causes a response of unconsciousness.
Immediately after the Abuse:
- There may sometimes be bruising, cuts, pain or damage to genitals or other parts of the body. Some of this may need to be seen by a doctor at your GP’s Medical Centre or a nurse at the Sexual Health Clinic. The doctors and nurses should not contact the police without the survivor’s consent (unless there are child or vulnerable adult protection concerns).
- Sexually transmitted infections and/or pregnancy may be a possible effect, so a visit to the doctors or the Sexual Health Clinic may ease these worries.
- Survivors may feel angry, sad, lost, empty or scared. They might feel all of this at once or nothing at all. There is no right or wrong way to feel. Here is a link about common feelings immediately after a sexual assault
- Survivors might want to be around people or they might want to be left alone
- Survivors might be feeling confused about what to do or if they should contact the police/tell someone. We can help survivors understand their options if they want to know more.
Longer Term Effects:
Survivors may find themselves living with a range of effects from the sexual abuse/assault. These are extremely varied but may include anger, fear, flashbacks, self-blame, anxiety or depression. In order to cope with some of the effects, sometimes people turn to harmful coping strategies such as using alcohol/drugs as a way of blocking out what has happened to them. Sometimes survivors self-harm as a way to cope with the overwhelming thoughts and feelings.
We have a more detailed exploration of the different effects a survivor may experience. However some survivors may find this information difficult and challenging to read so you may not want to read at this time.
Anger is a normal feeling after being hurt/harmed. Anger at the perpetrator, anger at the world that has changed and no longer feels safe, anger at others who could not stop what happened are all common feelings. Anger can become harmful if survivors turn these feelings toward themselves (self blame). A survivor is never to blame. But anger can be a powerful energy for good if used in positive ways. We can support you with this.
Fear is a normal reaction after being hurt/harmed. You may be scared by strangers, or by people you know and trust, you may be scared of being alone or in crowds. Sometimes when someone has experienced something traumatic, their brain tries to keep them safe by seeing danger everywhere, even when there may be no danger there. Imagine a smoke alarm that goes off when toast has burnt, there is no fire but the smoke alarm doesn't know the difference. It can take time to reassure your ‘smoke alarm’ that there is no fire.
Low moods are a normal response and can at times become overwhelming, preventing survivors living their lives, impacting social, education and work life. Depression can come from feeling a lack of control in your life. We can support you to find different ways to take back control in small manageable ways.
Low Self-Esteem & Low Confidence
A traumatic event can make us feel vulnerable and see the world differently which can affect our confidence and belief in ourselves. We can help lessen these feelings through support or through our group activities and befriending programme.
It is never the fault of anyone who is sexually assaulted/abused. The fault always lies firmly with the perpetrator. Sometimes blaming yourself makes you feel in control, because if it was your fault, you can stop it from happening again. This is a very common feeling for survivors and something that we work with in support if the survivors want to explore these feelings.
Anxiety can be low level anxiety/stress or overwhelming anxiety and panic attacks affecting everyday. We work with survivors looking at tools and techniques to make anxiety manageable within their lives. Check out our resources on Anxiety and Taking Back Control.
PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a medical diagnosis. We prefer to call it Post Traumatic Stress Response as we do not see it as a disorder, but as a normal response to abnormal experiences. Having normal responses to abnormal experiences does not make someone ‘sick’ or ‘broken’. The women and young people we work with not only survive after sexual abuse and violence but can thrive.
Flashbacks sometimes when we experience a traumatic event our brains will become very sensitive to stress and danger and will trigger memories of that traumatic event in an attempt to keep us safe. A simple yellow jacket might remind your brain of the yellow wall in the room where the traumatic event happened, and you will remember that event rather than just see the yellow jacket. Smells can be particularly prone to triggering flashbacks. Flashbacks can be very difficult to deal with and some survivors will avoid situations to reduce the chance of triggering one.
A feeling of not being present, or leaving your body when you feel overwhelmed. Sometimes people feel like they have lost time. This is a trick of the brain, to help survivors deal with traumatic experiences. Survivors who experience complex trauma may develop this coping strategy to survive. We can support you to find ways to ground yourself and stay present when you have feelings of dissociation, if that is what you want.
Sleep problems and Nightmares
Our dreams can sometimes try to make sense of the thoughts we have during the day or if we are processing information in our brains. It can cause some survivors to dread going to sleep and makes getting restful sleep challenging. There are ways of dealing with sleep problems and nightmares and we can help survivors with this.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is usually a result of feeling a lack of control and trying to find control in everyday life. It can become overwhelming especially if it is accompanied with a thought pattern that tells you that if you don’t do something, something bad will happen.
Self harm and injury can be a way of coping with overwhelming thoughts and feelings. It is never helpful to tell someone who is self harming to stop without finding other ways of coping first. When a survivor is ready we can support them to find ways to reduce the harm or stop entirely if that is what they want.
This is a common way of coping with overwhelming feelings, especially as when someone starts to use these substances, it feels like things are better in that moment. However, they can quickly overtake everyday life and become a problem within their own right.
Weight loss/gain is a common response to stress. Food can be comforting when we are feeling low and sometimes when we are feeling overwhelmed, we have no appetite. Food can also provide us with a sense of control, as we can decide what we put in our bodies. At times excessive control of food and exercise can lead to health problems such as bulimia/anorexia.
When things become overwhelming it sometime feels like it would be better not to feel at all. Most people who have suicidal thoughts and attempts don’t want to die, they simply want these overwhelming feelings to stop. We can support survivors to find safety and hope as we believe there are ways through the darkness to find light.
Sexual intimacy can be hard after sexual violence as trusting others not to do the same can take time. Sometimes when abuse has happened in childhood a lack of understanding of what healthy sexual relationships should look like, can also lead to potentially harmful sexual experiences in later life. We all have the right to healthy consensual sexual lives if that is what we want.
- Sexually transmitted infections or damage to the genitals/reproductive organs can cause fertility problems. For some survivors this can be devastating.
- There can also be difficulties in have regular genealogical examinations (smear tests) and/or when giving birth due to memories of being harmed coming to the surface during these examinations (flashbacks).
- Visits to the dentist can also be very difficult for survivors who have been orally abused.
- Society sees the body and mind as separate, but they are very much connected. When our mental wellbeing is compromised our body is also affected. When someone experiences complex trauma (such as long term childhood sexual abuse) the body can develop a decreased immunity and medical complaints such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Fibromyalgia.
We can support survivors to access services that have specialist doctors/clinics who have undergone training to support survivors.
There is hope:
Although this may look like a very long and overwhelming list of possible effects it is important to remember that not all survivors will experience all or even any of this list. And even if a survivor has experienced all of the above, there is hope, they are not alone, we are here to listen, believe and support them when you are ready.
There are many resources on this website you can explore when you are ready. You can also call/email us for support or information:
- Self Harm – Taking back control
- Anxiety – Taking Back Control
- Rape Crisis Scotland Video on ‘Freeze’
- Information on the types of support
- Information about what sexual violence is and what is consent
- Information for your family and friends who are supporting you
How to get Support
You deserve support. You are not alone, we are here for you, to listen, believe and support you the way you want.
- Call us on our Helpline to ask a question or if you would like a chat, or make a referral 01738 630965
- Email us to ask a question or if you would like to make a referral Support@rasacpk.org.uk
If you feel too worried about calling or emailing us, you can ask a friend to call or email us.
If you are looking to refer any young person (12+) or adult woman to RASAC for Support please ensure you fill in all relevant sections of our referral form and ensure that the individual you are referring signs the form. We aim to offer an initial appointment to the individual within two to three weeks.