Sexual violence is a traumatic shock that can have serious psychological consequences. Victims’ symptoms vary in nature and intensity depending on the form of violence experienced, the victim’s age at the time of the assault, the context, their relationship with the person who caused the violence, the reaction of their friends and family, and even their personality.
- Some victims constantly relive the event in the form of nightmares or flashbacks. These intrusive thoughts are invasive and terrifying, preventing the victim from carrying out their daily activities.
- In an effort to protect themselves, victims might try to avoid situations or activities that remind them of the trauma they experienced. They might do so voluntarily—for example, by no longer going to the place associated with the sexual violence. Avoidance can also be involuntary: mental dissociation and memory loss are two unconscious avoidance mechanisms.
Repressing the memory of an experience of sexual violence is a protective mechanism against pain and suffering, which can explain why victims sometimes wait years before talking about their traumatic experience and asking for help.
- After being subjected to sexual violence, a person may be constantly on their guard for possible danger. This kind of relentless fear and tension is stressful and exhausting. Living in constant fear can cause irritability and difficulty concentrating or sleeping.
Generalized fear is one of the consequences most often observed in victims of sexual violence: fear of being alone or in crowds or fear of evocative stimuli, such as sounds or people who remind the victim of the perpetrator of the sexual violence.
In some cases, victims may even live in a state of post-traumatic stress (PTSD), regardless of whether the violence occurred in adulthood or when they were a child. This disorder can be diagnosed by a family doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist.
It is important to stress, however, that victims who experience one of the consequences of a traumatic event described above are not necessarily suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Nor is a diagnosis of PTSD required to confirm that a victim’s symptoms are real and severe. The consequences of sexual violence experienced by victims are varied and are not limited to those associated with post-traumatic stress.
The consequences of sexual violence do not have to define the rest of a victim’s life.
There are different ways that people can regain control of their lives. For example:
- Trauma-informed cognitive behavioural therapies are aimed at helping a person to understand how their thoughts, emotions and behaviour are interconnected and to identify strategies for managing their stress.
- Certain medications can assist people in dealing with anxiety and other related problems, such as depression or sleep disorders. A professional can help.
- Support groups provide a safe space for sharing experiences and learning from those of others.
Certain therapies work better than others for different people. Since every person is unique, each reacts differently.
With help from the appropriate resources, it is possible to recover from a traumatic experience. The first step is talking about it and asking for help.