The Impact of Sexual Assault

In the wake of experiencing a sexual assault, a person may experience a whole range of emotions from anger and fear to numbness and shame. Just as with any other trauma, the severity and duration of this reaction will vary from one individual to the next. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you might find it helpful or comforting to know what kinds of feelings are common among others who have been through the same thing. This information will help you better understand what to expect following a sexual assault and how you can seek help for yourself or someone else.

Following a sexual assault, a person may experience any of these reactions, or a combination of them:

  • Flashbacks (sudden, intense memories of the incident)
  • Sleep difficulties or nightmares
  • Change in appetite (victim either overeats or loses interest in food)
  • Poor focus or concentration, problems with memory
  • Avoidance of thoughts or talking about the incident; avoidance of reminders of the incident
  • Feelings of shame and self-blame, such as feeling responsible for the incident
  • Feeling sad, lonely, betrayed, or hopeless about the future
  • Increased problems with – or loss of interest in – friends, family and enjoyable activities
  • Being easily startled or frightened
  • Excessive concern about the security of one's environment
  • Mood swings (sudden, marked shifts from one emotional state to another)
  • Feeling numb or disconnected from others, physically or emotionally
  • Flashes of irritation, impatience or rage even in people who don't usually get angry
  • Increased use of alcohol, nicotine or other drugs
  • Either increased interest in or avoidance of sex

How sexual assault can affect your relationships

A sexual assault often affects not only the person who experienced it, but also everyone around him or her. Your feelings toward – or interactions with – other people may change in ways that you don't understand or can't fully explain. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you might recognize these common relationship changes:    

  • Conflict – Sometimes a sexual assault increases the potential for conflict between a victim and the people he or she cares about most. Friends and relatives may not know how to respond to behavior changes that occur in people who have experienced a sexual assault. They may worry that they'll say or do the wrong thing and make things worse. Conversely, they may not understand sexual assault and have unrealistic expectations about how someone should go through the healing process.
  • Problem feelings – Some sexual assault victims feel numb, depressed, or isolated from the people they love. This reaction may make victims appear cold or unfeeling to those who care about them. Victims may start using or increase their use of alcohol or drugs, which often contributes to other problem feelings and behaviors. Friends, family or co-workers may become angry or impatient with a sexual assault victim for not being his or her "usual self," so they may withdraw from the victim or seem to punish him or her in other ways. Others may try to make the victim "snap out of it," perhaps by smothering him or her with attention and well-intentioned suggestions.
  • Intimacy concerns – Sexual assault can make it harder to achieve intimacy. Some victims prefer not to be touched for a while, which may cause a partner or spouse to feel confused, sad, angry or hurt. A partner or spouse may also become frustrated by the rejection of their desire to be physically close to the victim. It may take time and professional help for couples to work their way through the effects of the assault and reestablish intimacy.

It is common for everyone to have one or more of these symptoms to some extent after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Severe reactions, however, such as thoughts of self-harm, should be reported immediately to a medical or mental health care provider. If other symptoms persist for many weeks or months, consider seeking professional help. Getting the help you need is one way to regain control of your life and an important first step to moving on and learning to enjoy life again. Military OneSource is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by phone at 800-342-9647 or online, to provide or connect you with counseling services or other forms of assistance. 

In addition, there is help available for anyone in the military community at DoD Safe Helpline.  Safe Helpline, 877-995-5247, is a groundbreaking crisis support service for members of the DoD community affected by sexual assault. Safe Helpline provides live, one-on-one support, and information to the worldwide DoD community. The service is confidential, anonymous, secure, and available worldwide, 24/7 by click, call, or text — providing people with the help they need, anytime, anywhere.


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