Section 2: Understanding Sexual Assault from a Victim’s Perspective
4 Hours, 40 Minutes

(30 minutes)

(2 minutes)

Whether or not they choose to disclose the fact of the assault to anyone, victims of sexual abuse often experience a wide variety of emotional and physical responses to the abuse. These reactions typically manifest themselves immediately after the abuse and may continue, to some degree, for an extended period of time.

Note: It may be appropriate to remind the audience that while men can be victims of sexual assault, the large majority of victims are female; 1 in 6 females, compared to 1 in 33 males. (The numbers are closer when they include only children but are still mostly female.)24 This particular research was done on women for that reason, and that is why we use ‘women’ here in talking about Rape Trauma Syndrome. It is not intended to ignore or minimize the experience of men who have been sexually assaulted.

Sexual assault victims may experience one or all of these reactions at any time after the assault. For some victims, these reactions may become chronic. It is important to remember that victims may experience these different reactions in a very unpredictable manner. Outwardly, a victim may appear very self–possessed, or very expressive and emotional. Both are legitimate responses to their experience and should not be used to minimize the trauma of the assault in any way. A sexual assault victim’s reaction will be affected by her sexual abuse history (if any), and individual coping mechanisms, support systems, emotional strength, and level of self–esteem.

Rape Trauma Syndrome
(8 minutes)

Some researchers use the term “Rape Trauma Syndrome” to describe a woman’s physical and emotional responses to being sexually abused. Becoming familiar with this information can help you understand and respond appropriately to the different reactions you may encounter from victims of rape with whom you have contact. It may also help you in explaining case decisions to your team, other criminal justice practitioners, or to offenders.

Rape trauma has both an acute and a long term phase. The three stages of the acute phase of Rape Trauma Syndrome are described as follows:

Use SlideUse Slide #10: Rape Trauma Syndrome: The Acute Phase

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The acute phase of Rape Trauma Syndrome includes:

Physical reactions ranging from soreness, bruising, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, headaches, loss of appetite, and flashbacks.

Emotional reactions including mood swings, fears, phobias, anger, desire for revenge, irritability, loss of control, and heightened sensitivity. While this may be difficult for others to understand, it is not uncommon for victims in this stage to be numb and appear outwardly calm and subdued.

In the denial or recoil phase, the victim wants to forget. This stage of denial may cause the victim to avoid dealing with the trauma by not seeking medical care, not reporting the crime to the police, or not discussing it with others. For victims of sexual assault, engaging in familiar, routine tasks is more than avoidance; it is a way of reaffirming their sense of self and competency.

Use SlideUse Slide #11: Rape Trauma Syndrome: The LongTerm Phase

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The long–term phase of Rape Trauma Syndrome consists of:

Psychological reactions including dreams, nightmares, fears, and phobias. The victim may experience intense feelings of guilt, self–blame, and anger.

Social reactions including change of residence, phone number, and disruption of relationships. You will find, if you have not already, that victims are often difficult to locate because of this type of reaction.

Sexual reactions ranging from a fear of sex to a marked increase in sexual activity.

Not all women will experience all of these symptoms and they certainly won’t experience them in the same way. Symptoms may vary in duration, frequency, and intensity depending on the woman, the nature of the abuse, and the woman’s ability to obtain support and treatment.

Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse
(20 minutes)

Note: The objective of this discussion is to introduce to participants behaviors common in adult survivors, as they may encounter them in their work. Concentrate on the issues and ask if anyone has questions about the handout, but do not dwell on its content.

The experience of childhood sexual abuse can make victims more vulnerable to additional abuse in their lives. Data from the National Violence Against Women Survey suggests that nearly 1 in 5 women who reported being raped before the age of 18 said they were also raped after age 18.25 By comparison, only 9 percent of the women who reported not being raped before age 18 said they were raped after age 18.26 In other words, it is quite possible that the adult victims you work with were victims of childhood sexual abuse as well. You may also find yourself supervising an offender who has been imprisoned for a considerable length of time, and whose child victims have grown to adulthood.

The coping mechanisms common in adults who experienced sexual abuse during childhood are similar to those developed by child victims. While these coping mechanisms may work for some child victims while they are still young, helping them to avoid some of the pain resulting from the assault, these mechanisms lose their effectiveness as victims reach adulthood. This often leads to increasingly dysfunctional and/or self–destructive behavior and beliefs that keep these victims isolated and out of healthy, functional relationships. These coping mechanisms account for what many people consider the difficulty of working with victims.

Just as with the myths about sexual assault and the barriers to disclosure, becoming familiar with the concept of coping mechanisms will enhance your ability to work with victims and to understand the important information they offer. Equipped with this knowledge, we are less likely to discredit victims based on behaviors that result from such coping strategies.

Note: This list is on the handout.

The most common coping mechanisms are as follows:

Note: Allow the audience to offer several examples of how behaviors based on coping mechanisms can be misinterpreted.

How might observing these behaviors impact how you as a supervision officer interact with or respond to the victim?

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