Information For Family Members/Partners
Common feelings experienced by survivors and some coping strategies
A common myth around rape is that all women will react hysterically or tearfully after the attack. The truth is that women react in a range of ways and describe a wide range of emotions in the immediate aftermath of the attack, or in the hours/days that follow.
After rape, many women are in shock. This feeling may be so strong that a woman experiences disbelief. She may refuse to acknowledge what has happened, shut it out or have no immediate reaction at all.
Or the shock may be displayed by crying uncontrollably, laughing or talking continuously or with displays of anger.
Denial or minimising the effect of the rape is a commonly used coping mechanism. A woman may try to convince those around her, and more importantly herself, that everything is fine, and that she’s alright physically and emotionally. This response may last a long time until a ‘trigger’ sets off an emotional or physical reaction to the attack.
There is no ‘correct’ response.
Apart from physical injuries that women sometimes receive during the rape, women may also have other physical reactions in the days following the attack. Sleeplessness is common, with women often being fearful of sleep in case the attacker returns. Nightmares are also common, sometimes revisiting the attack over and over again.
Women may also suffer loss of appetite, stomach pains or sickness, and may experience nausea any time they think of the attack.
A common response is that women will feel the need to wash over and over again, to ‘wash away’ the feeling or the smell of the rapist. For some women this can be harmful and it is important to ensure that only safe products are used for washing, no household substances should ever be used.
Many women who have been supported by the Rape Crisis Centre have spoken about feeling that they would be severely injured or murdered while they were being raped and indeed rapists may use weapons or the threat of murder to control the women while the attack is taking place.
The extreme trauma that is associated with rape and the fear of death can lead to post traumatic stress disorder.
This is the most common reaction as we always look for a reason, an explanation for what has happened and why. And we try to apportion blame… and often this falls on the woman.
‘She should never have asked him into the flat.’
An invitation into someone’s flat is not an invitation for sex. We have the right to invite whom we choose into our home and to be confident that our safety will not be compromised. No man has the right to presume that he can force a woman to have sex under any circumstances.
‘Everybody was really drunk. It couldn’t really be rape if he was too drunk to know if she was saying yes or no.’
Alcohol is often blamed for rape or sexual assault. Alcohol is not responsible. The responsibility lies solely with the perpetrator. Alcohol is very often used to excuse men’s behaviour and to blame women for their ‘irresponsibility’.
‘She doesn’t have a mark on her – she should have fought him off.’
When we are in situations of extreme danger, our bodies will react in a way that it thinks will best protect us. For some of us we will run, scream, fight – but for some, our bodies will freeze and be unable to move. This is a natural reaction wherein our brain decides the most efficient way to ensure our survival. We are not in control of this and it may be that this response will mean that we are less physically injured during the attack.
‘She’s very calm – someone who’s just been raped would be crying their eyes out’
Would they? How do you know? We often expect people to behave in a certain way and are then surprised when they don’t. Many women who have experienced rape or sexual assault tell us that they believed that they would be murdered, perhaps because the rapist had told them this or because he had a weapon and threatened to use it. It’s important we understand that all women respond differently to the trauma of rape, with calm, with hysteria, with denial, with tears, and that each of these responses is a perfectly normal response to a very abnormal experience.
Firstly, it’s OK for a woman to be angry with this person, or people who have hurt and abused her. Anger is a very normal reaction to hurt and pain but we’re raised to believe that it is a bad thing and should be suppressed.
People are scared of anger, and we can be scared of it when it’s coming from someone we are close to who perhaps does not normally display anger openly. If the woman you are supporting is voicing or displaying anger against the violence that has been perpetrated against her she should be allowed to do this and be reassured that you understand the anger is not aimed at you. If women are unable to release the anger they feel they often turn it in on themselves, blame themselves, hurt themselves, or just swallow it and try to block it all out which can result in longer term physical and/or psychological problems.
It’s also common for women survivors of rape to suffer sleep disturbance or nightmares. These may be an exact replay of the event or may be an abstract series of events that are hard to remember but are still upsetting.
Nightmares may be triggered by a date, a smell or a familiar place or person and can make her afraid to go to sleep. Talking about the nightmares and the feelings they bring up may help. It may also help for you, if possible, to reassure the woman that she can wake you up for support if the nightmares do not go away.
Flashbacks are a natural reaction to the trauma of rape or sexual assault but they can be very frightening and women often describe feelings of fear, confusion, panic, being out of control, terror. This is because they can happen when least expected and can be triggered by a noise, a smell or by seeing something that reminds the woman of the attack.
Women experiencing flashbacks often believe they are going crazy and may be afraid to speak about their feelings, but it’s a natural part of the healing process.
Sometimes women will try to avoid all the things that trigger flashbacks but the down side of this is that it can really limit what they do and where they go. But there are other ways to help alleviate the fear and panic that flashbacks cause. If you are with the woman when she experiences a flashback you can:
- Reassure her that it’s a flashback and that, scary as it is, she is safe.
- Help her breathe. When she is having a flashback she will not be breathing normally and this can cause dizziness, shaking, sweating, feeling faint. When she starts breathing normally the feelings of panic will lessen.
- Give her time to recover. It will take a while for her to feel herself again so give her a bit of extra time to get back to her normal activities.
- Reassure her that you are there to support her. She may need to talk about her feelings when the flashback if over.
- Remind her that you are there, encourage her to stamp her feet or clap her hands to help ground her.
- Remind her that this is part of her healing process and she is a survivor.
Panic attacks are sudden, unexpected anxiety attacks that can include sweating, tightening of the chest, shortness of breath, numbness, tingling of the hands and feet or needing to go to the toilet, dryness of the mouth or feeling nervous and ‘jumpy’.
When a woman first experiences a panic attack she may be confused, not sure of what is happening and frightened that she can’t control it. But panic attacks are another way the body has of coping with the trauma of rape or sexual assault. If a body feels threatened, it responds with the ‘fight or flight’ response and a panic attack is an exaggerated form of this.
Although panic attacks are a body’s way of coping with the memories of the attack, there are some substances that can make it worse. These include:
- Alcohol, nicotine and caffeine and some drugs can make panic attacks worse. Also some prescription drugs can bring the attack on more severely. Withdrawal from some sedatives can have the same effect.
- Blood sugar levels being too high – this can be caused by junk food, overeating or too much fasting.
- Hyperventilating caused by stress can make a panic attack worse.
- If a woman you are supporting has had a panic attack, wait until the attack is over and she is calm, then you may be able to talk to her about:
- Whether she can recognize when an attack is going to happen
- Her feelings – and if she wants to talk to you about them
- Breathing exercises she can do or ways she may be able to ground herself.
Self Harming/Self Injury
There are a number of myths around self injury – such as, ‘it’s a suicide attempt that failed’ or ‘it’s attention seeking’. This is not the case. Self injury is a way of coping with emotional pain, it’s a release when the pain becomes too much to bear.
Survivors who self injure are not insane or dangerous; they are just trying to cope with the pain in their lives without hurting anyone else. It’s important to recognise that women who are self injuring need to have space to talk about their experiences, need to be believed and most importantly, need to be free of judgment.
There are a number of good publications about self harm that can be obtained from book shops or on loan from the Rape Crisis Centre library.
There are also a number of ways of helping a woman stay as safe as possible when she is self injuring:
- To use clean blades if she is cutting and never share with anyone else.
- To have a well stocked first aid box within easy reach.
- To ensure if wounds become infected they are treated by a doctor as soon as possible.
- If she has cut too deeply or cut a vein or artery by mistake, get help immediately.
- To ensure that burns are dressed as quickly as possible. If it’s a large burn, get medical help immediately. Put the burn in cold water as soon as possible.
Drugs and Alcohol
Alcohol or prescription or non-prescription drugs are often used by women survivors as a way of coping with memories of sexual assault. Often drugs can be prescribed to assist the woman to cope with how she is feeling or to improve sleeping. Whilst this can be a very effective short term support it should be remembered that it is easy to become dependent and reliant on medication which numbs the pain. If you are supporting a woman who is using any drug excessively to deal with her memories, it may be useful to encourage her to have an open discussion with her GP about it. This will allow her, and her doctor to determine what the best treatment plan is for her.
Sometimes illicit drug use and/or excessive drinking is a problem for women who have abuse issues. Again, these mask the pain and stop women remembering and experiencing their feelings.
If heavy drinking or drug use is a factor it may be better that this is addressed by a woman prior to her entering into any kind of therapy or counselling. Whilst feeling the emotions and experiencing and acknowledging the pain she is in is extremely difficult, it is a vital part of the healing process.
Many studies have shown that a high number of women who have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse, have eating disorders. For some women, control over their eating is a way of coping and expressing their emotions. Some women who are bulimic or compulsive eaters reveal that bingeing is their way of stuffing down the emotions they feel. Food becomes their only source of comfort and it can help to numb their feelings.
Some women who have experienced sexual violence believe that if they are too thin or too obese, it will make them unattractive. Some believe that by not eating they can just fade away and die. Others have expressed a need to be in control in the areas of food. Purging is a way for some to release their emotions. If they believe they cannot tell anyone about the rape/sexual assault and express the emotions they are experiencing, purging may be the only way they know how to get those feelings out. Many women feel relief and calm after purging.
If the woman you are supporting is a close friend, family member or partner, you may feel helpless as she tries to cope with what has happened to her, but you are not. You can play an active part in her healing by giving her the space to deal with what has happened, in her own time.
The Rape Crisis Centre can offer support to you by telephone, letter or email, or in person.
If your daughter has been raped, sexually assaulted or sexually abused
Finding out that your daughter has been raped or sexually assaulted may be one of the most distressing events in your life. You may experience some of the same emotions as your daughter: you may be in shock after finding out about the rape, you may experience anger and rage, you may try to deny that it happened or be confused – and this may last for many days or even weeks.
You may feel that you want justice for what has happened to your daughter but if she does not want to contact the police or tell anyone about the rape, you should respect her decision.
On the other hand, you may not want to speak about the rape; you may feel that she should put it out of her mind and try to ‘get over it’. This may be the case if her attacker was known to her or to the rest of your family. But if she feels that she wants to report the assault to the police she should be supported through this process.
Support is available for you at this time, but it’s important that the time is right for you. You may be under pressure from others who feel you ‘need’ some support or counselling. If and when the time is right for you to seek support, you can call the Rape Crisis Centre and we will offer you either telephone support or a face-to-face appointment. This part of our service is available to men, and all our services are free and confidential.
If your daughter is going to court, we can also offer support through this process and information on what it will entail.
If your partner has been raped
If your partner has survived a recent rape she may still be in one of the immediate phases – minimising the effect of the attack, shock, anger.
She may be telling you everything is fine, not to worry, it’s not a problem. This is her way of coping and it would not be helpful to her to be forced to talk, though you may feel that you need to talk about it. It may be more helpful if you just reassure her that you are there if she needs to talk to anyone and find someone you trust to help support you through this time.
You might be angry with yourself; you might feel that you should have been there to protect her, that you should be able to ‘fix’ it. We all need to find an explanation, to make sense of why something has happened, to find someone or something to blame. It’s important at this time for you to accept that you are not to blame for this act, and that your partner is not to blame. Talking through some of these issues may help. You can access support for yourself at the Rape Crisis Centre, even if your partner is not getting support from us.
It’s also important to remember that there is not a timeframe within which your partner will be ‘cured’. Often people will say ‘It’s been six months; she should have gotten over it by now.’ We all respond, heal or deal with trauma at different rates and in different ways.
She may begin to feel that the world is not a safe place and may not want to go out on her own, or be at home on her own. Helping her to feel safe may help – speaking to your local community safety police officer about home safety, or finding information about personal safety from organisations such as ‘Wise Women’3may help to boost her confidence.
Your partner may have trouble with trust and intimacy or the sexual side of your relationship may be difficult for her. It can be difficult to know when to resume sexual relations, but it’s important to be open and honest about how you feeling and to ask how your partner feels. She will need to go at her own pace and rebuild the trust you have previously shared.
Be aware that she might experience flashbacks during sex; there may be a movement or word that will trigger this. It may be useful to agree beforehand that if she says stop you will do so immediately and move away from her, to give her time to gain control and feel safe again. This may help her to be reassured that she can trust again.
This may be a long process and it may be helpful to do things you used to do together before the assault – go to the cinema or go out for a meal and talk about a book you’ve read, the children, the film. Also give yourself permission to talk about it to each other when you need to.
If your partner was raped before your met her, you may think that it has nothing to do with you or that she should be over it by now. However, if she was raped by someone she knew and trusted this may have an effect on the development of your relationship.
As the relationship develops you may want to progress to the next phase but your partner may be wary, and afraid that you will betray her. If she was raped by an ex-partner this may compound her concerns about trusting someone new.
Some ways you can help…
- Listen to her if she wants to talk. You don’t need to know every detail of the rape – and she may not want to tell you, but you can be there to talk about how she feels right now
- Do not force her to speak if she is not ready.
- Be consistent. If you are offering your support then be available.
- Make sure you have some support for yourself. You don’t have to carry it all on your own.
- You may feel angry or rage against the rapist, but do not use that anger against your partner. Try to channel it through exercise or sports.
- Respect her privacy. If she doesn’t want her story shared with anyone else, she has a right to confidentiality. You might want her to keep the rape a secret for your own reasons but may only serve to reinforce the shame and humiliation she already feels.
Going to court
If your friend, family member or partner’s case gets to court you can get some advice from Rape Crisis about the process. You and the woman you are supporting will also have the opportunity to discuss this with Witness Services and perhaps pay a visit to the court beforehand.
When the woman you are supporting is giving her evidence you should be prepared for a direct assault on her character. The defence will use any means they can to discredit the woman as a witness – for instance if the rape happened at a party and the woman had been out late/drinking/wearing revealing clothing, this will almost certainly be brought up by the defence.
If forensic evidence shows that a sexual act has taken place (this will not necessarily be the case for a sexual assault) the perpetrator will have no option but to argue that this took place with the consent of the woman. Even if she has cuts or bruising consistent with a physical assault, he may allege that she wanted ‘rough sex’.
Going to court can be a very traumatic experience but your partner, friend or family member can get support through the process from a Rape Crisis support worker and you can also access support from us at this time.
We also have an information booklet that explains the court process and this may be of help to you both.
Care for the Carer
If you are supporting a woman who is surviving rape or sexual assault it can be easy to forget that you need to look after yourself.
Don’t forget to:
- Be gentle with yourself
- Remember that you are not a magician – you are human and you are a carer
- Find a quiet spot and use it when you need to
- Give support and encouragement but also learn to accept it yourself
- We are all likely to feel helpless at times, but caring and being there is important in itself
- Try to focus on the good things that have occurred during the day
- Give as much time to yourself as you do to others – you are important too
- Laugh and enjoy yourself