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Sexual Abuse and Assault Back to Course Index

 

 

 

In the U.S., someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes.   It is estimated that one in five girls and one in twenty boys will be a victim of sexual abuse in their lifetimes.  Sexual violence happens in every community and affects people of all genders and ages. 

These assaults leave behind a lifetime of psychological damage.

Sexual abuse is unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims not who do not give consent.

Sexual assault is used to describe a range of criminal acts.

Most victims and perpetrators know each other, but not all. Immediate reactions to sexual abuse include shock, fear, or disbelief. Long-term symptoms include anxiety, fear, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sexual violence can include words and actions of a sexual nature.

Forms of sexual violence include:

  • Rape or sexual assault (actual or attempted unwanted vaginal, oral, or anal penetration by an object or body part.)
  • Child sexual assault and incest
  • Sexual assault by a person’s spouse or partner
  • Unwanted sexual contact/touching
  • Sexual harassment
  • Sexual exploitation and trafficking
  • Exposing one’s genitals or a naked body to other(s) without consent
  • Masturbating in public
  • Watching someone engage in private acts without their knowledge or permission
  • Nonconsensual image sharing
  • Forcing or manipulating you into doing unwanted, painful, or degrading acts during intercourse
  • Taking advantage of someone while they are drunk or otherwise not likely to give consent
  • Denying contraception or protection against sexually transmitted diseases
  • Taking any kind of sexual pictures or film without consent or of someone not able to consent
  • Forcing someone to perform sexual acts on film or in person for money.
  • Threatening to break up if sex is refused

We have societal and social norms that condone violence, and the use of power over overs, and contribute to the silence surrounding sexual assault and violence.  Sexual violence is preventable through collaborations of community members at multiple levels of society—in the home, neighborhoods, schools, faith settings, workplaces, and in treatment settings. We all play a role in preventing sexual violence and establishing norms of respect, safety, equality, and helping others.

 

 

IMPORTANT TERMS TO UNDERSTAND

Many terms are used interchangeably, and some overlap, but the term sexual abuse is primarily used to describe behavior toward children, rather than adults.   Sexual assault covers all the criminal acts that are sexual.

We speak of consent, what does this mean?  Consent must be freely given and informed, and a person can change their mind at any time.

Consent is more than yes or no. It is a dialogue about desires, needs, and levels of comfort with different sexual interactions.  It can be confusing on both sides, so the education that needs to go out is unless an individual is sure someone is consenting, then they are not.

Inability to consent means that the freely given agreement to have sexual intercourse or sexual contact could not occur because of the victim’s age, illness, mental or physical disability, being asleep or unconscious, or being too intoxicated (e.g., incapacitation, lack of consciousness, or lack of awareness) through their voluntary or involuntary use of alcohol or drugs.  In the United States, the age at which consent can be given ranges from 16 to 18 years.

Inability to refuse means that because of the use or possession of guns or other non-bodily weapons, or due to physical violence, threats of physical violence, intimidation or pressure, or misuse of authority, someone could not refuse the sexual assault.

Sexual assault means any nonconsensual sexual act when the victim cannot consent.

Unwanted sexual contact is the intentional touching, either directly or through the clothing, of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person without his or her consent, or of a person who is unable to consent or refuse. Unwanted sexual contact can be perpetrated against a victim or by making a victim touch the perpetrator.

Rape is a crime of violence and domination in which one person forces, coerces, or manipulates another person to have sex.

Date rape is forced or coerced sex within a dating relationship.

Acquaintance rape is committed by someone known to the victim.

Stranger rape refers to instances where the victim may not know the perpetrator.

Statutory rape is sexual intercourse between a person who is under the mandatory age, with or without said consent. Many states have close age exemption laws.  This is a law allowing a young person below the age of consent to have lawful sex with an older partner. However, not every jurisdiction has a close age exemption, and they vary by area.

Penetration involves physical insertion, however slight, of the penis into the vulva; contact between the mouth and the penis, vulva, or anus; or physical insertion of a hand, finger, or other objects into the anal or genital opening of another person.

 

PREVALENCE

Sexual violence can happen to anyone, men, women, and children of all ages, races, gender, sexual identity, religion, and economic classes. Sexual assault victims often feel isolated or ashamed and often do not report an attack. 

 

People who sexually abuse usually target someone they know.   Ninety percent of victims know the person who sexually assaulted them.  Nearly 75 percent of adolescents were victimized by someone they knew well.  One-fifth of those were family members.

 

  • 1 in 6 men will experience sexual assault in their lifetime; sexual assault on men is thought to be greatly unreported.
  • 1 in 3 transgender and gender non-conforming people experience sexual violence.
  • 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys will be sexually assaulted by the time they are 18.
  • Rape or attempted rape occurs every 5 minutes in the United States.

 

Even with these numbers, many sexual assaults go unreported.  Despite efforts to reduce the barriers to reporting, training medical practitioners, counselors, and schools and watch for signs and teaching them how to ask about this issue, many do not feel able to report, and many times they aren’t sure if it was their fault or if it meets the bar of sexual assault.

 

TACTICS

 

The following are tactics used to perpetrate sexual violence (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Use or threat of physical force toward a victim to gain the victim’s compliance with a sexual act (e.g., pinning the victim down, assaulting the victim)
  • Administering alcohol or drugs to a victim to gain the victim’s compliance with a sexual act (e.g., drink spiking)
  • Taking advantage of a victim who is unable to provide consent due to intoxication or incapacitation from voluntary consumption of alcohol, recreational drugs, or medication
  • The exploitation of vulnerability (e.g., immigration status, disability, undisclosed sexual orientation, age)
  • Intimidation
  • Misuse of authority (e.g., using one’s position of power to coerce or force a person to engage in sexual activity)
  • Economic coercion, such as barterings of sex for basic goods, like housing, employment/wages, immigration papers, or childcare
  • Degradation, such as insulting or humiliating a victim
  • Fraud, such as lies or misrepresentation of the perpetrator’s identity
  • Continual verbal pressure, such as when the victim is being worn down by someone who repeatedly asks for sex or, for example, by someone who complains that the victim doesn’t love them enough
  • False promises by the perpetrator (e.g., promising marriage, promising to stay in the relationship, etc.) • Nonphysical threats such as threats to end a relationship or spread rumors.
  • Grooming and other tactics to gain a child’s trust
  • Control of a person’s sexual behavior/sexuality through threats, reprisals, threats to transmit STDs, threats to force pregnancy, etc.

Date rape drugs or the use of alcohol are quite commonly used in sexual assault.  Alcohol is the number one drug used in sexual assaults, and on college campuses, alcohol is a factor in 90 percent of rapes. 

Many people use the phrase “date rape.” But the person who commits the crime might not be in a relationship, or on a date, with the victim. Date rape drugs can be put into a drink without the individual knowing. Drugs or alcohol can make a person confused about what is happening, less able to defend themselves against unwanted sexual contact, or unable to remember what happened. 

Many types of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, or prescription or over-the-counter drugs like antidepressants, tranquilizers, or sleeping aids, can be used to overpower a victim or make them not remember an assault.

Other date rape drugs include:

  • flunitrazepam (Rohypnol)
  • gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB)
  • gamma-butyrolactone (GBL)
  • ketamine 

These drugs are sometimes called “club drugs” because they are often used at dance clubs, concerts, bars, or parties. Most drugs, including club drugs, have nicknames that change over time or are different in different areas of the country.

 

 

HUMAN SEX TRAFFICKING

Sex trafficking is a type of human trafficking and is a form of modern-day slavery.  It is a serious public health problem that negatively affects the well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Human trafficking occurs when a trafficker exploits an individual with force, fraud, or coercion to make them perform commercial sex or work.  Sex trafficking is defined by the amended Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for a commercial sex act.” It involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to make an adult engage in commercial sex acts, but any commercial sexual activity with a minor, even without force, fraud, or coercion, is considered trafficking.  This type of violence exploits women, men, and children across the United States and around the world. 

Sex trafficking affects 4.5 million people worldwide. Most victims find themselves in coercive or abusive situations from which escape is both difficult and dangerous.

Keep in mind that many victims do not self-identify as “human trafficking victims” due to a lack of knowledge about the crime itself and the power and control dynamics typically involved in human trafficking situations.

Sex trafficking is preventable. Understanding the shared risk and protective factors for violence can help us prevent trafficking from happening in the first place.

 

 

IMPACT

The impact of sexual violence extends beyond the individual survivor and reaches their family, friends, and the entire community.

Each survivor reacts to sexual violence in their way. Common emotional reactions include guilt, shame, fear, numbness, shock, and feelings of isolation.

Physical impacts may include personal injuries, concerns about pregnancy, or risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. The economic impacts of sexual violence include medical and other expenses in addition to things like time off work. The long-term psychological effects survivors may face if their trauma is left untreated include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, isolation, and others.

It’s normal for survivors to have feelings of sadness, unhappiness, and hopelessness. Many survivors will experience flashbacks.  A flashback is when memories of a past trauma feel as if they are taking place in the current moment. That means it’s possible to feel like the experience of sexual violence is happening all over again. During a flashback, it can be difficult to connect with reality. It may even feel like the perpetrator is physically present.

Flashbacks can seem random at first. They can be triggered by ordinary experiences connected with the senses, like the smell of someone’s odor or a particular tone of voice. It’s a normal response to this kind of trauma.  Treatment can help manage the stress of a flashback.

Family Members and Friends
Sexual violence can affect parents, friends, partners, children, spouses, and/or coworkers of the survivor. As they try to make sense of what happened, loved ones may experience similar reactions and feelings to those of the survivor such as fear, guilt, self-blame, and anger.

Communities
Schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, campuses, and cultural or religious communities may feel fear, anger, or disbelief when sexual assault happens in their community. Violence of all kinds destroys a sense of safety and trust.  There are financial costs to communities, including medical services, criminal justice expenses, crisis, and mental health service fees, and the lost contributions of individuals affected by sexual violence.

Society
The contributions and achievements that may never come as a result of sexual violence represent a cost to society that cannot be measured. Sexual violence weakens the basic pillars of safety and trust that people long to feel in their communities because it creates an environment of fear and oppression.

Sexual assault is traumatic. Similar to other traumatic experiences, it is normal for a person to experience trauma-reaction symptoms in the weeks following an assault. 94% of women who are raped experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in the two weeks following the assault. This is normal. It is a reaction to the fear, feeling of loss of control, and vulnerability that one experiences following any unexpected and shocking event (i.e., what is called trauma). These symptoms generally include:

  • Intrusive re-experiencing (through memories or reminders) of the assault
  • Avoidance of trauma-related stimuli or reminders
  • Alterations in thoughts and mood (negative thinking and depressed, anxious, or angry mood)
  • Increased arousal and reactivity (anxiety, hypervigilance, irritability, easily startled)

Avoidance is known to be the most significant factor that creates, prolongs, and intensifies trauma-reaction or distressful symptoms.  It is highly suggested that treatment with a mental health professional begins sooner rather than later. From a clinical perspective, the amount of suffering and distress is substantially reduced when a person seeks treatment earlier on. Common maladaptive reactions that are more likely to be prevented with early treatment include increased use of illicit substances, suicidal ideation, and difficulty functioning at work, school, and at home.

Research has found:

  • 3% of women who are raped contemplate suicide.
  • 13% of women who are raped attempt suicide.
  • 3.4 times more likely to use marijuana than the general public.
  • Six times more likely to use cocaine than the general public.
  • Ten times more likely to use other major drugs than the general public.
  • 38% of victims of sexual violence experience work or school problems.
  • 37% experience family/friend problems, including getting into arguments more frequently than before, not feeling able to trust their family/friends, or not feeling as close to them as before the crime.

 

 

TREATMENT MODALITIES

While efforts to treat sex offenders remain unpromising, psychological interventions for survivors, especially group therapy, appear effective.

Therapy models that focus on helping victims recover from trauma can be categorized into three frameworks:

The cognitive-behavioral model assumes that a person is both the producer and product of her environment; therefore, treatment is aimed at changing a person’s behaviors within her environment. The model incorporates cognitive, behavioral, and social learning theory components.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy focuses on several aspects, such as the expression of emotions, exploration of avoidance of distressing emotions, examining past experiences, identification of defense mechanisms, and working through interpersonal relationships. An important part of psychodynamic psychotherapy is bringing the person’s conflict and psychic tensions from the unconscious into the conscious of encouraging healthier functioning.

Supportive psychotherapy or supportive counseling may be provided in individual or group settings and allows an individual to share her traumatic experience and the symptoms that resulted from the event. Supportive approaches aim to normalize the experience, instill hope, increase interpersonal learning, and decrease an individual’s sense of isolation.

The cognitive-behavioral trauma-focused therapy models noted above are found to be very effective.   We will explore these further. These include Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Prolonged-Exposure Therapy (P.E.), and Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR). Each of these treatments looks different in practice but helps the individual to work through the traumatic experience(s) and move forward in their life.

Benefits of trauma-focused therapy include:

  • Help calm and soothe the client
  • Increase awareness of, and access to, inner strengths and outside resources
  • Process specific memories, through carefully guided talk and/or writing
  • Supports the reconnection with non-dangerous activities that have been avoided since the traumatic event(s)
  • Challenge trauma-based thinking, so that there is a restoration of a healthy mental framework for living
  • Make meaning of what happened and how it has affected the client and their family
  • Reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Increase personal sense of confidence and competence
  • Regain your quality of life, including enhanced relationships with others, greater activity level, and a more positive and stable mood
  • Reduce, if not eliminate, trauma-reaction symptoms/symptoms of PTSD

 

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
CPT is a cognitive-behavioral treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). CPT was developed in the late 1980s and is effective in reducing PTSD symptoms related to a variety of traumatic events, including sexual abuse and assault. CPT is endorsed by the U.S. Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense, as well as the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies, as a best practice for the treatment of PTSD.

CPT is based on the social cognitive theory and the information processing theory of PTSD. The social cognitive theory focuses on how the traumatic event is constructed and handled by a person who is trying to regain a sense of mastery and control in their lives while addressing the impact that distorted cognitions have on emotional responses and behavior. The overall goal of CPT is to restructure unbalanced thoughts directly related to the trauma. The therapy sessions focus on distorted beliefs (such as denial and self-blame), as well as over-generalized beliefs about oneself and the world. Clients are also exposed to their traumatic experience through writing detailed accounts of the incident, which they read aloud to their therapists. Therapists encourage clients to experience emotions while writing and reading the account to better determine areas of conflicting beliefs, logic, or assumptions that the client has about the trauma.

 

Prolonged-Exposure Therapy (P.E.)
Prolonged-Exposure Therapy involves having patients repeatedly tell their difficult stories, and then visit safe places that remind them of the trauma or take part in safe activities they’d avoided because of painful reminders.

Gradually the contact with cues or situations that trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and voluntary recall of traumatic event details is increased.

The treatment usually consists of up to 14 weekly sessions delivered by master’ s-level counselors who are specifically trained in P.E.

Prolonged exposure is significantly more effective than supportive counseling both immediately after treatment and at 12 months in adults but has not been studied as well in adolescents.

 

Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is a treatment that uses eye movements, sounds, or pulsations to stimulate the brain. Using these sensory experiences in conjunction with focusing on a traumatic memory can create changes in the brain that help a client overcome symptoms of depression, anger, and anxiety, among other conditions. Researchers cannot say with certainty why EMDR works in helping patients resolve trauma, but it has proven to be very successful. 

Unlike prolonged exposure therapy (PET), EMDR does not necessarily require the client to relate his or her trauma aloud or cover it in any particular sequence. The therapist just follows the client along his or her journey through memory while periodically asking what he or she is noticing. When each new stage of the memory is reached, the therapist “installs” the memory with eye movements or tapping. Essentially, an EMDR session allows a client to mentally visit a disturbing memory in brief doses while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus. Not only does EMDR help clients create new associations with traumatic memories, but it also helps reduce sensitivity to external events that can trigger those memories while allowing them to learn to exercise control over the future.  EMDR is also performed by masters-level counselors who have undergone specific training in EMDR.

 

 

EVALUATING TREATMENT

Recovery is not a linear process.  Conventional methods of evaluation, although helpful, such as pre or post-testing and survivor surveys, are not well suited to capture the highly unique process of sexual assault recovery.  Frequently, survivors function more poorly as they go through treatment due to the multitude of factors that influence true treatment progress.  INSERT

Healing includes the client feeling safe, strong, and happy, with a sense of acceptance.  This will look like the client reporting that they are no longer thinking about the assault or abuse as frequently, they will report enjoying life, pursuing goals, being present, and being able to talk about their feelings without being overwhelmed by them.

 

Sexual assault can take many different forms, but one thing remains the same: it’s never the victim’s fault.

 

The test will focus on the information above.  The following are excerpts from stories that are part of the RAINN Survivor Series working to combat sexual violence.  The names have been changed.

 

John had always enjoyed spending time with his uncle and would often look forward to sleepovers when they could have extended time together. On one of these occasions when he was 14, their normal activities turned abusive. He was confused by his uncle’s actions; nothing like this had happened before.

For the next four years, John continued to struggle, both with the physical abuse and the emotional pain it brought him. “I took steps to prevent the pain, but a part of me thought that was how he loved me.”

The abuse had serious effects on John’s life, including weight gain, an inability to maintain relationships, and suicidal thoughts.

John also recalls questioning his sexuality after the assaults. Many male survivors experience this uncertainty and doubt after sexual violence, especially if they experienced an erection or ejaculation during the assault. Physiological responses like an erection are involuntary, meaning the survivor has no control over them. These physical signs are not an invitation for unwanted sexual activity and in no way condone an assault.

John did not report the assault or tell anyone from his family. He feared that he wouldn’t be believed and that the truth would destroy his family. “I think there’s a stigma attached to it that, ‘Oh, you’re a man, you should have been able to fend him off.'”

Years later, John finally opened up to his girlfriend, who encouraged him to talk to his parents. “The ironic thing was that I opened up to my parents; they supported me unconditionally and distanced themselves from him.”

 

 

 

It was the sixth week of Linda’s freshman year, and she was dancing at a college party. She eventually went back to the dorm room of an athlete. “I remember knowing in my head, somehow, you had to scream “no” or yell “stop” at least three times. And because I didn’t do that, I thought, well, I can’t say this is sexual assault,” said Linda.

“He was a student-athlete, so I never officially reported it. And I knew if I did that, it would just be an uphill fight.”

Linda grew up in a family that centered around Big 10 sports, and she chose to go to her father’s alma mater. “Having been raised a sports fan, I heard plenty of stories where ‘athletes at the peak of their careers were being ‘accused’ of rape, and then I saw the victims trashed in the press. I did not want that to be me.”

Still, Linda took steps to receive medical care after the assault, such as getting tested for STIs at the university health clinic. She had a negative experience with the examining physician that ultimately contributed to her sense of shame and fear of not being believed. “Society told me this wasn’t a big deal, and it was my fault. And that’s how I felt.”

Linda faced challenges with depression, substance abuse, and anxiety as a result of the assault. She sought counseling and was able to complete her degree, but many years later was still suffering. She lost her voice—a struggle that would be difficult for any survivor but was heartbreaking to a professional singer like Linda. “I knew the therapy to get my [vocal cords working again] was to tell my story… but it wasn’t easy to talk about.”

Through activities like meditation, one-on-one therapy, group healing, and sharing her story with loved ones, Linda found her voice again. As she grew stronger, she realized that her music had the potential to offer hope to other survivors of sexual assault, and she set to work on a new project commissioning works of music that explore her challenges with recovery and the larger, systemic challenges that make it difficult to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence.

More than a decade later, Linda has not given up on achieving justice. “The amount of back-and-forth, waiting for returned phone calls, leaving messages, reading about the law, trying to find information and answers, it was exhausting,” Linda explained. “I 100% sympathize with the feeling that you’re hitting a wall. What keeps me going is knowing that I’m doing this on behalf of so many women out there who do not have justice. I just want to keep telling them, if we don’t keep hitting the wall, the wall won’t come down.”

Today Linda spends her time as a singer, producer, and animal lover. She continues to share her story in hopes that other survivors—especially college students—will have the confidence to believe in themselves and own the trauma they’ve been through. “So many older women I’ve talked to have said they had a similar experience in their college years. We can’t continue to stay numb to this. We just can’t.”

 

 

Diane was just 15 years old when the abuse began. “My father consoled me after the rape. He started brainwashing me with scripture from the Bible—Genesis Chapter 19. It was sick, and it continued off and on for 21 years.”

“There was so much brainwashing to the point where I didn’t even love myself.”

A perpetrator who engages with a child in this way is committing a crime that can have lasting effects on the victim for years. For Diane, one of these effects was dealing with substance use. “It made me feel like drugs were the only way out. I was looking for love in all the wrong places.” She has also dealt with feelings of guilt and shame and thoughts of suicide.

It took many years for Diane to come to terms with the abuse. “He made me believe that it was normal, and we were meant to be together.” Once she was on her own, the hard work of healing began. As a way to recover from the experience, Diane wrote down her story. She hopes that sharing her story will help others who may feel alone. “My desire to help others is because I never heard anything on the radio or saw anything on T.V. That would have helped my situation at that time. There are uncountable victims in the grave at the hands of their abusers and can’t speak out.”

 

When Ken was 14 years old, he was abducted, beaten, and raped by a stranger in the woods in his hometown. He reported the assault to the police, and the perpetrator was arrested. Ken testified in front of a grand jury, and the perpetrator was indicted—but the man responsible never stood trial. Before the trial date, the perpetrator was beaten to death by unknown assailants.

The experience haunted Ken, and he remained silent about the assault for the next 35 years. “I was afraid of what people would think. I was ashamed that a man sexually assaulted me…that I didn’t fight hard enough.” Men and boys may experience the same effects of sexual assault as other survivors, and they can experience additional challenges due to social norms about masculinity.

Ken also felt pressure to keep his story a secret to eliminate the possibility that his “protectors,” the unnamed people who murdered the perpetrator, would be arrested. “My brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, teachers, coaches, professors, priests, doctors, and colleagues were unaware. My mother didn’t fully understand what happened, and my daughters knew nothing. No one knew. It was my secret. My choice.”

It took a long time for Ken to open up, but the more he told his story, the easier it became to shed his guilt. “The real healing was achieved when I started to sincerely believe I’m not responsible for what happened to me.”

Today, Ken is vigilant about educating the public on the reality of sexual violence and how it affects men and boys.

“It was time, to be honest with me and to stop keeping this secret from the people closest to me…most importantly, my daughters.” Ken hopes that by sharing his story, he can let other survivors know they are not alone.

 

 

Heather was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance on her college campus during her first year. She didn’t feel comfortable asking for a sexual assault forensic exam because she feared that others would find out and she didn’t want the stigma associated with sexual assault to be part of her identity on campus.

“There were no reporting procedures in place. There was no one to talk to. It was a catholic college, and I was on a scholarship, so I was worried that reporting would affect my reputation. I didn’t want this experience to define me.”

She didn’t want to tell anyone about what happened because she felt ashamed. “I grew up in a conservative Catholic environment and believed that you should not have sex before marriage. I felt terrible that I wasn’t a virgin anymore and was worried about what people would say. On top of all of that, I was dealing with how to talk with people about the fact that I’m gay.”

“Throughout my 20s, it was this secret. Not a day went by that I didn’t think about it—whether I wanted to or not. It was always in the back of my mind; I was never sure if I should tell someone, how and when to tell them, and how they would react. It was constant anxiety and a paralyzing fear of being fully honest. I couldn’t trust anyone and would push friends away as soon as we started to get close.”

Heather is now able to have close friendships and relationships again. “I’m so thankful for the incredible people in my life who are a constant source of motivation, inspiration, and positivity. I’m in a much healthier state physically and emotionally than I’ve ever been.”

The first person Heather told about the assault was a close friend of hers, who was very supportive. She didn’t tell her parents until seven years after the attack and noticed that not being able to be fully honest with them had strained their relationship.

While the response and effects afterward of opening up were unexpected and uncomfortable, Heather continues to rebuild and repair while learning to forgive and understand everyone’s comprehension and healing processes.

For years after the assault and after telling her parents, Heather did not want to use the word “rape” to describe what happened to her. “I would avoid saying it in any context; I just didn’t want to be associated with it. But I wasn’t honest with myself.” When she eventually started to use the word, she felt that being able to label what had happened to her as what it was, was a huge step in her healing. “It loosened my rigid structure around the pain, guilt, and self-blame.”

Heather says that being a member of the LGBTQ community complicated how family and friends treated her after learning of the assault. “I knew from a young age; I was different. I told my parents about being raped before I told them about being gay. That’s how much I didn’t want to talk about my sexuality.” They asked, “Do you think you’re gay because of what happened in college?  

Throughout her healing process, Heather has found therapy, the support of friends, and the National Sexual Assault Hotline to be especially helpful. “Therapy has been wonderful, but there are times when I’m having a really hard moment and need to talk to someone immediately; at those times, it’s been amazing to be able to pick up the phone and call the hotline.”

Heather believes that college campuses must have sexual assault prevention and response education and provide students with materials and resources within the first few weeks of arriving on campus. “When I was in college nearly 20 years ago, the extent sexual assault was talked about was just to tell women not to walk alone at night, but there was no conversation about consent.”

 

 

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