Sexual assault affects hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. While sexual assault survivors know that their attackers may not even remember the night or morning or afternoon in question, the effects of that minute or hour or those years can linger in a survivor. Maybe even for their entire life.
Warning: This article contains information about sexual assault, which some may find triggering.
While we know that survivors experience post-traumatic stress disorder immediately after — 94 percent of women who are raped experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within the two weeks following the rape, according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) — what happens to women who experience sexual assault in the long-term?
“I want to emphasize that experiencing traumatic events is not rare. And sexual assault is certainly among traumatic events,” Dr. Loretta Brady, a licensed psychologist who teaches at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, tells Bustle. “The preponderance of people who do experience traumatic events do recover from those events. So while these are traumatic occurrences and there are certainly impacts, not all those impacts are permanent. Not all those impacts are negative. And not everyone experiences all of those impacts.”
A recent study from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh looked at exactly this issue: Does sexual assault lead to long-term psychological and physical effects in women? Their study group included 304 women between the ages of 40 and 60. Of that cohort, 19 percent reported having experienced sexual harassment, 22 percent reported having experienced sexual assault, and 10 percent reported experiencing both.
The researchers found that the women who experienced sexual assault were three times more likely to have clinical depression and two times as likely to have anxiety than women who had not experienced sexual assault. And while the study showed correlation, not causation, those numbers are hard to ignore.
Arielle Egozi is a social media influencer who has been open about her experience with sexual assault, trauma, and recovery on social media and interviews. One of the major long-term effects she has experienced is dissociation, which is when a person feels like they’re outside of their own body. Egozi describes it as “hovering a foot or two above or behind myself at all times.”
“When I’m under a little more stress than usual, it gets more severe,” Egozi tells Bustle. “I’ll be speaking and unsure of what I’m saying. My vision narrows and I have a difficult time focusing or seeing. I begin to worry I will just freeze or black out. And all this is happening as I’m presenting in a meeting, or when I’m giving a recorded interview, or speaking on a panel in front of dozens of people. It’s a horrible thing to have to carry through big moments in my career. I am always nervous that this will be the thing that breaks it.”
Egozi has also had long-term physical effects, particularly when it comes to sex. “I haven’t had pain-free penetrative sex in so long,” Egozi says. “I lost feeling for a while, lost all my desire. I was in a monogamous relationship with a man for a few years and he wasn’t able to enter me. My entire body would tense up at the idea of sex, he would kiss me and my heart would be racing and my mind wouldn’t shut up and every single time — every single time — I had an orgasm, I would end up weeping.”
Dr. Brady says that type of reaction is common in sexual assault survivors. She explains that perception and sensation are closely linked through our limbic system, which means that when we feel bad, our physical responses to painful or irritating sensations go up. And when we feel calm and good, those painful or irritating sensations go down, while pleasure goes up. Sexual assault survivors, she says, often get those signals mixed when they try to have sex with someone that they actually want to have sex with.
“That’s why sexual assault survivors will often find it challenging as they try to be intimate with someone that they wish to be intimate with,” Dr. Brady says. “They may find it confusing as to why their body isn’t responding in the way they want it to emotionally respond. And oftentimes it’s because their physiological reaction is still connected to that traumatic event and hasn’t been made sense of by the body’s physical system or between their emotional state, psychological state, and physiological state.”
But just because there are potential long-term physical and psychological effects of sexual assault, it doesn’t mean all survivors are necessarily doomed to live in their trauma forever.
“Traumatic events are often experienced both psychologically as well as physiologically,” Dr. Brady says. “But I want any survivor reading this to appreciate that the event that occurred to them is not a death sentence. It’s not a life sentence. It’s something that through care and concern and professional support, you can grow despite the fact that it’s occurred.
“And for those who continue to have symptoms, there’s nothing wrong with them,” Dr. Brady says. “They went through a traumatic experience and there’s a lot of hope to be had. People can recover and have very full, meaningful lives despite traumatic events they may have survived.”
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.