Reactions and adjustments to rape are in many ways similar to those one might experience following other life crisis. They vary greatly depending on such things as the victim's age, maturity, life experience and support system. The nature of the attack itself might also affect the reaction. An attack by a stranger armed with a deadly weapon might cause different adjustment problems, for instance than an attack by a casual acquaintance with whom the victim has had some social contact.
It is also important to realize that any observation of reaction and adjustment to rape are based on a relatively small sample. It has only been recently that victims have been willing to talk about their experience. The following discussion is based on current literature on the subject and on observations of the rape victim advocate project staff. It is essential to understand that there is no way that victims respond and adjust to this crisis. Any one victim might exhibit all or none or any combinations of the system describe. Problems might occur within a week, a year, ten years or never.
Prior to their own rape attack, many rape victims have shared the popular belief that "women ask for it." There is little evidence to support such belief but it can nevertheless cause deep feelings of guilt. It is common for the victim to relive her experience continuously, asking herself how she might have avoided the attack. Likewise, with societal attitudes about sex being compounded, she is likely to feel a sense of contamination unlike anything she would feel if she were a victim of another kind of assault.
Because she doubts herself and feels "unclean," it is easy for her to assume that others feel the same way about her. She may become suspicious in her personal relationships, and avoid social contacts which might have been normal for her previously. When a person has been subjected to another person's will, her sense of her personal power may be seriously threatened. She may lose faith in her own ability to make the right decision and to exert any form of independence, indecisiveness and increased dependence on others are common characteristics following a rape attack.
Other feelings which rape victims commonly experience are hurt, anger and nearly always fear. The hurt stems from the inability to understand what would motivate someone to commit such an attack. It is common for victims to ask, "What did I do that would make him want to do that to me?" Anger about the personal violation is probably the healthiest reaction, because it turns the pain outward instead of inward, but it often takes time for a victim to acknowledge such feelings.
Fear may be most pervasive feeling we have observed; fear about their environment, about their health, about their personal relationships. Stranger-to-stranger crimes probably foster more fear of the environment. It is common for victims of such attacks to be extremely wary on the street, in the car, in their home and nearly any time they are alone. Fears about health are usually related to venereal disease and pregnancy, as rape attacks involving injury are fairly rare.
Rape between people who know each other is especially likely to cause suspicions about personal relationships. In fact, there is some evidence that the better the victim knows the assailant, the greater is the devastation to her personal life. This is because an attack by a friend or acquaintance can cause someone to suspect even those she had previously trusted. Despite the type of attack, it is common for women to fear the response and reaction of family and friends. Will they be believed? Judged? Rejected?
Often the anxiety and confusion caused by a rape attack are exhibited in physical and psychological symptoms. Complaints of stomach aches, headaches, nausea and depression are common. Likewise anxiety, about the sexual nature of the attack can cause symptoms such as vaginal pain, itching or frequent urination. Phobias about the environment are common and may be reflected in the victim's moving frequently, refusing to be alone, or unable to sleep. Her fears that others are judging her may be cause to avoid groups or being in public. Her association of sexuality with violence may lead her to avoid physical contact or to experience considerable anxiety when such contact occurs.
Most victims of rape adjust to their experience in phases. Patterns of this adjustment vary greatly and it is important to state again that there is no one appropriate way to readjust. However, three stages of adjustment have been bserved as occurring frequently following a rape attack as well as other life crisis.
These three stages are:
1. Shock: During this phase the victim may suffer from acute anxiety, fear, and guilt, and observable reactions can vary from hysteria to numbness.
2. Denial: During this stage the victim attempts to "forget the whole thing." She will probably discuss the incident very little, will deny any strong feelings of hurt or anger, and will attempt to return to her daily routine.
3. Integration: Despite attempts to return to "business as usual," many rape victims realize that the attack has played a more important role in their lives than they had realized. Recurring nightmares, uneasiness about the environment and difficulties with personal relationships often continues to plague them. Prolonged effects of the attack may force a woman into a healthy reevaluation of the incident and it's impact on her life.
It appears that one of the first and most important steps in the integration process is for the victim to acknowledge her own feelings of hurt and anger toward her assailant. While these might seem to be very natural and easily expressed feelings, we have found that a very common initial explanation from the victim about why she came forward is "I reported because I think he is very sick and needs psychiatric help." Girls and women who are subjected to this kind of attack often find it inappropriate to feel hatred or vindictiveness and may only increase the tension in themselves by trying to deny such feelings.
Likewise once a victim can admit to herself that she feels some guilt about the attack she can begin to examine the source of that guilt. Once she understands that much of it comes from the myths about rape which she herself has accepted, she can feel more secure about how she handled her situation and can stop projecting her own self-doubt onto those around her.
Another important aspect of integration occurs when the victim begins to take positive, pragmatic steps to improve her situation. Medical treatment can ease her fears about her health. Self-defense courses may make her feel more physically secure. Pressing charges against her assailant can be a healthy way for her to see some kind of justice from her situation. Support groups provide an avenue for her to sort out her feelings with others who have similar experiences. Long term mental health therapy is often helpful too.
Many rape victims express an interest in helping others through a similar experience and can resolve some of their own concerns by becoming active in hotline counseling or speaking to groups. Of course a very important factor in readjustment is to take sensible steps to reduce ones vulnerability. This might include securing her home with adequate locks, carrying a whistle when walking alone, refusing to accept rides from strangers, etc.