Sex and the Sun: Healing after sexual assault can take years

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Sexual assault is devastating, as women’s rights advocates and health professionals have shown.

Young healthy women, however, are not the only rape victims. Elderly and people with disabilities are just as likely to experience sexual trauma and are considered vulnerable, easy targets by predators.

Research shows that one in four women will be assaulted in their lifetime. That number more than doubles for women with disabilities and is 33 percent more likely for a male with a disability.

A person who has been assaulted may become more sensitive to their surroundings, fear loud noises, question their instincts, lack self-esteem and doubt their own self-worth. Some become hypersexualized, creating a false sense of control by having indiscriminate sex, others self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Many withdraw entirely, refusing human contact and pushing others away emotionally and physically, out of fear and self-protection.

Anger, anxiety, humiliation and depression can lead to emotional isolation, though the chances of discussing the real problem lie only with the survivor’s ability to trust another person with their feelings and talk about their experience.

Men in most cultures are discouraged from showing emotion or expressing their fears and pain. This can be compounded even further if a boy (or a man) is sexually assaulted. Bottling up these fears with fragile cork-like coping mechanisms can recapitulate the anxieties and reinforce the need to be more “manly” and hide emotions that make them feel weak or inferior.

Rape is not sex. Nor is it intimate. Some say rape is worse than murder, because the victim survives and has to live with it for the rest of their lives.

Though there are many types of rape, they are almost always about power. Regardless of why or how it happened, it is never the victims’ fault. Rape is an act of violence that can cause severe emotional and physical pain.

Survivors must struggle to reclaim their body, and the act can be a powerful, cleansing rebirth of the self. Whether through piercings, tattoos, yoga or self-defense classes, there are a number of ways to reclaim the body after assault, though not all of them are positive. Alcohol abuse, drugs, self-cutting and indiscriminate sex can keep a victim suspended in that painful event without even realizing it. They prevent victims from facing their experience and starting the healing process.

It does not have to take years of therapy to push through that haze of fear. Recovery starts with just talking. Find someone trustworthy and start talking. It won’t be easy, but it helps. Friends or family members may or may not relate to your situation, but sharing can be very liberating. Hiding what they’ve been through can be more painful for the victim than the rape itself. Simply stating “I just need you to listen” can be the first step in evolving from “victim” to “survivor.” It is the first step to empowerment.

People in a relationship with a rape survivor can feel helpless, powerless, angry and frustrated. Partners are also susceptible to withdrawing. They may fearing making things worse though they want nothing more than to make it go away. Open communication is crucial. Partners should know that their support and patience can be a catalyst for a survivor to reclaim their bodies and minds. It may feel like a betrayal or a weakness wanting to talk to someone outside of the relationship, but partners need support as well and can

better be there for support if they are able to understand and cope with their own feelings.

Fear and desire may seem like two separate entities, but there is a link between the two that runs deeper than emotion. For a person who has survived sexual assault who has not yet come to realize the strength in their survival, these two wildly conflicting feelings can deepen the chasm connecting them to the rest of the world. This can take a toll on both the survivor, their friends or partners.

Survivors need to pick up the phone, text, talk, e-mail or make an appointment to talk to someone. Choosing to be a survivor is the first step. The Southwestern College Women’s Center offers well-trained male and female counselors who are standing by to help men or women. No one has to survive rape alone.

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