Coping With the Aftermath of Rape
Terry couldn’t believe it had happened. It didn’t seem real. She trembled as she sat in the waiting room of the rape trauma center. The previous night, she had been raped in her apartment by a man she had considered a friend. Like many other survivors of rape, Terry faced many decisions in the hours, days, and months following the rape.
Rape: One of Many Types of Sexual Assault
Rape involves unwanted and forced penetration or intercourse. It is only one of many types of sexual assault. According to the National Women’s Health Information Center, sexual assault is any type of sexual activity that you do not want or agree to, ranging from inappropriate touching to penetration or intercourse. It includes:
- Attempted rape
- Child molestation
- Sexual harassment
Sexual assault can happen in a number of different situations, such as date rape, domestic or intimate partner violence, or violence by a stranger.
If You Have Been Raped
Seeking Medical Attention
The very first thing you should do is get away from your attacker and get to a safe place. Then, call a trusted family member or friend, or a rape hotline to talk to a counselor. Do not feel ashamed or guilty.
- Take a shower
- Clean any part of your body
- Use a comb
- Change your clothes
- Touch or change anything at the scene of the assault
Next, you should go to the hospital emergency room to be checked. Many hospitals treat rape survivors without payment up front, even if they have no health insurance. You will be checked and treated for injuries, including internal injuries, as well as pregnancy (if you are of childbearing age) and sexually transmitted diseases. This will likely involve blood tests and a pelvic exam and swab. During the exam, evidence will also be collected that may help identify the rapist, such as hairs, semen, saliva, clothing, and fibers. It may take a few weeks for test results to come back.
Deciding Whether or Not to Report the Rape
You need to decide for yourself whether or not you will report the rape. This is based on your own circumstances and whether or not you want to go through with it.
Reasons to Report the Crime
You may choose to report the rape for reasons such as to see that the rapist is punished and to protect others. Reporting the rape may also help you to feel more powerful and ease feelings of being a helpless victim.
Another reason you may choose to report the rape is that it makes you eligible for Crime Victim’s Compensation benefits. These benefits can cover medical costs and financial losses resulting from the rape. It may even cover long-term psychotherapy. Your state's Crime Victims Board, the police, or a rape crisis counseling program can give you information on how to apply for this compensation.
Reasons You May Not Want to Report the Crime
You may choose not to report the crime for a number of reasons. Perhaps you or someone you know was treated badly by the police in the past. The rapist may have threatened to harm you or a loved one if you report the crime. Or, you may simply not want to go through the long, painful process of pressing charges.
Dealing With the Psychological Effects
Rape is a very traumatic event that can have a huge effect on your life. It’s common to feel confused, fearful, guilty, numb, hostile, or tearful. You may feel like withdrawing from others socially. You may have difficulty concentrating, making decisions, and sleeping. It may be difficult for you to talk about what happened.
The first few months after the rape is known as the reconstitution phase . During this time, you may experience the following behaviors and symptoms:
Doing in self-protective behaviors such as:
- Changing your telephone number
- Moving to a new residence
- Having nightmares, particularly about the rape
Developing phobias (usually immediately following the rape) such as:
- Fear of being indoors or outdoors (depending on where the rape took place)
- Fear of being alone
- Fear of crowds
- Fear of being followed
- Sexual fears
Some women are not able to fully recover from the emotional impact of a rape. Many develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent nightmares, flashbacks of the rape, social withdrawal, anxiety, depression , and emotional numbness. PTSD can be treated with psychotherapy and antidepressant medications.
After rape, a large percentage of women have difficulty with their spouses or partners. If they are unattached, they may be very afraid to date.
Recovering emotionally from rape can be a long and difficult process. Be patient with yourself. Each person has a different way of coping and healing. Some women want to carry on with their routine. Others find it helpful to take time off from work and other responsibilities. Here are some things you can do to help yourself heal:
Seek Support From Family and Friends
Seek support from people who can offer comfort without blame or control. It’s good to have a mix of people who can support you in various ways. For example, some people are better than others at dealing with intense emotions. Others may be good at the more practical things, like watching your kids while you go to a medical appointment.
A rape crisis center or hotline counselor can be a good source of emotional support. This type of counselor can provide you with information and can serve as an advocate to help you obtain services.
You may also want to see a mental health counselor, social worker, or psychologist, particularly if it’s taking longer than expected for you to get through the recovery process. Sometimes rape can bring up feelings and memories from past trauma (such as sexual abuse), or conflicts about self-worth, trust, control, and sexuality.
Try a Support Group
Most communities have support groups for victims of sexual assault. These groups help break down the isolation, secrecy, and shame felt by many victims. Members of the group are at different stages of healing. They share their experiences, coping strategies, and progress.
Recovery from rape can be a slow process. You may find that the rape has permanently changed your life in some ways. As you go through the stages of recovery, you will find that, in time, you think less and less about the rape. It will no longer dominate your emotions. As you set goals and achieve them, your life will eventually move forward.
The National Women's Health Information Center
The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN)
Mental Health Canada
Women's Health Matter
Butcher JN, Carson RC, Mineka S. Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life. 11th ed. Allyn and Bacon; 2000.
American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://www.aafp.org/online/en/home.html.
National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine website. Available at: http://www.iom.edu/ .
What to do after a rape or sexual assualt. National Women’s Health information Center website. Available at: http://pathwayscourses.samhsa.gov/vawc/vawc_fs_08.htm. Updated November 2003. Accessed June 16, 2008.
Last reviewed May 2008 by Ryan Estévez, MD, PhD, MPH
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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