Sexual assault Counselling

Sexual assault is an act of violence that is against the victim’s will. The victim is forced to submit to genital, oral and/or anal sexual acts and often to other aggression, abuse and degradation. The offender controls the situation by the use of physical force, threats of harm and intimidation. The victim fears he/she is going to be killed or injured.

Sexual assault is sudden, unexpected and unpredictable. The individual is faced with a life-threatening situation that they are unable to resolve effectively. Their usual methods of coping with threats and conducting interpersonal relationships fails them. It is a violation of their physical self and their basic beliefs and assumptions about their environment, about other people and relationships.

The primary emotion expressed by victims are fear. Most victims stated that they felt that they were going to be killed or badly injured.

When an individual is subjected to extreme stress, psychological mechanisms are evoked in an attempt to cope with this stress. If the stress is powerful then the defence mechanisms victims uses, must be equally powerful. Thus the rape victim may experience emotional shock where they have an exaggerated sense of unreality and disassociation.

Women who have reported rape cases to the police, have a number of immediate tasks to perform: the making of a statement, identifying the alleged offender either from photos or with an identikit, repeatedly recalling details of the assault, under-taking a medical examination and so on. Most victims try to remain in control of themselves so that they can adequately perform these tasks.

Unfortunately, the extent of the trauma experienced by these women may go unrecognised by their family/friends or professionals and they may receive less support and treatment. Some victim’s family and friends don’t believe them when they state that they were raped.

Emotional reactions include fear, humiliation, anger, guilt/shame and feelings of degradation and powerlessness. Mood swings and enhanced emotional liability may occur. Increased irritability with, and suspiciousness of other people may also be present. The issue of trust may be important in the counselling process. Given that the victim’s trust in people has been betrayed by the rapist, it may make it more difficult for her to trust others.

The counsellor needs to indicate that they can empathize with the victim’s feelings, that the counsellor can listen and acknowledge the intense emotions the victim has, and encourage rather than suppress discussions. The victim may displace her anger onto the counsellor, police, hospital or family. The victim may be dominated by feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. The victim needs to be encouraged to make decisions for themselves in order to learn to feel some control over her life again.

Factors that influence the victims coping capacity

An individual’s personality and previous coping mechanisms influence their ability to cope with rape.

Victims with a past or current history of physical, psychiatric or social problems appear to be more likely to develop severe depression, psychotic behaviour, psychosomatic disorders, suicidal behaviour and acting out behaviour associated with alcoholism, drug abuse and/or sexual activity.

Being raped means different things to victims at different stages of their life. The younger adolescent who is raped, found her first sexual experience and she may become concerned about her sexual behaviour in the future. She may become afraid of entering into a relationship with her adolescent peers.

The middle adolescent who is beginning to develop relationships with males may find that the rape may compound her existing confusion about what is appropriate, affectionate and sexual behaviours.

Middle aged women who may be reassessing their lives and roles, and concerned with independence and autonomy may find that rape is reinforcing feelings of inadequacy.

The way that victim’s are treated may influence their ability to cope.

Treatment includes:

1)  The police. Of necessity the police are required to question the victim thoroughly. If this is not explained to the victim, they may perceive that they are not believed and this can reinforce feelings of guilt and self-blame.

If the victim is unable to accurately describe their assailant or recall details of the attack, this may reinforce feelings of low self-worth and inadequacy.

2) Hospital service.  If the victim is treated in an impersonal manner then the feelings of depersonalization are reinforced. If hospital staff offers judgement comments on the victim’s behaviour then feelings of guilt can be produced.

3) The courts. The above comments apply here as well. The cross examination can seem like a repeat of the rape experience.

4) The circumstances of the assault can affect the victim’s coping capacity.

If the victim is acquainted with their assailant then they are less likely to report rape to the police.

If the victim knows the rapist then they may feel more guilt wondering what they have done to provoke the attack. The victim may question their ability to judge other people. they are unable to use rationalization as a defence to cope with the attack. they seem to feel a greater sense of betrayal and is more confused about the meaning of the act.

If the attack occurs in the victim’s home, they may be more fearful. The victim’s, rights has been invaded as well as their own environmental space.

Whilst victim’s response to rape may follow a predictable pattern, each individual’s circumstances provide differences that will affect their coping capacity and reaction.

The fact that a victim’s psychological adjustment to rape, is determined by the social systems that impinge upon them it indicates a need for a widespread community response to ensure that those systems are both responsive to their needs, and used to their maximum therapeutic capacity.