Aftermath: A sexual violence survivor’s relationship without disclosure
By Riggs Zyrille Vergara, Staff Writer
In a 2015 study by the Women’s Media Center on how the U.S. media covers campus rape and sexual assault, they found that 41 per cent of the topics given focus in these stories are rape proceedings and only 12 per cent are on the impact of the event on victims and perpetrators. They also found that it is rare for the public to read whether the self-identified victim suffered mental health issues or a loss of social status because of the event.
In response to the need of providing more focus to the well-being of the survivors rather than just the personalities involved or the circumstances surrounding the incident, The Reflector initiated “Aftermath: Sexual Violence” — a three-part series shedding light on the importance of the outcomes of sexual violence for the survivor.
“Russ” was only 10 years old when his older brother stripped him and repeatedly bludgeoned the back of his thighs when Russ said ‘no’. He was molested by his own brother at their own home. It took him more than two years to say that word — ‘no’. But the abuse continued, without anyone knowing about it even years after. Now a 20-year-old Open Studies student at MRU, Russ navigates his life anxious around sweaty bodies inside gym locker rooms, afraid of the company of his uncles and cousins and agitated at the first move of any potential romantic partners.
Russ, who has chosen to use a pseudonym, did not speak to anyone about the incident until he was 18. He, like most survivors, suppressed his trauma by moving away from his brother. His anger and depression subsided. Kitchener-Waterloo Sexual Assault Support Center calls this the “outward adjustment stage” which can go from months to years. But it is only after that stage, called the “integration phase,” that survivors can experience the long-term effects of trauma like re-living the attack, nightmares and more importantly, problems with relationships.
“When I tried to have sex for the first time after all those years, I cried in the middle of it. All of my horrible childhood memories suddenly came rushing back,” Russ explains.
Past trauma can significantly affect a survivor’s current and future relationships, especially when the people around them are not aware of the incident. A survivor should have the right if and when they want to reveal their stories. But as its symptoms can arise unpredictably, it’s important for the survivor to be informed of what is happening to them and how it can affect their relationships.
When I tried to have sex for the first time after all those years, I cried in the middle of it. All of my horrible childhood memories suddenly came rushing back
Treating the Trauma Survivor, a guide book about trauma-informed care, points out that when a person experiences trauma or abuse, there are five areas of belief about one’s self and the world that will most likely be distorted. Survivors distort these beliefs — safety, trust, esteem, intimacy and control — to make sense of the abuse. With the awareness of how these beliefs are disrupted and how they could be regained, people who have experienced sexual violence might develop their own ways to address their problems in relationships.
A survivor can manifest disbelief in safety through the need to have extreme measures of safety like sleeping with a weapon nearby and avoiding situations connected to their past trauma.
“I’m constantly in this state of hyper-awareness and aggression, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life like that. I want to be able to relax and walk the streets without that kind of threat in my mind,” says 40-year-old actor and performer Imogen Butler-Cole in The Independent, who has a solo stage show about life after sexual assault called Foreign Body.
Disbelief in trust can be very common with perpetrators being a trusted person like family members or friends. Statistics Canada reported that 31 per cent of police-reported family violence against children and youth are sexual offenses.
“When I’m reunited with male relatives, it makes me so uncomfortable to be around them in closed spaces,” Russ recounts.
Psychotherapist Beverly Engel points out in her Psychology Today article that one of the main reasons why some victims don’t come forward sooner is low self-esteem. One of her clients said that the assault was a turning point to using drugs and engaging into party group sex. Her client tells Engel, “What have I got to lose? I just stopped caring about myself.” Engel reports that, “Little by little, acts of disrespect, objectification and shaming whittle away at her self-esteem until she has little regard for herself and her feelings.”
Rape Crisis Scotland reports that intimacy and sexual activity are also gravely affected by sexual violence. Survivors have different reactions. Some may no longer enjoy sex in the way they used to. Some react by having more sex or rushing into sex because they think that that’s what people want from them or to prove something to themselves. For Russ, it was being very sensitive to touch. Unsolicited actions of intimacy like hugs, strokes or pats can be triggering to him.
The World Health Organization states that “the underlying factors in many sexually violent acts are power and control, not, as is widely perceived, a craving for sex.” They emphasized in their guidelines for medico-legal care for victims of sexual violence that perpetrators use it to degrade, dominate, humiliate, terrorize. This generates “learned helplessness” — a concept originally developed by the research of psychologist Martin Seligman and Steven D. Meier that says when people feel like they have no control over what happens, they tend to simply give up and accept their fate.
Knowledge of these beliefs greatly helped Russ recognize how some terrible situations in his life can be tied back to his trauma. He felt assured that by the time he decides to face formal treatment and counselling, his recovery will be something possible through the development of these beliefs that he had pushed away.
The distortion of these beliefs can look different in each survivor. Others may have difficulty in only some of the five. As many psychologists have mentioned, survivors forge their own paths of healing depending on their experiences and situations. It’s important to note that these kinds of help, even without their disclosure, must always be available. What should be prioritized is when and where they feel most comfortable.
Being armed with these kinds of information, having the feeling of recognition and knowing that some had succeeded in their healing after trauma can be great starting points for any survivor, especially when they are not ready to reveal their stories yet.