Editor's note: This piece may be triggering to survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
I didn't know that what had happened to me two years ago could be considered sexual assault until my therapist said the words out loud in a session. What I did know at the time: After he got off of me, I cried myself to sleep, and woke up the next morning thinking, "I don't think what happened last night was okay." Then I put that thought out of my head for a very, very long time.
It all came back last fall watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify about her own alleged assault during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings. That's when the flashbacks started. For months afterward, seemingly every other thought that popped into my head was about that night, and every time I saw someone who looked even remotely like him, I stopped breathing. The panic attacks were debilitating, even though I had no idea why they were happening. Finally, when I told my story out loud for the first time in my therapist's office, I fully understood that what had happened to me wasn't okay.
As the conversation surrounding sexual assault has shifted into the public spotlight, many other people have had these sorts of "holy shit" moments. "With the #MeToo movement and so many stories and voices coming forward, people began to connect the dots to their own experiences—times in their life where something felt wrong, or inappropriate, but they weren't quite sure if it ‘fit’ the definition of sexual harassment or assault,” says Laura Palumbo, the communications director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "When there's a high profile story or a lot of public conversation focusing on sexual harassment and assault, there is usually a spike in victims and survivors reaching out for support," she says. Case in point: On the day of Dr. Ford's testimony (the same event that triggered my own memories), CNN reports that the National Sexual Assault Hotline saw a 201 percent spike in calls compared to a normal day.
Grappling with sexual assault is always complicated and fraught with emotional challenges. But for people who don't fully realize what's happened to them until months (or years) later, that awakening can be its own form of trauma.
Why people don't always understand their experiences as assault
Survivor Kaitlyn Keech, 21, was assaulted by her boss in June 2017 while she was, in her words, "incapacitated and asleep." She says he had been feeding her drinks all night. "There was no way that I could consent," she recalls. But for the first few months after the assault, even after she reported it to the police, she found herself struggling to make sense of the gravity of what she'd experienced. "It wasn't until August of that year until I actually realized what had happened," she says. "I think for those two or so months afterwards, it was like I was almost watching myself go through it, and I wasn't really there in the moment. I was kind of separating myself from [the assault], and it wasn't until August that I read the police report and was like, 'Oh my god, this actually happened.'"
"It’s far more complicated to conceptualize yourself as a survivor of sexual trauma than to not," says Jessica Klein, LCSW, lecturer of social work at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. That's why for many survivors, denial and self-distancing is a coping mechanism that allows them to get up and go through their day. "That's a very normal reaction, and it's even more normal when you live in a society that really sends this message that sexual harassment and assault are sort of normal, expected parts of our lives," agrees Palumbo. Think about it: In the '70s and '80s, movies like Sixteen Candles and Animal House turned rape culture into punch lines. And as recently as 2013, Robin Thicke sang about "Blurred Lines" as if non-consensual sex was something exciting. Think of it as cultural gaslighting that could convince a survivor to think that what they experienced was normal.
“When something is done to your body, to your person, to your mind, without consent, that is a violation.” —Morgan D. Dewey, communications director, End Rape on Campus
Further complicating the processing of a trauma: RAINN estimates that eight out of every 10 assaults are carried out by someone who the victim knows (as in the case of Keech). “That usually means there’s some kind of betrayal," says Klein. This can often lead to the victim second-guessing what happened to them, Klein says, and trying to decide whether or not they should make it a "big deal" because the perpetrator was someone they trusted.
It's also important to note that not all assaults necessarily look the same, which can make characterizing an event as such all the more challenging. “This is anther reason why we have to believe survivors and let them define their experience,” says Morgan D. Dewey, the communications director for End Rape on Campus (EROC). “When something is done to your body, to your person, to your mind, without consent, that is a violation.” She points to “stealthing”—or the non-consensual removal of condoms when people are engaging in sex acts—as a recent hot-button example of this.
Yet many people aren't fully educated on the concept of consent—meaning a victim might not fully understand that what they experienced crossed a line. An alarming U.K. survey of 2,000 people from last year found that 47 percent of participants (less than half!) believed it was okay to withdraw consent after you're naked, and that 9 percent believe they can no longer withdraw consent if the other person has paid for their dinner or drinks. (Neither of these things are true.) Michelle Carroll, the associate director of external programming at EROC, blames this in part on a historic lack of comprehensive sex education—as of 2018, only eight states mandated that consent or sexual assault be included as part of the sex-ed curriculum in public schools.
Then there's the fact that people may not have had the language or understanding to characterize what happened to them as assault until recently. The term "date rape" didn't exist until 1975, when it was coined by feminist author Susan Brownmiller. Marital rape was not criminalized in all 50 states until 1993. These acts are hardly new, but the language to describe them is very recent.
The wake-up call
So what changes for survivors to help them realize that what they experienced was assault? For some, it may be because they initially didn't feel safe enough to process what had happened—especially if they have a personal relationship with the person who violated them. "It can be that someone feels safe enough in their life now that they can look at those acts that happened—and that can often be because that person isn’t in your life anymore—or you feel like you have enough distance from them so that you can look at it from a different vantage point," says Klein.
Trauma also affects the brain in such a way that can make it even harder for a person to come to terms with their experience. When a person suffers a stressful or traumatic event, the brain's prefrontal cortex (which controls executive function) is flooded with cortisol and other chemicals, impairing its ability to function. Instead, the amygdala—the part of the brain responsible for your emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation—is activated. The emotional fear response takes over, and impacts what the person remembers about the incident and how those memories are stored. This can create fragmented or hidden memories—Klein refers to them as "jagged"—and they don't follow a clear narrative structure, making it hard for a person to recall specific details about the incident (and thus make it easier for them to bury or deny).
"If we’re not turning towards [these memories] with conscious awareness, they can just sort of exist in our mind/body system," says Klein. Those jagged memories can then be reactivated by experiences similar to the original traumatic situation, says Carroll. A person could watch something on TV that reminds them of their experience, hear sounds that take them back to the incident, or otherwise be put into an emotional state similar to the one they were in when they were assaulted. (The phrase “triggered” is born out of this phenomenon.)
"Everything you do in your day-to-day to make sense of the world has been shaken in this profound way, and you're needing to deal with that in addition to the specific trauma and harm that you experienced." —Laura Palumbo, communications director, National Sexual Violence Resource Center
This can help explain why a high-profile account of sexual assault—like the testimony of Dr. Ford or more recently, the allegations of E. Jean Carroll against President Trump—can act as a catalyst for "new" memories that may have been previously buried or put aside. "Sometimes [the realization] happens slowly, like in a conversation with a girlfriend or a teacher or therapist, but there’s an 'ah-ha' moment that can happen… and usually there’s some kind of neural integration that’s happening that allows someone to have a better understanding of what’s going on," Klein says.
Similarly, as conversations about sexual assault become more public, people may now have the language and the tools to comprehend their experience that they didn't before. "I think that when you take a topic that typically is in the dark and you get people start talking about it, using their own language, there is a shift," says Carroll. "It's very natural that folks are going to start using that language and applying that language to themselves."
However it happens, Carroll says that she's heard survivors describe this realization moment as "shocking" and "painful," especially if they've created significant distance from the event. "It can really take a survivor out of experience and daily life and put them in this really difficult place, where they're all of a sudden having to face a lot of heavy and hard emotions and reactions that have been buried for years and years," she says.
The unique challenges of a 'delayed' trauma
While this delayed realization isn't necessarily "more" or "less" traumatic than if someone had an immediate understanding of their assault, it is certainly different. "It is absolutely another layer of trauma," says Palumbo. "Not only are they having to deal with those emotional and psychological reactions, but also I think that it can be really challenging for them to not be able to understand why this is coming up now [after] it was something they had been able to let go of it for so long."
Research shows that 40 percent of rape victims suffer from severe emotional distress which required mental health treatment afterwards, and 40 percent of women who are sexually assaulted or abused over twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, as well as chronic pain compared to women who do not experience it. "Even if a survivor hadn't put that language [about assault] in place before, it's very possible that they're showing PTSD symptoms without even realizing that that's what they were," Carroll says. These symptoms can include anxiety, depression, and flashbacks. Keech experienced symptoms of PTSD after her attack and found herself seeking treatment from a mental health professional. So did I. And research on "experiential avoidance"—or the avoidance of traumatic thoughts and feelings—and PTSD suggests that the longer a person puts off a dealing with their experience, the more likely they are to deal with anxiety and depression.
Grappling with all of this can become a confusing (and disturbing) interruption in a person's life, Palumbo says. "Everything you do in your day-to-day to make sense of the world has been shaken in this profound way, and you're needing to deal with that in addition to the specific trauma and harm that you experienced."
So where do survivors go from here? "I absolutely encourage them to reach out to the resources that are available in their community," says Carroll. The RAINN hotline (which is not a crisis hotline, but rather meant for survivors who are working through their healing process), is a good place to start. Local rape crisis programs also often offer free, confidential therapy.
"Know that there is support and hope in healing, and also taking whatever next step helps you get through this very difficult experience," says Palumbo. "That will look different for each survivor, but there's really no wrong way to deal with this situation. You're healing with something very difficult and trying your best to have grace for yourself for those interactions."
For me, the epiphany in my therapist's office was the only the first step—of many—in the healing process. Nearly a year later, I'm still working through it all with the help of my therapist and my closest support network. But finally putting a name on what happened to me, while agonizing, ultimately gave me the power to start to moving forward, one step at a time.
Here's how to talk to your partner about a past experience with sexual assault. And this is why the myth of the "false rape accusation" continues to endure.
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