Rape Victims: The Healing Process

Precious Oshone Eboigbe

The issue of rape is a very controversial topic both legally and otherwise. Various opinions exist on who is not the cause or who is the cause of rape. The most important aspect of the issue is what is majorly overlooked; the victims’ healing process. Rape is a de-humanizing act; whether its male-to-male or male-to-female. And such emotional wounds take time and courage to heal. Some don’t even know how to go about the healing process, and with time they deteriorate into vision-less humans.
Now, what is rape? From a legal point of view, rape is defined as one person forcing another without this person’s consent and using violence or threatening violence, to have intercourse or other forms of sexual activity. Whether the person was asleep, unconscious, intoxicated, has physical or mental disability or even a spouse to the person involved, is irrelevant. Rape is rape.
Research also shows that rape can be categorized in various forms such as stranger rape, acquaintance rape, gang rape and even marital rape. Some other classifications are date rape, professional rape, work-related rape, rape with intent to marry, rape by family member or friend, underage marriage, human-trafficking rape and child rape.
Regardless of the kind of rape a person has gone through, rape has a very negative effect on the human mind and body. And in this context, we are looking at male-on-female rape victims. Gynaecological effects such as vaginal/anal bleeding or infection, inflammation, painful sexual intercourse, chronic pelvic pain, urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases and even pregnancy are some of the huge downsides of rape. Psychological effects include self-blame, shame, isolation, anger, aggression, bitterness and suicide.
 A victim often suffers intense emotional reactions immediately after a rape. These personal crises involve the victim re-playing the fear, agony or anxiety, mixed with emotional numbness. Even attempted rape victims could also suffer from these emotional stresses. One of the most common effects of rape is depression, which can last for months. The victim’s lifestyle could also change dramatically. She may stop opening the door if alone at home, avoid going out after dark and avoid social interactions especially with men.
Rape victims are more likely to experience long-lasting mental and physical problems (i.e. a lifetime of torment). Rape can devastate individuals, as well as challenge and change relationships in unimaginable ways. The worst part is when victims feel completely unsupported by their mate, who may not understand why it is ‘taking so long’ for them to get back on track. But the truth is, partners/family or even close friends, may have many issues of their own that prevent them from being supportive. Some may feel traumatized also and silently blame the victim for attracting sexual attention from another, feel guilty over not having been there to protect their loved one, or just a general sense of not understanding the victim’s pain and healing journey.
Flashbacks are not uncommon. Anything could trigger it; the perfume the rapist wore, a particular sex position etc. Figuring out what those triggers are and then working to protect oneself and mental health, is a crucial part of the healing process. One could feel like damaged goods; that sex can never be enjoyed again or even be afraid to look desirable. All those feelings are okay and are not a crime and partners should try to understand these psychological downtimes. Its okay to feel but it’s not ok to remain at status-quo.
The environment a rape victim finds herself could speedily aide or slows down the recovery process. If for example, the offender is a close relative, a guardian, a boss, someone from work or a person she cannot just completely avoid, it would slow down her recovery process. Gaining emotional support from family, friends and professionals is very helpful to the victim. It is important for the victim to be able to talk about the assault without being interrupted, questioned as a person, or not allowed to give details of the trauma. It is also important that the victim is not made to feel guilt or responsibility after a sexual assault (which harms instead of helps). Actually, placing the blame on the victim is what has made many offenders go free without being made to face the wrath of the law. The victim starts seeing herself as the cause of the molestation, which is very bad for her mental health and recovery.rape
In the days immediately after a brutal rape incident, a balanced diet is very necessary in healing physical bruises on a victim’s body. For those that can afford it or that have the opportunity to do so, now is the time to eat right, eat well and take lots of water. A medical exam is also very necessary, almost immediately after a rape incident. Such exams can help in giving immediate treatment to STDs and even certain drugs to prevent unwanted pregnancy that may result from the rape incident. Hence, medical exams like these are highly recommended within 72 hours after the incident. But certain kinds of rape victims do not have immediate access to such recovery patterns because they are children or they are under the guidance and financial support of the offender. That is why this information is meant for everyone. Just in case you are not a victim but you suspect that someone close to you is and that you are in a position to help them get support and care, please do.
Please note that recovery from rape incident/incidents is a gradual process. It does not happen overnight. Re-building feelings of safety, trust, control and self-worth can take quite a long time and that is okay. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Write out your feelings if you can. Avoid anyone who doesn’t take you seriously or tries to play down what has happened to you. Listening to such will only make you feel worse.
The fact remains; there is no right or wrong way to heal. Everyone has their own way of healing. Confiding in a trusted loved one about your feelings, is a great way to heal. Let them know how you’re hurting and what they can do to help. In case you feel unsafe and feel like hiding from everyone in order to stay safe, don’t be afraid to ask a friend or loved one to go with you when you begin to go out again.  Recovering from a rape or sexual assault could be a long complicated experience. Do not feel guilty if you cannot simply ‘get over it’.
As a friend or loved one to a victim, shortly after the rape, your duty is to encourage them to see a doctor and also encourage (but do not pressure) them to report the attack. And if it’s been a while (months or years) and they still have a hard time with recovery, you can gently advise them to speak to a counsellor (trained to help victims of rape). A very depressed victim might find it hard to take any step in helping herself. Don’t get tired of listening; it helps a lot. Help them channel their energies and emotions into things they love doing. Don’t dictate to them, allow them make their own choices. You don’t have all the answers. Get help if you need to. Be there. Sometimes, just being there is enough. Your loved one is looking for a safe place to share, not for a fixer or a solution. You cannot solve the past, you can only move on to the future.
Now someone may ask, “what if my loved one chooses to hide such information? How I’m I supposed to help or how do I know that my loved one is suffering from a rape trauma from the past?” A rape victim is more than willing to talk about her problems; of course it makes her feel better. But it is the judgemental and insensitive attitude of society including close friends and loved ones, that keep many victims from speaking up.nit becomes more difficult if the rape victim has been molested by someone very close. It makes it more difficult to open up to anyone, including her recent lover or spouse, perhaps because she generally lacks confidence in every male-figure.
Here are a few symptoms that can make you suspect that your loved one is a victim of rape. Some of these symptoms are also part of those things parents could look out for in a child, when they begin to suspect something is wrong somewhere. Experts refer to it as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or rape trauma syndrome. You will notice:
  • Unusual actions like being extremely irritable, moody or cranky.
  • An expression of anger, fear or confusion.
  • Depression, anxiousness or nervousness especially about being alone.
  • Troubled sleep.
  • Changes in appetite.
  • Lack of concentration in school or at work or in carrying out everyday activities.
  • Fear of having sex or unusual pain during sex.
These symptoms listed above are common with those suffering shortly or not too long after a rape incident. If the rape has happened sometime in a victim’s life and is still having negative effects on her present relationship, what you are likely to notice is:
  • Crying for no reason. Or at least, it might always seem like there is no reason.
  • Being very alert and watchful about security issues.
  • Relationship problems (serious ones), with family, friends and even you as a loved one.
  • Fear of sex, loss of interest in sex or loss of sexual pleasure. A strong dislike for a particular sex position is also very common.
  • Repeated suicide attempts at every little provocation.
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The trauma never really leaves the victim no matter how long it had been, except the victim undergoes the healing process.
And so the next puzzle becomes, “what do I do if my spouse or loved one has some or all of these symptoms and has not yet opened up to me on the issue?” Giving your loved one the platform to talk about her issues is the first step in ‘trying to help’. If you sense it’s a recent thing and your loved one still has the opportunity to get medical help and treatment, try your possible best to show her that you have a listening ear and that you do not judge her for whatever might have led to the rape incident. But if she feels reluctant talking about it, you can refer her to a counselor or at least someone she can open up to. Same goes for child-rape victims. If they are not willing to open up and you strongly sense they’ve been molested one way or the other, please don’t stop until you get them help.
And if it’s not a recent thing and you want to help her get through the trauma, then you need to go slow with it. Let her know that you don’t judge her for whatever might have happened in her past. Tell her the things you’ve been noticing that is giving you cause for concern. If for example, you notice your spouse is not very comfortable each time you have sex with her, that is a good time to get her to open up on what is ‘eating her up’. Don’t bottle it up or process the puzzles in your head alone. If she values her present relationship, she would eventually open up. And if its still difficult for her to do, you can encourage her to go for therapy or see a counselor or just someone she respects and trusts with such information.
If she tries to even give away part of the information and is not comfortable with giving away the details, please don’t push for it until she’s completely ready. And please don’t make her feel like she’s reporting herself for something bad that she did. Listen patiently and be sensitive with words. Being judged or scolded was the reason she didn’t tell you about it in the first place.  Sometimes, even marriage does not heal the psychological wounds of a rape victim. She might feel ‘used’ each time she has sex with her husband. But as she works on getting better and moving on in life, that would definitely change.
A very special kind of rape victims are those that get raped and abused by their own husbands. Their trauma is even more complicated in the sense that, very few people in society truly sympathize with such women. After all, it is their husbands that ‘forceful’ had sex with them and not a stranger. But such insensitive set of people fail to realize that a rape inflicted by a legally married husband is exactly the same as the one done by a stranger. Both involve the use of force and both are involuntary on the part of the victim. The gynecological effects are the same and the psychological effects are even worse. If your husband abuses you sexually, who do you then turn to for emotional help? Or how do you ever get to enjoy sex with him during his ‘normal’ moments. Most forced sex in marriages, takes place under the umbrella of ‘domestic violence’. A man comes home drunk or under the influence of some hard drug, beats his wife and eventually forces that which should be a pleasurable act between them, on her. What could be more traumatic? For such women, seeking help outside the marriage is very important. The main issue is where to find the right help in such situations. Locating organisations that help in fighting for women and child rights, could be very helpful to such women.
Society is still afraid to talk openly about a rape or sexual assault; people may not know how to approach the rape victim; afraid to say the wrong thing to a victim of rape or sexual assault. It’s very hard to know what to say or what not to say. Below is a clue to not saying what is not helpful to a victim’s recovery process:
  • Don’t guilt or pressure them into reporting the rape.
  • Don’t criticize them for not resisting the attack.
  • Don’t ask for what they were wearing or doing at the time of the attack.
  • Don’t judge. Anyone can be a victim of rape.
  • If the victim doesn’t want to talk about the rape, do not push for details.
  • Don’t frighten them – even as a joke. This is to avoid triggering flashbacks.
  • Don’t be offended if your loved one doesn’t want to be close or touch you or even be sexually intimate with you.
  • Don’t expect too much of yourself. Your friend or loved one may need support from different people. Allow them. You should not and cannot be the sole person to support a rape victim during the recovery process.
  • During a police report or a session with the doctor, allow them to speak for themselves, unless they have asked you to speak for them.
  • Never use the rape incident as an excuse to insult or abuse their personality when there is an argument or fight. For example, referring to a lady (who was raped as a virgin or continuously as a child) as a ‘prostitute’, is the most insensitive thing to do as a spouse.
If you have been the victim of a rape, you may not know how to feel normal again. You may feel that the emotional pain will never go away. No matter how you feel, know that things will become better. You will learn to heal and life will go on in your ‘new normal’.rape
A rape victim once said, “I’m a survivor, not a victim. I don’t want sympathy. Victim is a mindset. I played that role in my head for five years. I hated myself, had no self-respect and really didn’t care if I lived or died. But being a victim means you hand over your power. During the rape, everything was completely out of control. I never want to be out of control again… I’m not saying it’s quick or easy to get to a positive frame of mind; but it’s a fact – I was raped. I’ve had to get over it. There’s so much good in the world to live life as a half person”.
That statement says it all. Moving on with life and getting over the past is the wisest option. And lastly, seeking medical care after a rape incident is very vital to a woman’s sexual health. Throw away the shame. Protect your sexual and your mental future. Get medical help, get therapy if possible, and get over the ugly past. There’s always hope for those with life.

 

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