Recovering From Sexual Violence

Shame too often grabs hold of us in the shadows but when we bring it to the light of day with trustworthy people, it dissipates.

BY JAMES GUAY, LMFT

In the past several weeks, multiple victims of sexual violence have highlighted the prevalence of their experiences in the entertainment industry as well as in politics. Too often the media has focused on the perpetrators of these acts, their denials, their minimizations, and their lack of responding with an adequate apology.

But what about the victims?

What happens after? What does recovery from sexual assault look like? Is it different for the LGBTQ Community?

The lack of representation of LGBTQ individuals in media and research is an issue that can make it especially challenging to find help. It’s only within the past seven years that nationally representative surveys were conducted with a focused lens on the LGBTQ population’s experiences with violent acts of various types.

You are never at fault for being the victim of sexual violence, no matter what environment you were in, no matter if/how you knew the perpetrator, no matter if you consented to it at one point or not.”

Here are some thought-provoking survey results:

  • Bisexual women have substantially higher reported rates (46.1%) of rape in their lifetime than do lesbian (13.1%) and heterosexual (17.4%) women according to The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS, 2010).
  • Lesbian women and gay men reported experiencing sexual violence at the same or higher rates of those who are straight (NISVS, 2010).
  • Almost half (47%) of transgender and gender nonconforming respondents reported being sexually assaulted in their lifetime based on the 2015 US Transgender Survey.
  • The rates for being sexually assaulted exponentially increases for LGBTQ people of color.

What are the beginning steps towards healing?

  1. Being aware of what happened
  2. Naming it for what it is
  3. Understanding how it’s impacted you

And remember that sexual violence includes sexual abuse, rape, being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion/threats, unwanted sexual contact, and non-consensual sexual experiences that don’t involve physical contact. Whatever your own personal experience is, you get to call it what it is for you and the impact that it has had on you. No one else gets to determine your experience or your truth.

As a community, we need to support others who have been sexually violated and not question their reality. All too often victims receive reactions from others who don’t believe them or even blame them for the assault. Others’ disbelief can compound difficulty recovering from sexual trauma and can become a secondary wounding.

You are never at fault for being the victim of sexual violence, no matter what environment you were in, no matter if/how you knew the perpetrator, no matter if you consented to it at one point or not, no matter how much or what kind of substances might have been involved, no matter if you were naked, and no matter how you were dressed. No matter what, you do not deserve to be a victim of sexual violence. Period.

Understanding how trauma works creates more space for awareness and compassion. 

While most people experience some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after a sexual trauma, not everyone does. PTSD includes the following symptoms, lasting longer than 30 days:

  1. Re-experiencing: intrusive thoughts, memories, dreams, and flashbacks;
  2. Avoidance: avoiding thoughts, feelings, people or situations that are connected to the traumatic event;
  3. Negative Cognition or Mood: difficulty remembering certain aspects of the trauma, negative thoughts/feelings about oneself or the world, distorted blame of self/others related to the event, stuck in intense emotions, disinterest in activities you used to enjoy before the trauma, and feeling detached, isolated or disconnected from other people;
  4. Increased Reactivity: difficulty concentrating, increased irritability/anger, difficulty falling or staying asleep, hypervigilance and being easily startled.

Others may experience some form of dissociation like feeling disconnected from yourself or a sense that your environment isn’t real. Some have PTSD for a short amount of time while others have it for extended periods of time, and with varying severity. This is due to several factors, including getting treatment sooner rather than later, but it is NOT an indication of someone’s inherent brokenness, strength or value. There is no one right way to be after experiencing sexual trauma but kindness and compassion with yourself are essential ingredients to recovery.

Self-care is essential in recovering from sexual violence. 

If the sexual trauma just occurred and you have physical injuries, it’s important to visit a medical facility to treat them. You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 to find a local medical facility that’s prepared to treat survivors and can offer a sexual assault forensic exam if you request it. If you’re in an ongoing abusive relationship with the perpetrator, you may need to develop a safety plan for how to leave as safely as possible. The decision to report to law enforcement is up to you.

For more information about how to navigate these environments, visit www.rainn.org.

Self-care also includes adequate nutrition, sleep, exercise and social support. When we’re taking good care of our body and our emotional welfare, we’re better able to cope with and heal from sexual violence. It helps to regulate our mood and energy levels so that we’re operating at a better baseline with which to respond to our internal and external environments.

The challenge in recovering is how to be with our own thoughts, feelings, and sensations when they’re disturbing to us or when we’re completely unaware of what they are. 

Recent research on trauma highlights how healing takes place in a “window of tolerance” where we’re neither re-traumatizing ourselves from over-activation or dissociation. Emotional intensity and expression is often necessary and helpful but when it gets to the point where we leave our body or are in fear for our safety, as if the violence is happening right now, we need to stop, come back to the present moment and find a place of resource within.

Finally, recovery can’t happen in isolation. 

Shame too often grabs hold of us in the shadows but when we bring it to the light of day with trustworthy people, it dissipates. Sharing our experience and getting support from people who get it, creates healing. This may mean joining a support/therapy group of survivors or seeking an experienced therapist who has been trained in how to work with PTSD. Whatever path you choose, know that you are not alone and that regardless of what’s happened to you, you have inherent worth and value.


James Guay, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (#39252), has provided individual and couples counseling in private practice since 1999. A former elite gymnast and life-long lover of nature, Guay focuses his social justice activism for the LGBTQ population. www.livingmorefully.com.

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