The Psychological Cost Of Rape And Sexual Assault

*Today’s post is written by Amy Irving. Amy Irving is a BACP Accredited Counsellor for Children, Young People and Adults working in Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire. Amy specialises in trauma and bereavement work and is passionate about the long-term benefits of early therapeutic intervention and mental health training for local schools and care organisations.

Last night I sat and watched the deeply moving testimony of Dr Christine Blasey-Ford as she spoke about the sexual assault she experienced at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanagh.

As a therapist I have heard hundreds of stories of trauma. I have sat with clients who have lost limbs, experienced house fires, been in car accidents and fought in wars. I have seen the devastation these events can have on the individual, their families and the communities seeking to support them. I have worked with people suffering immeasurable pain, crippling fear and intense feelings of guilt and shame. I have witnessed the agonising decision that many clients face of whether to share their stories with the police, lawyers and loved ones and the fear of not knowing what judgement, persecution or rejection may come because of this. A psychological cost has been paid for each client who shares their trauma with me and watching Dr Ford last night only further reminded me of the cost she has paid, and continues to pay, for sharing her story.

“I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanagh and I were in high school.”

Relative to other traumatic events, people who experience rape and sexual assault have been found to have high prevalence rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For many of my clients, the difficulty in reporting can be compounded by this condition; feelings of intense fear, associated with re-experiencing symptoms (such as flashbacks), which tend to be triggered by reminders of the traumatic event. This fear involves a heightened sense of threat and danger and my clients often report recurrent thoughts about being at serious risk of harm (even when in a safe environment) and behavioural responses they use to protect themselves (such as locking themselves away and avoiding any social contact). This heightened sense of danger and consequent withdrawal compounds their ability to report. Dr Ford spoke yesterday of this terror, “I did not want to tell my parents…I convinced myself…I should just move on and pretend that it did not happen”.

There is much research that emphasises the role of shame in traumatic events and the perpetuating cycle between PTSD and shame. The anticipation of and experience of shame has been linked to a desire to hide, avoid or withdraw from shame-eliciting situations and help-seeking. I regularly work with clients who seek to conceal their shame because they believe that they will be judged negatively, blamed or disregarded. But shame is a powerful emotion and only further disrupts a person’s ability to process and recover from such trauma. Yesterday, Dr Ford spoke of her own shame, “Brett’s assault on me drastically altered my life. For a very long time I was too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone these details.”

The perpetrators of these crimes use fear and shame to remind us of the cost we will pay if we do not remain quiet in our experience of trauma. Dr Ford, with the support of her family, her friends and her therapist, has spoken out despite her feelings because she fears a greater cost will have to be paid if she does not share her story. And not only has she shared her story, but she has done so in a highly public way whilst facing intense scrutiny and criticism. Some of my clients do eventually choose to share, whether anonymously on blogs, privately with their families, or publicly in criminal court cases. The cost of doing this can be great and in therapy I seek to honour this cost by respecting, encouraging and celebrating each of my clients who finds a way to share their story no matter how, where, or when this is done. It takes courage, strength, resolve and a vulnerability that many of us cannot understand. I honour the cost that Dr Ford paid yesterday. She has the courage to share her story and in doing so has added her voice to an important conversation we must all have on how we view perpetrators and support victims of rape and sexual assault. As I write, the Senate Judiciary Committee have chosen to vote in favour of Judge Kavanaugh in his appointment to the US Supreme Court. Dr Ford has paid her price. I hope one day that Judge Kavanaugh will pay his.

If you have been affected by today’s topic the following organisations offer support:

Victim Support http://www.victimsupport.org.uk
The Survivors Trust http://www.thesurvivorstrust.org
Rape Crisis http://www.rapecrisis.org.uk
Mind http://www.mind.org.uk
Sane http://www.sane.org.uk

 

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