Authors Shaver, Hazan and Bradshaw (1988) write the following about sexual desire: "Sexual desires are among the strongest motivators of human behavior, and sexual gratification is one of the greatest human pleasures." One of the most enduring myths about rape is that rape stems from sexual desire, but it is crucial to see the difference: rape is about power and not about sexual gratification. Sadly, rape remains a major problem in society today because men still seek to exert power over women in this heinous way.
Extensive research exists on the numbers of women who have been raped, and much of the research shows that sexual assault and rape occur in extremely high numbers at colleges and universities. One recent study suggests that 15 percent of college women are raped in their freshman year of college, and that number would be much higher if it included the more general category of sexual assault (Carey, Durney, Shepardson, and Carey, 2015). Nevertheless, 15 percent is still an extremely high number when you consider how horrific and violent the experience is. What happens after rape? In terms of relationships and sex, how does rape change rape survivors?
The answer, not surprisingly, isn't simple. Rape is a massive physical and psychological trauma, and people cope in very different ways with a traumatic event. I have treated women who survived rape and later self-medicated with alcohol or drugs, and many of them also met the criteria for Major Depressive Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, among other diagnoses. The women I have worked with clinically who have been raped report that one of the most difficult parts of the experience is the legacy it leaves in terms of trusting men, even a man with whom the woman may already be in a relationship. Among single women, surviving rape makes dating - and sex with future sexual partners - an often harrowing and always stressful experience.
Increased risk for suicide, and the effect on those with mental illness
According to a University College London study (2014), 40% of women surveyed with severe mental illness had suffered rape or attempted rape in adulthood, and 53% of those had attempted suicide as a result. In the general population, 7% of women had been victims of rape or attempted rape, of whom 3% had attempted suicide. If these statistics don't sound accurate to you, your hesitation or disbelief supports another reality about rape research: Because so many individuals who survive a rape may not report a rape (for a multitude of reasons), statistics have limited meaning.
While much literature focuses on what the effect of rape is on women, what is it like for those who have relationships with women who have been raped? Perhaps if we think more about this issue, we can educate those who have relationships with women who have been raped to be more sensitive. My goal is to make a few points that could help you understand your sex or relationship partner better, and to help make the experience for the woman as comforting and soothing as possible.
When you first learn that she has been raped
Especially with dating, most women who have been raped will not disclose this part of their history until they know and trust a man well. (Yes, rape occurs in homosexual female and homosexual male couples, too, but that is a similarly complex topic that deserves its own article.) If you are in a position where a woman discloses that she has been raped, it can be overwhelming and even scary to hear. A million thoughts could flood your mind. Men in this situation often feel anxious and uncomfortable, unsure of what to say but feeling pressure to say the "right" thing. The reality is that you don't actually have to say all that much. Without exception, never blame her - out loud or privately to yourself. Don't try to figure out the circumstances to see if the rape could have been avoided. Examples of things you could say that might be comforting to her: "I honestly don't know what to say right now and I am sorry about that, but I am so sorry that this happened to you;" "It breaks my heart to know that someone did that you;" "Tell me if there is any specific way that I can show you the sensitivity you deserve." The point is to say less and listen more. Whatever you do, don't try to "solve" the problem or figure out what could have been done differently to avoid the traumatic event.
The need for empathy
The most important rule to remember is that there is no universal textbook for what to say or do when someone you are with shares this kind of trauma history. Focus on letting her know that you are listening and that you care about what this experience was like for her. Don't treat her like a lab specimen or museum exhibit by staring like she has three heads and don't tell yourself that she is an anomaly. (She isn't.) If you are completely honest with your feelings, you may have a moment where you have a mental flash: Is she damaged goods? Is she broken? Will she ever move past this? The answer: Yes, she will, and she will heal one day at a time.
Once a woman has shared that she survived a rape and the two of you have talked about it to a limited extent, let some time pass - hours or even a day or so - and then come back to her. Ask her if it's okay if you ask her some questions about it. In terms of the rape, you might want to ask her how it has affected how she feels toward men, or you might want to ask how it has affected how she feels toward sex. Ask her how she feels about the way you treat her in bed, and ask her if there are things you could do to make her feel safer and more comfortable.
Some women may want to talk extensively about their experience, while other women may not want to discuss it much at all. As far as you are concerned, however she chooses to talk about it is absolutely fine. One thing that I recommend, especially if you are with a woman who doesn't want to talk about it, is to read about other women's experiences. You will find that reading about other women's experiences, whether online or in books, will make understand better the horror of rape. I am including here a good resource to learn more about the effects of rape.
Is a woman stronger in the end after surviving and healing from a rape?
One would hope that healing from a major trauma would cause one to feel more resilient, but surviving and healing from a trauma comes with no guarantees about what life will be like after the event. Mental health services are a crucial way to deal with the experience, but the effects of trauma on one's emotional life are long and complex. In my clinical work with women, I have found that surviving a sexual assault causes them to be more vigilant and afraid walking alone at night or in any other situation in which they are alone or in an isolated area. While some people like to believe that "Everything happens for a reason," I don't find any psychological truth to that when it comes to psychological trauma, whether it be rape or something else. I have found, however, that something good can always come from something bad. The female I worked with not long ago who suffered a rape found only one real benefit: She is more in touch with her feelings - especially her anger - than she ever was before. And while there is definite value in being in touch with your anger, let's all admit that suffering a trauma is a pretty awful way to learn that lesson.
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Kate B. Carey, Sarah E. Durney, Robyn L. Shepardson, Michael P. Carey. Precollege Predictors of Incapacitated Rape Among Female Students in Their First Year of College. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 2015; 76 (6): 829 DOI: 10.15288/jsad.2015.76.829
Shaver, P., Hazan, C., & Bradshaw, D. (1988). Love as attachment: The integration of three behavioral systems. In R.J. Sternberg & M.L. Barnes (Eds.), The Psychology of Love (pp. 68-99). New Haven: Yale University Press.