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Jennifer Rollin MSW, LCSW-C

3 Things Survivors of Sexual Assault Need to Know

No matter what your mind might be telling you, you did nothing wrong.

Source: Flickr

If you’ve been following the news, you’ve likely heard about the ex-Stanford swimmer, Brock Turner, who was found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Two men, who were biking past and saw him assaulting an unconscious woman, intervened and held him down until the police arrived.

After he was convicted, Turner was sentenced to six months in county jail. The judge, Aaron Persky, indicated that the lighter sentence was given due to his age and lack of criminal history. Persky stated, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him…I think he will not be a danger to others.”

Reading this story filled me with anger at the grave injustice of it all. Even more so, I felt a deep sense of sadness for the survivors of sexual assault who may read about this story. It also brought up a lot of questions for me. How is it that some people do not recognize the severe impact this trauma will have on the survivor? How could the sentence be so lenient for this terrible crime? How could the judge really believe that this man is not a danger to others?

As a psychotherapist with a specialization in trauma, as well as a former staffer for a sexual assault crisis hotline, I am all too familiar with the devastating impacts of sexual assault and the stigma that some survivors experience. If you are a survivor of sexual assault, here are three things that I want you to hear.

1. What happened to you was not your fault.

I know you may have heard this before, but that it might be difficult for you to believe. You may think to yourself, “If only I hadn’t gone to that party, this wouldn’t have happened” or “I chose to go back to his room, so it was my fault for sending him mixed signals.”

First off, I want you to know that this is a common reaction to sexual trauma. Your mind wants to make sense of a situation that ultimately was out of your control. Therefore, many people wrongly believe that they must have been responsible for what happened to them.

The reality is that when someone is sexually assaulted, the only person who is to blame is the perpetrator. No matter what party you went to, if you had a drink, if you didn’t fight the person off, if you were dating the person, if you were aroused and regardless of any other circumstance—it was not your fault. You were not responsible for this and you certainly did not deserve it.

If you are struggling with feelings of guilt and shame following sexual trauma, it can be incredibly helpful to reach out to the psychotherapist (preferably one who specializes in trauma).

2. Healing takes time but it is completely possible.

There are many stages of healing following a trauma, and everyone copes with this process differently. It’s important to note that healing and coping with the impact of trauma can take time, but it is completely possible to get to a place where you are able to have healthy relationships, rebuild a sense of trust and security, and find meaning and purpose in your life.

It’s important to be compassionate with yourself about whatever emotions you are experiencing. Beating yourself up for feeling the way that you do will likely only cause you to feel worse. You went through something that no one should have to endure and you are certainly not alone in struggling with the aftermath of trauma. Ultimately, you deserve to treat yourself with the same kindness that you would a loved one who had experienced trauma.

No one should have to struggle with this alone. Reaching out for support from professionals, as well as friends and loved ones can be incredibly helpful for survivors. Even if they can’t completely understand how you are feeling, they can provide you with love and support when you are struggling.

3. It’s healthy and “ok” to feel your feelings.

After trauma, there is often a common impulse to try to “numb out.” Survivors might turn to negative coping strategies, such as drinking, using drugs, binging, starving, or cutting, to try to escape their intense emotions. Know that these coping strategies are coming from a good place, as you are using them in an attempt to feel better. But keep in mind that these strategies only provide temporary relief, and they often lead to greater emotional pain in the long-term.

Engaging in these behaviors can cause you to become dependent on them. In addition, as human beings, we are unable to selectively numb emotions. When we numb ourselves from feeling anxious and depressed, we also block ourselves from feeling happiness and joy.

It is ok and healthy to allow yourself to feel your feelings. Emotions are like waves in the ocean. They rise and peak, but ultimately if you allow yourself to sit with them, they will decrease in intensity. Talking to a psychotherapist when you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed is one healthy way to process your feelings. Other ways might include talking to loved ones, journaling, drawing, going to a support group, or reaching out to a helpline.

Final Thoughts

No matter what your mind might be telling you, you did nothing wrong. No one deserves to be assaulted and what happened to you was in no way your fault. Your sense of control may have been shattered, but you are in control of your healing journey right now.

Lastly, to the survivor in the Stanford case. I stand with you. You are so amazingly brave. Sharing your story, reading your letter to the perpetrator in court—this took incredible strength. I hope to one day live in a world where all survivors are able to get the justice that they deserve. But for now, know that somewhere in the world, someone is reading your powerful words and gaining the courage to speak up about their own experience. The more we can speak up against injustice, hold perpetrators accountable, and empower and support survivors, the better the world will be.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and, y en español: