Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sexual Abuse

AOC's Fear of Dying in Capitol Riots Relates to Sexual Abuse

Why survivors don't have to experience the exact same trauma to trigger PTSD.

Key points

  • Sexual assault is more common than many people believe and can cause ongoing harm to one's mental health in the form of PTSD.
  • Being exposed to new abuse or violence can compound the damaging effects of the original trauma.
  • Accepting that the survivor is not to blame and getting necessary support can help someone heal from PTSD.
Gregory Pappas/Unsplash
Woman in shock after sexual abuse.
Source: Gregory Pappas/Unsplash

When Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) stated that her previous sexual abuse was “compounded” by how terrified she was of dying during the January 6th insurgence on our Capitol, most people who’ve never been abused do not understand how the two incidents with different contexts could cause that. Sadly, I knew she was triggered by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a sexual abuse survivor and a retired psychotherapist who worked with survivors for 35 years, I know how one type of abuse can trigger panic about another violent act. It doesn’t have to be the same kind of abuse; it’s about the same kind of powerlessness that a victim feels during another attack.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

This article is hard to write. Recalling my own memories, I am already hyperventilating. My heartbeat is quickening, and my mind is shutting down in order not to relive those unspeakable acts forced upon me during childhood. These reactions are exactly what happened to the body during the abuse. It feels like it’s happening in the present. It took me years of therapy to understand that it is a memory.

When the mind feels completely powerless, the “prefrontal cortex,” the logical mind, shuts off, and the “limbic system,” where emotions and motivation lie, takes over. Physically, chemically, and mentally, all resources go towards helping the victim survive the assault. Many times, the brain will focus on anything else—a visual image, a specific noise, a particular smell, etc.—in order to disassociate.

After a PTSD episode in my office, one client told me that when she was raped at age 13 by her father’s friends in an orgy, she stared at a doily on the back of the sofa, just like the one in my office. I had just put one there, not realizing that’s what triggered her. Feeling safe with me, the memory surfaced.

One of the ambiguities about PTSD is that the abuse can hide deep in the unconscious. When memories surface, they are distorted or fragmented. The “not knowing” at the time of the abuse initially protects victims from the devastation of horror and pain. Sadly, this prevents victims from having clear memories to bring into a court of law, where facts are necessary to indict the perpetrator.

Difference between Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) and PTSD

As a multiple abuse survivor, I didn’t know for the longest time that C-PTSD2 occurs emotionally and not through flashbacks. I don’t see images. I'm not observing what's happening. Instead, I revert to the age when I was assaulted, and all the emotions arise.

Since my abuse started at age 5, when C-PTSD is triggered, I’m 5 years old again, panicked, my body in pain and being held down so that I can’t move. There’s nothing I can do to help myself. I freeze. I do not feel my body. My mind goes blank so that I don’t have to acknowledge that, once again, I failed to protect myself, that no one is coming to save me.

Sexual assault is more rampant than we believe

Sexual assault, from my personal and professional experience, is never given the credence it deserves. The statistics are underreported, our criminal justice system rarely indicts a rapist, society chooses to believe that the attackers are strangers rather than people the victim knows, and the victim, mostly women, are blamed for causing the attack. Our society is still a patriarchy, a fact that was especially highlighted these past four years with the past president. He was elected even with multiple allegations of sexual assault. Many of our male government and corporate leaders’ transgressions have been splashed through the media. And during the COVID pandemic, reports of domestic violence, including rape, have escalated.

It is a travesty for those who are living with the consequences of sexual assault. Sadly, I know all too well! It’s a lifetime of imprisonment in the cellular, mental, and emotional body. This trauma impacts all of life, i.e., loss of self-confidence, trust in self and others, severe symptoms of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, relationship fears, and, not least of which, leads to ongoing PTSD or C-PTSD. Shame surfaces not only from the assault but also because society is in collective denial, refusing to hold the criminals accountable and “blaming the victim.”

Here are some of the astounding statistics given out by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). For the full scope of sexual assault and its consequences, see footnote.3

  • Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.
  • Every 9 minutes, that victim is a child.
  • Only 5 out of every 1,000 perpetrators will end up in jail.
  • One in 6 females has been assaulted in their lifetime.
  • One in 33 victims is male.
  • Ninety-three percent of childhood sexual abuse victims know their perpetrators.

Important tips for survivors

  • It is never the victim’s fault.
  • Children must be educated that being touched on their bodies without their consent is never OK.

  • Counseling with a skilled trauma-informed therapist is critical after any sexual assault so that healing can begin.

  • Educators, medical personnel, law enforcement authorities—all need to know the telltale signs of assault on children and the elderly. Reporting to authorities is required.

  • For adolescence and adult survivors, joining a well-monitored support group, either virtual or face-to-face, is crucial.



2. Walker, Pete, “Complex PTSD, From Thriving to Surviving: A Guide & Map For Recovering From Childhood Trauma”

3., - look under statistics and other subtitles for more complete scope of sexual assault

More from Gayook Wong MSW
More from Psychology Today