Sexual Assault Stories Can Traumatize the Public

Finding balance in disclosing sexual abuse.

Posted Dec 04, 2017

Kelllll/IStock
Source: Kelllll/IStock

While I am most certainly an advocate for sexual assault victims and have specialized in this field of mental health work for 30 plus years, I feel compelled to share what many of my clients and colleagues have revealed to me in the past few weeks. We are grateful, as many are, that victims are feeling more comfortable speaking up. Hopefully, the world is listening so more men and women can feel safe in their working environments. The #MeToo revolution of speaking out has great potential to make significant changes in our society. I applaud those who are showing courage and strength.

I am hearing from many that it should be possible, however, to speak out without having to share the most explicit details with the entire universe. According to The National Center for Victims of Crime (2017), “Over their lifetime, an estimated 19 percent of women and 2 percent of men will have been raped, while 44 percent of women and 23 percent of men will experience some other form of sexual violence” (Source: 2017 National Crime Victims’ Rights Week Resource Guide: Crime and Victimization Fact Sheet). Therefore, you can only imagine how many people watching the media, are themselves victims of some sort of sexual trauma. We also have to be aware, that not all parents are shielding children from news reports as they run all day in many households.

As a treating therapist for sexual abuse victims, I can share that most are diagnosed with having some level of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from experiencing the abuse. PTSD can be triggered by anything that physiologically or psychologically reminds them of the original abuse (Source: American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA American Psychological Association, 2013. p. 271-274).

When PTSD is triggered, it is like the trauma is re-experienced for the victim and can be best described as an emotional collapse. Sometimes, this collapse can last for days on end and cause a person to withdraw, be depressed, and feel severely anxious. If watched before bedtime, the news stories can also cause insomnia. Just hearing about someone’s vivid, traumatic story, if it has too much detail, can cause harm to many.

Some of the best writers, for example, can tell you a story in such a way that you know what happened, but they don’t have to give you explicit details of the event. Often when they do, the reader cannot resume reading, may get overwhelmed or flooded, and simply put down the book or article. 

In conversations with colleagues about this issue, we all agree the movement is strong and helpful. But, we would love to see the media be more careful about how stories are presented so past victims are not harmed in the process. In the small microcosm of my practice, I have personally had five people in the last two weeks who are unable to sleep due to their own PTSD reactions to the sexual assault stories they are hearing. I am writing this post to raise awareness and food for thought, and to give an additional clinical dimension to the important work of the media in this highly significant movement.  ​

References

American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA American Psychological Association, 2013. p. 271-274.