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The psychology of healing from sexual trauma
A deeper look at what happens in the first 2 years after experiencing sexual trauma.
The content in this article may be triggering to some readers. This article contains discussion around the topics of sexual assault, rape, sexual violence, trauma and PTSD. Please read at your own discretion.
- Between 17-25% of women and 1-3% of men will report an instance of sexual abuse within their lifetime - however, research suggests up to 80% of sexual violence goes unreported, so the number of people who have experienced sexual abuse is much higher than you think.
- A 2004 study takes a look at the psychological healing process sexual abuse survivors experience within the first 21 months after their assault.
- Results of this study prove the decrease in behavioral self-blame that survivors reported feeling within the first 21 months after their attack greatly aided in their recovery.
How common is sexual assault and abuse?
17-25% of American women have reported a sexual assault sometime in their life.
Photo by fizkes on Shutterstock
Sexual assault can take many different forms but generally refers to sexual contact that occurs without the explicit consent of the victim. Some forms of sexual assault include attempted rape, fondling or unwanted sexual touching, forcing a victim to perform sexual acts and penetration of the victim's body (also known as rape).
According to the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the rate of reported sexual assault and rape has decreased by 63% from 1993 (when there were 4.3 sexual assault reports per 1,000 people) to 2016 (when there were 1.2 sexual assault reports per 1,000 people.)
While some may look at these statistics and think the risk of sexual assault and rape are diminishing, something of note when dealing with sexual assault statistics is that these statistics are only ever representative of reported cases of sexual trauma.
In reality, these kinds of results only account for sexual assaults that have been reported - and according to the U.S Department of Justice (2018), an estimated 80% of sexual assaults go unreported.
RAINN statistics (2016) on sexual violence:
- Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.
- One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
- About 3% of American men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
Other statistics fall closely in line with these numbers, as you can see in this 2017 study, where it was reported that around 17-25% of women and around 1-3% of men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
Surviving sexual abuse: A look at the psychopathology of sexual abuse survivors 21 months after their trauma
3% of American men have reported sexual assault sometime in their life.
Photo by Sam Wordley on Shutterstock
A 2004 study (Mary P. Koss and Aurelio Jose Figueredo) of the healing process of sexual trauma over the first 21 months proves significant improvements in the psychopathology of sexual abuse survivors.
During this study, reported rape survivors (59 participants) were assessed four times over the course of 21 months after their sexual trauma.
Researchers used the "Rape Attribution Questionnaire", which consists of three 7-item subscales that assess the survivor on the following criteria: Behavioral Self-Blame, Characterological Self-Blame, and External Blame.
This questionnaire consists of sentences such as "how often have you thought: I was assaulted because…" with the participants choosing answers that range from 1 (never) to 5 (very often). This questionnaire is used to gauge the psychopathology of the assault survivor based on how they view their traumatic experience.
The results of the Koss and Figueredo study suggest that many things happen within the first 2 years of a person experiencing sexual trauma…
Causal attributions: trying to find the "why"...
First, uncontrollable and traumatic acts (such as rape) stimulate what is known as "causal attributions", which are defined as our attempts at explaining the situation "rationally".
This leads survivors of sexual trauma to ask themselves questions such as "why did this happen to me?" and "what could I have done differently?"
Behavioral Self-Blame increases in the first few months after sexual trauma
In the months after the initial trauma, Behavioral Self-Blame increases. Survivors begin to question if there was anything they could have done to prevent the attack and can even begin to place blame on themselves (a common example for women is thinking about what they were wearing, if it was too provocative, if they encouraged the attacker in any way, etc).
Initially, after an assault, it's common for our body and mind to go into "protective mode", which is often the "numb" feeling many people experience after sexual abuse. The increase in behavioral self-blame increases the level of global distress in the survivor, bringing them out of the "numb" mode and oftentimes making their assault feel "real".
This often causes symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) such as flashbacks and anxiety.
Characterological Self-Blame increases, which leads to severe spikes in PTSD symptoms
Characterological Self-Blame also increases in the initial stages after the sexual trauma, once we have been brought out of the numb mode by the increase of our global distress levels. Survivors begin to wonder if what happened to them was a result of who they are as a person (example, thinking that "bad things happen to bad people".) They start to question who they are as a person and if they deserve what happened to them.
This increase in characterological self-blame also spikes the global distress of the survivor, leading to more severe PTSD symptoms and can often lead to self-destructive behavior.
Looking outside ourselves for answers often gives a reason to isolate and "shut down"
External blame and maladaptive beliefs form - which can mean the survivor begins to look for blame outside of themselves, often isolating themselves from the society that harmed them. The survivor begins to adapt their beliefs to attempt to understand what happened to them and why.
In this initial aftermath of sexual trauma, sexual assault survivors may seek to understand the reasons for what happened by blaming external forces (such as their attacker or society as a whole), or they can try to seek answers by turning to internal explanations (often taking their own behaviors and actions into judgment).
21 months after sexual trauma: behavioral and characterological self-blame decrease, driving recovery
A 2001 study (Frazier, Berman & Steward) concluded that Behavioral Self-Blame (example: blaming what we did that night to "provoke" the assault) was consistently associated with more distress among victims of rape or sexual assault.
However, Characterological Self-Blame (example: blaming who we are for what happened) leads to an ever higher distressing and harmful effect on the survivor's overall health. These causal attributions and the self-blame that many survivors put onto themselves directly influence the severity of their global distress.
The results of the Koss and Figueredo study prove that while behavioral/characterological self-blame, isolation, and PTSD increase within the initial months after the attack, the decrease in behavioral self-blame that survivors reported feeling within the first 21 months after their attack greatly aided in their recovery.
You are not alone.
Psychiatrist Judith Herman explains why individual and/or group therapy is so helpful to survivors of sexual abuse:
"Trauma isolates: The group re-creates a sense of belonging. Trauma shames and stigmatizes: The group bears witness and affirms. Trauma degrades: The group restores your sense of humanity."
Need help? Call 800-656-4673 (HOPE).
The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 100% safe and confidential - when you place your call, only the first 6 numbers of your phone number are used to route the call to a hotline center in your area.
- MeToo ›
- Sexual harassment: What can and can't you say at work? - Big Think ›
- Why rape cases should not be subject to reasonable doubt - Big Think ›
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.