6 Painful and Unseen Side Effects of Being Sexually Assaulted

You may have heard about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and are somewhat familiar with the debilitating symptoms like flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and nightmares. Sexual assault is a form of trauma that can lead to the development of PTSD.

Sexual assault can also impact you in other complicated ways.

I want to share with you some of the lesser-known effects of sexual assault with the idea that the more you are able to understand your experiences, the more able you’ll be to seek appropriate treatment. And as humans I think it’s helpful to be able to understand ourselves.

These are 6 common side effects of experiencing a sexual assault. (This doesn’t mean if you don’t experience all of these you aren’t normal or having a normal reaction.)

You aren’t aware you were sexually assaulted

You might think I am referring to date rape drugs with this category but actually many people who black out from drugs do come to suspect they were assaulted.

A common experience is to not consider what happened as severe enough to warrant the label of sexual assault. You might perceive the person as lacking the intent to harm you, you didn’t say no loud enough or at all, or you’re in an otherwise good relationship with this person. You might hold the subconscious belief of rapists as being strangers who jump out from behind the bushes to attack.

And then you start to have difficulty experiencing sex as pleasurable, you feel anxious or tense up when engaging in physical intimacy, or you decide to avoid sex altogether. This could happen immediately after or years down the road. You’re now likely to believe your difficulty with intimacy is some fundamental flaw within yourself and it’s hard to draw the connection back to the experience that was never labeled a sexual assault.

You’re worried about telling current or future intimate partners

There’s a fear here that they won’t be attracted to you anymore or see you as “damaged goods” or worse, blame you. Sexual assault can hold a strong stigma and you might want to avoid being seen as a victim by your partner (or a liar).

This also means you’re unable to get support around it from your partner(s). The more isolated we are the more shame can grow. Like mold, shame grows best in the dark.

Intimacy with others becomes more challenging

Being intimate with others carries the potential of triggering a trauma response within you. When your body is triggered it might make you tense up or feel stressed during sex which can lead to pain. You might experience what trauma therapists refer to as a “body memory”. This means your sensory system is triggered and remembering the assault from your past even if your narrative memory is not activated. You might freeze, dissociate, cry, or suddenly feel shameful or dirty.

You can develop Trauma Imposter Syndrome

Something about saying you have experienced sexual assault makes you feel like a fraud. Shame makes you feel like you’re lying or exaggerating what happened. Something about owning the title “survivor” makes you feel like an imposter or like you’re doing harm to so-called “real” survivors.

Feel estranged from others

Particularly folks from really religious communities or family systems that hold a view of sex as taboo, sinful, or bad before marriage can experience a sense of being ostracized or in “bad standing” with their community. Even if the community isn’t aware of the assault you may still feel like if they did know they would blame you, shun you, exclude you, etc. Being or feeling isolated from others is a really painful experience for us. We are social creatures and are built to seek community and deeply long to belong.

Deep down you think you might be at fault

I don’t typically hear my clients say anymore “it was because of the way I was dressed”. Fault gets assigned these days in more sneaky ways. There is a cultural narrative that victim = innocent. As if there is such thing as a purely innocent person. There might be a personal narrative that goes something like this:

  • Shouldn’t have been spending time with them
  • Shouldn’t have been drinking that much
  • Shouldn’t have flirted or acted like I like them
  • I didn’t scream “no” and hit them or run away

So what can you do?

You decided to read this article for a reason.

Maybe you were curious. Maybe on some level you suspected aspects of this would be true for you. Maybe you were hoping this would confirm your belief that you were never sexually assaulted or maybe you were hoping to validate that whispering voice in your brain telling you something has happened to you.

You might not identify as a victim or survivor or label that uncomfortable experience as assault. And yet.. maybe some of these did resonate. It is ok if you don’t want to be labeled as a victim or survivor. It’s ok if you never identify what happened as an assault. You only need to trust your gut that something happened and it’s possible to recover.

If you do identify with any of the side effects above, perhaps it’s time to seek support, be seen, and get healing. EMDR and a trauma therapist can help you with all of the complicated side effects above. You don’t need to suffer.