The personal costs of sexual assault

Trauma for victims of sexual assault is individual and unpredictable, the symptoms appearing in pulses over the years. Directly after an attack, there is often shock and visceral fear. Particularly when a victim knows the rapist, there can be guilt and self-doubt. Another layer to contend with is the physical trauma, which can include injuries, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. The emotional damage can take a longer time to emerge and can include anxiety, long-term insomnia, a sense of alienation and thoughts of suicide. While some women get hyper-vigilant, others start taking risks. Especially if women experience victim-blaming, the assault can leave them feeling worthless and turning to harmful coping strategies.

“It impacts your everyday living and your intimate relationships,” Karyn Freedman, author of the recent book One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery, says.

“As a society, we’d prefer it to be not that big of a deal: one or two conversations with someone and you’ll be better. What the New York magazine piece showed us is that the effects are lifelong,” Freedman, now an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph, said.

A 2015 meta-analysis found that trauma causes neural changes and has a measurable and enduring effect on brain function, including regions involved in “emotional regulation.” For victims of sexual violence, trauma can live in the body as a chronic condition.