4 Stages of Reaction to Sexual Violence:
“If the occurrence of rape were audible, its decibel level equal to its frequency, it would overpower our days and nights, interrupt our meals, our bedtime stories, howl behind our love-making, an insistent jackhammer of distress. We would demand an end to it. And if we failed to locate its source, we would condemn the whole structure. We would refuse to live under such conditions.”
– Patricia Weaver Francisco
- Acute Crisis Stage: In the hours and days following an act of sexual violence, shock and confusion are the most common initial reactions. Some survivors may display strong physical reactions—visibly shaking, crying, fainting, or experiencing seizures—while others retreat to a subdued, almost catatonic, state of calm, cold detachment. During the crisis stage, fear is often the predominant underlying emotion—fear of seeing the abuser again, fear of the places or situations where the abuse occurred, fear of another attack, fear of judgment, and fear of being ostracized or alone.
- Denial Stage: During the denial stage, a survivor may not recognize the sexual activities as abuse, or they may try to rationalize the abuser’s behavior. Dissociation is a defense mechanism where a person disconnects thoughts, feelings, actions, memories, identity, and awareness of one’s surroundings. Dissociation can be used as a way to escape from fear, anxiety, pain, and horror. Victims may change residence, jobs, or schools in an attempt to return to normalcy. They may also retreat to alcohol, drugs, overeating, overworking, or sleep to numb their feelings.
- Suffering Stage: Once the reality of what has happened sinks in, the suffering stage typically begins. The harm suffered as a result of sexual violence can be physical, mental, and emotional. The symptoms can be debilitating and constant, or they can come and go in phases when triggered. For many, reading, watching, or hearing about similar stories of sexual abuse can be a trigger. Others may be triggered by changes in life situation; a new relationship, marriage, divorce, having children. Triggers can also be situational, based on encounters with people, places, or items from the past.
- Resolution Stage: Resolution is a long-term process of coming to grips with feelings stemming from sexual violence, the attacker, and oneself. Often, through individual therapy or group support settings, adults move from “victim” to “survivor,” and become empowered to take action against what happened. They come to a certain acceptance, as painful as it may be, and learn to integrate the event into their overall timeline as a transformative moment that has defined who they are to become—a fighter, an advocate for other survivors, a resilient being.