Victim Reactions to Sexual Assault
last updated February 1, 2006

Women who have been victims of sexual assault will have a variety of responses to and ways of coping with the assault. Some may have immediate responses, while others may experience delayed reactions. While there is no "pattern" reaction, it is possible to describe some general reactions and feelings that victims might have after an assault.

Victims may initially feel shock, confusion, helplessness, anger, shame, terror, confusion, or numbness. They may deny or minimize the experience, particularly when their attacker was an acquaintance or spouse. Some will reach out for assistance, while others may withdraw.

Contrary to popular myth, not all assault victims are hysterical. This myth of the "hysterical" victim is premised on the belief that if a victim is not emotional and hysterical after an assault, she must not have been "truly" raped. Thus, a report on sexual assault investigations and prosecutions in Britain noted a feeling within the criminal justice system that a woman's demeanor after an assault was important. According to the report, it was "commonly expected that, in the aftermath of a rape, a victim's trauma will be reflected in their being hysterical and tearful" and, as a result, "a complainant's demeanour following an alleged rape was thought to be important, when it should not be. . . . [M]any victims exhibit a controlled response and in fact mask their feelings, appearing calm and composed." From Jessica Harris & Sharon Grace, A Question of Evidence? Investigating and Prosecuting Rape in the 1990s, Home Office Research Study 18 (1999). In other words, while some victims may be emotional, others will be very controlled. "Emotional" victims may cry or sob in describing the incident, while "controlled" victims may mask or hide their feelings and appear calm, composed and subdued. From Ann Wolbert Burgess & Lynda Lytle Holmstrom, Coping and Reactions: Rape Trauma Syndrome, Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault Training Manual.

As Rebecca Campbell explains, after time, victims may start experiencing "alternating sequences of intrusions and avoidance." Intrusions could include flashbacks and nightmares, while avoidance "refers to how victims isolate themselves from reminders of the traumatic event to prevent becoming emotionally overwhelmed." Avoidance techniques may include repression, denial, minimizing, withdrawal, or engaging in high-risk behaviors such as substance use. Although such "avoidance" reactions may be interpreted as evidence that the victim has worked through the emotional issues connected to the assault, these issues may not have been resolved, and can manifest themselves in unexplained fear, worry, or anxiety. Strong emotional intrusions may then reoccur, and victims may experience flashbacks and nightmares, depression and anxiety.

From Rebecca Campbell, Mental Health Services for Rape Survivors: Current Issues in Therapeutic Practice (October 2001); Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs (2000); Sue Orsillo, Sexual Assault Against Females, National Center for PTSD (2003).

For a collection of research and reports on victim reactions to sexual assault, click here.