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Sexual Assault: Short-Term and Long-Term Psychological Effects

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Sexual Assault: Short-Term and Long-Term Psychological Effects

Sexual assault is a term that is used interchangeably with the word rape. The decision on whether or not to use the term rape or sexual assault is made by a state's jurisdiction. Sexual assault is more readily used in an attempt to be more gender neutral (National Victim Center). Sexual assault can be most easily described as forced or unconsentual sexual intercourse. The individual that is performing these acts on the victim may either be a stranger or an acquaintance. In 1994, 64.2 percent of all rapes were committed by someone the offender had previously known (Ringel, 1997). Regardless, this type of crime can have extreme effects on the victim.

Sexual assault is a traumatic event that can cause extreme psychological effects on the victim. These effects can be short-term, and they can manifest themselves into long-term effects, depending on the individual and how the sexual assault occurred. Victims of sexual assault can be either male or female, with both sexes having fairly similar psychological effects. In addition to these psychological effects, some individuals develop Rape Trauma Syndrome or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which can be more easily classified as short-term versus long-term responses. Every individual is different and may differ in their reactions to this event; there is no normal or common way to react (Kaminker, 1998, pg. 23).

For individuals that have experienced this disturbing event, the effects can be described in terms of different phases in which they go through. During the impact phase, which occurs immediately after the attack, the victim tends to fall apart inside. They often experience shock, which has a sudden and powerful effect on emotions and physical reactions, or denial, which is a state of mind marked by a refusal or inability to recognize and deal with what has occurred (Bard and Sangrey, 1979, pg. 34). When the victim is in shock they often ask themselves "why me?" When going through denial, the victim may have an inability to accept what has happened and they are unsure if the event has really occurred. Sometimes victims in this phase may feel "numb and disorganized"(Bard and Sangrey, 1979, pg. 34). When the victim feels numb, they often experience a detachment from their lives and have a sense that they are separate from the ongoing world around them. During this phase, the victim may also suffer from extreme loneliness (Bard and Sangrey, 1979, pg. 35). They feel as though there is no one that can help them and that they are alone. This phase "may be expressed several hours or even days after the crime" (Bard and Sangrey, 1979, pg. 35).

In the second phase, called the recoil stage, the victim struggles "to adapt to the violation and tries to reintegrate their fragmented selves" (Bard and Sangrey, 1979, pg. 40). During this phase, the victim tries to recover. This phase is very complex and deals with a lot of issues and emotions. The victim often faces extreme fear and anxiety. They become fearful of their safety, as well as anxious in their surrounding environment. They are afraid of the person that has violated them as well as fearful of being alone. They also may "fear the medical, legal, or social consequences of the crime" (CASA House). During this phase, the victim experiences sadness and depression, as well as low self-esteem. Along with this phase comes anger. The victim either becomes angry with the person who defiled them or they may turn against themselves. (Bard and Sangrey, 1979, pg. 45). The victim has a sense of guilt and blame. They often ask themselves "why did I go there by myself?" or "why didn't I fight back harder?" During this phase, the victim may also suffer from mood swings (Bard and Sangrey, 1979, pg. 46). They may go from happiness to sudden sadness, or from rage to despair.

The third and final phase is called the reorganization phase; the victim becomes "reorganized over time and assimilates the painful experience" (Bard and Sangrey, 1979, pg. 46). This phase encompasses more of the long-term effects that the victim may suffer. Although the victim is trying to put their life back together, they often experience a loss of confidence, especially in building intimate relationships, as well as a loss of trust in these intimate relationships (CASA House). They may also suffer from nightmares, as well as, flashbacks after the attack has occurred. This can often last for many years following the attack. The victim experiences images of the assault, this can sometimes intrude with their everyday lives as well as their dreams (CASA House).

Most victims, as well as having the psychological effects listed above, may develop rape trauma syndrome. Occasionally, this syndrome can occur just by witnessing a sexual assault or having a close friend or family member go through this traumatic event, when this has occurred it is usually considered post-traumatic stress disorder. Often, rape trauma syndrome follows a different set of reactions and different types of phases than those previously mentioned. The first phase of rape trauma syndrome is called the acute phase. It can have an impact on the reactions of the individual, which can occur within a few hours of the attack. The victim can display a variety of symptoms in two different styles. The first type of style is the expressed style, where the victim will show their feelings such as crying, smiling, joking, or sobbing (Clancy, 1998). The second style is a controlled style, where the victim will hide their feelings, usually in a calm, unresponsive manner (Gordon and Riger, 1989, pg. 41). This first phase can also have semi-immediate effects, which will manifest within the first weeks of the traumatic event. These symptoms include "feeling powerlessness, shock, guilt, depression, or disbelief" (Parrot, 1993, pg. 80).

The second phase, called the reorganization phase, of rape trauma syndrome has three types of effects.

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