In 2023, there continues to be uncertainty around the definition of sexual assault and the range of abusive sexual acts that can create lasting trauma. Trauma responses and ignorance around the topic of sexual assault and abuse, can delay our ability to identify an assault for days, weeks, or years. This can hinder a person’s ability to process their trauma and bring their perpetrators to justice should they decide to do so. 

In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), we want to provide some clarity to those who have experienced sexual assault as well as guidance and resources to support the physical, emotional, and relational impacts that can result. 

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is considered any unwanted sexual contact or behavior where explicit consent is not granted. Explicit consent is not possible when a person is under the influence of drugs, alcohol, asleep, or passed out. It is also not possible when a person is being pressured, manipulated, or threatened to say yes. If a person is under the age of consent, they are also unable to consent to sexual engagements. Sexual assault can involve physical force, but emotional coercion is also considered sexual assault. Emotional coercion consists of manipulation, bullying, pressuring, or providing substances to alter a person’s state of mind. 

Some common examples of sexual assault include, rape, child sexual assault, incest, sexual assault by a spouse or partner, date rape, sexual exploitation, and sexual coercion. 

How do you know you’ve been assaulted?

Due to the nuance of sexual assault, it will not always feel entirely clear that you have been assaulted. In these circumstances, the most accurate indicator of assault is how your body and mind react after a sexual encounter. Some common feelings include feeling confused, detached from yourself, violated, unconsidered, icky, anxious, frozen, or trapped. It is also important to note that these feelings can occur as a trauma response from a prior assault so identifying the source of the feelings can be helpful.

What does support for sexual assault look like for you?

The feelings that come up after an assault can be overwhelming. Feeling isolated, alone, invalidated, and not heard or seen by others are just a few of the many difficult feelings that can occur. For that reason, finding what feels like a solid support system can be a crucial part of your healing journey. What feels like support for one person can also look very different for another. There are a couple of ways you can get the support you need when healing from an assault. You can find regulating activities you can do on your own or find support through community. Support through community is another great way to connect with others who share similar interests and provide you with a safe space. 

Here are a few ways you can tap into the support you may need.

Things you can do on your own

Movement can be extremely helpful in moments when you feel stuck in a state of hyperarousal. It can help regulate your nervous system and bring you back to a more balanced state. There are many ways to get your body moving but finding what feels safe to you is important. Some activities include, yoga, pilates, gym, hiking, dancing, going for a walk somewhere that feels safe, etc. These exercises can be done on your own or with someone you love.

Self-care can be another great way to support yourself through your healing journey. With self-care you can find things that help nourish and recenter you on days where you may feel overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, or simply need that tender love and care. This is a time where you can focus on your needs, which can vary each day. Self-care activities include, restful sleep, a healthy diet, limiting substance use, and reducing the amount of exposure to stressful or triggering environments. Self-care activities that specifically target regulation can be helpful in high stress states like panic attacks, anxiety attacks, dissociation, and freeze responses. Self-regulating exercises can look like mindful breathing, meditation, connecting with nature, or simply noticing the colors, textures, and scents around you.

Finding support through community

Seeking support through the community can feel daunting at times. Those who have experienced sexual assault might encounter feelings of invalidation, not feeling seen or heard, and shamed. This can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. When your boundaries are violated and the ones you care about most are unable to provide the comfort and support needed, seeking help from others can feel difficult. For that reason, finding support through community is a tender and gentle process. Finding a safe space for you, where your experience is validated and your voice is heard is very important. Community support can include individual therapy, support/process groups, or reaching out to friends and family that you can trust.

            Here at WILA, we understand how difficult it can be for those who have experienced sexual assault. As WILA therapists, we know that building trust can take time. Prospective WILA patients are able to request who they feel most comfortable working with such as preference around a therapist’s gender identity, expertise, specialization, age, etc. You can also take a look on our website to learn more about our therapists. 

            At WILA, we also offer a women’s process group called VOW (Voices of Warriors), for those who have experienced sexual assault. VOW is facilitated by two therapists and provides a safe space for women to connect with one another on the many challenges and hardships that occur after assault. Participants are given a space to feel understood and share the ways in which their assault has affected them on interpersonal and intrapersonal levels. VOW’s mission is to cultivate a supportive group environment for those who feel isolated in their experience; a place where women can come together and find their voice. 

At WILA, our waitlist times fluctuate for individual therapy and the VOW group. If you don’t want to join the waitlist and would like to find something sooner, we can provide you with other resources. You can also check out Psychology Today, which is a great resource for individual therapy and group therapy.

To learn more about how VOW works, please click the link or give us a phone call at 424-371-5191 and one of our co-facilitators will reach out to you. You can also browse our website to learn more about our work in the community.