This article contains experiences and stories shared by sexual assault survivors that may be triggering to some readers. Certain names have been changed to protect the victim’s privacy.
Visual disclaimer: Due to the victims’ privacy, photos incorporated with this piece are all reenactments for visual storytelling and artful purposes. Photos may be triggering to some viewers but mirror the dark reality victims face after sexual assault.
After 20 minutes of trying every excuse, Erica gave in to the begging teenage boy. As a timid 19-year-old at her crush’s house for the first time, she feared rejecting his sexual advances would make him lose interest or dislike her.
“I think we should wait.”
“I don’t want to yet.”
“It’s getting late, and I have a long drive home.”
With every way she tried to get out of the situation, Erica said he had his excuses. He repetitively pleaded how badly he wanted her. Before she knew what was happening, he scooped Erica up off the couch and carried her into his bedroom.
“I never said yes once. I never told him I wanted to.”
Erica is one of many who have felt forced into intimacy. Sexual violence is shockingly common in today’s society. One in four women is a sexual assault survivor explains Rape Victims Support Network. In Canada alone, every 17 minutes, someone forces a woman into sexual activity. As of 2018, Statistics Canada reported one in five sexual assault victims of all genders felt they were to blame.
But let’s look past the numbers and the statistics. Let’s look at the new reality sexual violence victims face in the wake of being victimized — flashbacks, changes in sexual identity, feelings of fault in the situation — these are just some things victims carry around with them for the rest of their lives.
On her drive home that night, Erica said her brain ran on a loop. Her emotions bounced back and forth between trying to convince herself she was happy to feeling guilty for not stopping him.
Since that night, Erica has carried around the weight brought on by her assaulter’s actions and blaming herself for not flat out saying “no.” Though she was excited their relationship was progressing, it went further than she wanted it to. She hid the situation from her friends, playing it off like she was excited they had slept together already. She dated him for three more months.
In hindsight, Erica knew something was wrong. She felt disgusted and ashamed of herself the whole time they were together, but she ignored it and tried to assure herself the feelings were nothing.
It’s common for sexual assailants to be a woman’s intimate partner. In fact, 17 per cent of reported sexual assault cases in Canada involve the victim’s significant other or a person of romantic interest. For many victims, their perspective of sex changes. They grow a negative attitude towards moments they may have once enjoyed. Maturing into her teen years, Erica never had any negative thoughts or feelings towards one-night stands. Since her sexual assault, her mind has done a complete 180.
“Having sexual relations with people that I don’t completely trust, or I’m not in a committed relationship with just makes me feel gross,” said Erica.
That night’s events have caused her to put up her guard, especially going into new relationships. Erica now fears pursuing new men because she never wants to find herself in a similar situation. She said she believes this will be a lasting effect — one she’ll deal with for the rest of her life.
Erica pushes to have the first couple dates with a new guy in public now and always makes sure she won’t be in a situation where she’ll be alone with him. Deciding who and when she wants to be intimate with is no easy process for her. It’s the fear, she said. Fear of being alone with a guy and experiencing assault again. Fear of his reaction to hearing the word ‘no.’
“I try to avoid being alone with a guy until I know I’m ready to be intimate. I’m so scared of having to say no to another partner and him disregarding or ignoring my words,” said Erica.
Though she is currently in a new and healthy relationship, when it started, she found herself freezing or stopping when things progressed intimately. Although Erica was fine with what was happening and knew she wanted to continue, the fear in the back of her mind took over.
She’s also had to rebuild her relationship with her body. She said a feeling of uncleanliness follows her. She became hyperaware of her looks. Her confidence plummeted. She said she neglected her diet and exercise and hid herself under layers of clothes.
Erica is working to acknowledge her feelings and become more at peace with herself. She gives her body what it needs, participating in exercise and regularly eating well. Despite all her self-care, she can’t seem to free herself from the shameful, dirty feeling that crawls on her skin.
‘I kind of convinced myself that everything was in my head‘
It’s common for sexual assault victims to battle with mental health symptoms on top of fear. One-third of rape victims described their mental health symptoms, like depression, as life-threatening stated the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center.
Sam, 25, is another sexual assault victim who deals with residual trauma regularly. A family member sexually assaulted Sam when she was just eight years old. She experienced sexual violence again when she was 16 by a guy she was seeing.
“I think I definitely struggled with reality for a bit,” said Sam. “I kind of convinced myself that everything was in my head, and that nothing actually happened to cope with it.”
Sam disassociated herself from her experiences, but it didn’t help with controlling her emotions. She deals with severe anxiety daily, even in instances that have nothing to do with her trauma. Sam thinks she’ll always carry the damage around. Her experiences have made her much more aware of her surroundings, and she finds herself always preparing for the worst.
“I feel like it’s really hard to feel comfortable in any setting now,” said Sam.
Sam’s always conscious of who’s around her, what they might do, and where the closest exit is. She lives her life paranoid, preparing for things to go south. She never goes anywhere alone; it helps her feel in control.
Control is a huge coping mechanism for sexual assault victims, reports the McGill Journal of Medicine. Many find a need to control every other aspect of their lives after feeling so powerless and forced to participate in an act against their own will. Sam had an eating disorder. She thinks her need for control was part of the reason behind it. She wanted to take back control over everything.
Despite this, Sam doesn’t have power over her flashbacks. They come and go as they please. Some are more vivid than others — especially the ones waking her up at night.
“Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to get out of bed. Kind of like sleep paralysis, and I’m just lying there reliving and watching the moments over again in my head.”
She lies there cemented to her pillow. Body frozen. Her mind runs on repeat of the forceful men in her past. Pressure weighs on her chest. The more she panics the harder it becomes to breathe.
Sam isn’t alone. According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an anti-sexual violence organization, 94 per cent of victimized women experience similar post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms during the first two weeks following their sexual assault. Thirty per cent of women reported feeling these PSTD symptoms longer than nine months after.
Though it’s been over 10 years, and Sam is finally past denying what happened, she’s still trying to fully accept her assaults. For a long time, she just pretended that it never happened. She thinks this might be why it’s taken her so long to come to terms with it.
Victims don’t always report assaults
Sam never reported her assaulters. They’re still out there. This isn’t uncommon for Canadians. Statistics Canada conducted a study that found only five per cent of victims brought their cases to police attention.
“I feared my family would hate me for ruining his life,” Sam said.
On top of worrying her family would turn against her, she dreaded outsiders finding out. She couldn’t bear having to supply the police with a full detailed story of the events that took place; it would be too triggering.
The TIME’S UP Foundation’s research shows some victims avoid reporting their abuser because they believe their story isn’t severe enough. They think people will assume they’re lying.
Olivia, 25, is one of them.
When Olivia was 20, she and a few friends were out at a bar having drinks. They later returned to a friend’s house feeling pretty intoxicated. Two of her male friends pulled her aside and began asking her sexual questions. It made her feel uncomfortable.
Removing herself from the situation, Olivia headed to the basement to get in bed with another friend. One of the guys followed. Standing at the end of her bed, he continued to direct dirty comments at her and grab at her feet, trying to pull her out as she resisted. Olivia desperately latched to her sleeping friend. The eager man tried to guilt her into a sexual act by questioning their friendship.
After not getting what he wanted, he left to try the same thing on Olivia’s friend in another room. This whole situation had Olivia turning the event over in her mind constantly. She said she wonders what she did to make him act that way. She’s now more cautious around guys she considers to be friends.
“If I’m ever one-on-one with a guy friend I’m like ‘oh, watch what you’re saying, don’t say something that could be interpreted the wrong way.’ I definitely don’t want to give the wrong impression,” said Olivia.
She now often replays that night in her head, always asking what if her other friend wasn’t there to protect her.
Like many victims in North America, Olivia tried to keep what happened to herself. She feared other peoples’ opinions and that they’d think she was making it all up. Victims across the country are choosing to stay quiet because of this very reason. Psychotherapist Beverly Engel said in an ABC News article victims are often too ashamed to speak their truth or come forward. Instead, they bottle it up to avoid retaliation. That way they don’t feel any more dehumanized than they already do. Because, after all, their bodies were a crime scene.
Erica said she never reported her story to the police because it was a year later when she finally processed and forced herself to understand what happened.
“I knew I wouldn’t be taken seriously because I didn’t say the exact word “no,” and I didn’t fight him off. I was scared to tell anyone for the fear of being called a liar,” said Erica.
Erica and Olivia aren’t the only victims that feel this way. The Brennan Center for Justice reports 20 per cent of victims worry about retaliation. Thirteen per cent said the police would be no help. Eight per cent said they weren’t sure their sexual violence would be deemed severe enough to report. Given the statistics and personal stories, it’s clear the new reality for victims after suffering through sexual assault is one full of guilt, doubt, worry and uncertainty. But people are starting to recognize they aren’t alone, and these feelings they’re having are actually quite common.
Greater discussion and awareness
As the world continues to develop and grow, the trend today is more open discussion and awareness about the harms of sexual violence. In summer 2020, thousands of victims across Winnipeg were coming to Instagram and Twitter with their stories and exposing their abusers for the safety of others.
“I think it’s super empowering that they are speaking out about their abusers. It’s important to sit down and say this is what happened to me and I want to warn others, so it doesn’t happen to them,” said Olivia.
Survivors used a private Instagram account, @safespacewpg, as a hub to share their stories. Victims, including Erica, also took to their own social media accounts to expose their assaulters. Thousands of locals came forward, expressing their support for the victims through likes, shares and comments.
“Sexual assault was viewed as such a taboo topic, or as something to not be talked about. More often than not these women who report their stories are accused of lying, so to see all the support the victims were getting was comforting,” said Erica.
Erica described this time as cleansing, but telling her story and reading others wasn’t an easy process. It was triggering for her. It caused her to fall back into a depressive state, continuously thinking about the night of her assault.
Watching, reading, and listening to sexual assault stories is a trigger for many victims. Elizabeth Jeglic, a psychology professor and author explained to The Washington Post, when a memory surfaces, their bodies goes into fight-or-flight mode, almost as if they are back in the moment of their assault. In this state of mind, victims could feel symptoms such as “increased heart rate, panic, freezing up, difficulty focusing, disassociation, headache, and nausea,” said Jeglic.
With the growing number of stories and online discussions about sexual assault, some victims have difficulty using social media or reading the news. Doing so risks coming across triggering content.
Through Erica’s healing process, she’s learned what her biggest triggers are and how to avoid them. She finds the worst ones come while watching or reading about sexual violence. To prevent flashbacks or panic attacks, she immediately stops what she’s doing and finds something else to distract her racing mind.
“I’m glad that there is more awareness coming out about the different types of sexual assault, because it’s not just rape by a random stranger. It’s not just fighting someone off while saying no. There are so many ways to say no,” said Erica.
A safe space for victims
Erica said she thinks Winnipeg is evolving into a safe space for victims who want to report their stories but are afraid to. Over the past couple of years, multiple sexual violence programs and resources have kick-started in the city. Klinic Community Health, a Winnipeg community health centre, launched a third party reporting program for sexual assault in 2018.
When victims are ready, they can call the Sexual Assault Crisis Line (24/7) at 204-786-8631. There, they can describe their story in as much detail as they feel comfortable sharing. The agency submits their report to the police, ensuring their personal information stays confidential and out of the file. Victims often worry about keeping their identity confidential. This is why so many avoid reporting their assault. With this third-party reporting program, victims don’t have to worry divulging their names and giving up their privacy.
If the police need to speak with a victim, they can only do so through the agency that submitted the report. Victims have the choice to talk to the police or not.
“We make sure it fits for them. Sexual assault is always about taking away power and choice. The third party reports allow survivors to feel like they have choice. It allows them to maintain a sense of safety and anonymity,” said Kara Neustaedter, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Crisis Program at Klinic Community Health. The program has trained support workers to ensure victims get referrals for additional help.
Coming to terms
Though Erica has never reached out for professional help, she’s growing and healing from that night on her own and with the help of friends. Throughout her entire relationship with her assailant, she could never understand why she had these underlying negative thoughts. When it ended and she finally told her friends what had happened a year later, it all started to make sense.
One day between classes, lounging with her two best friends, Erica scrolled through her social media page. She came across a girl sharing her sexual assault story. Her friends gathered around to read with her. As Erica’s eyes scanned the words on her screen, a wave of realization washed over her entire body. Her heart rate increased. Her breath went shaky. She turned to her friends, telling them the post sounded a lot like what happened to her. When her friends told her that wasn’t okay and she experienced sexual assault, she went quiet.
She could feel her heartbeat pounding through her chest. She didn’t know what to say or what to do. Nervous and uncomfortable in her own skin, she looked around the room, feeling like everyone’s eyes were on her.
At that moment, Erica’s life went dark. Her days felt never-ending. She would lay on the couch in her dimly lit basement, letting Netflix play for hours. She rarely got up and could barely bring herself to eat. She was just existing in a prolonged state of panic until her friends encouraged her to talk about it.
“I think the best coping mechanism for me was speaking and having conversations about it,” said Erica.
Hearing people say what happened to her was not OK pushed her along her healing process. Before, she worried no one would believe her. Sitting down with her friends to talk about what happened helped her out of the denial.
“If you’re wondering if it counts, and you feel it negatively affects your life, it does. You don’t have to dismiss it just because somebody else’s story is worse than yours,” said Erica.
Anyone affected by family and intimate partner violence can call a confidential 24/7 toll-free crisis line, 1-877-977-0007, staffed by shelters across the province. Confidential texting options are also available at 204-792-5302 or 204-805-6682.
In an emergency, dial 911 or call your local police service.