Following an experience of rape or sexual assault it can take some time and work to get your life back on track. Everyone who experiences sexual assault copes with it and gets through it in different ways. People cope, survive and thrive through the most impossibly difficult situations. Provided here is some information and suggested questions men who have experienced sexual assault and their supporters can make use of.
Common feelings and reactions
There is no typical way that someone feels or behaves following rape or sexual assault – everyone is different. However, listed below are a range of common feelings and reactions which men have reported experiencing. You may:
- Be adamant you should have been able to handle yourself.
- Feel numb, dirty, and/or afraid afterwards.
- Blame yourself.
- Feel outraged at the violation of your body.
- Be very angry.
- Not know how to feel or have a lot of confused emotions.
- Cry a lot.
- Want to forget all about the rape, or find it too hard to talk about.
- Question your sexuality and worry the world will now assume you are gay.
- Have intense feelings of dislike or hatred for the person who raped you or for people in general, or even for yourself. Not be able to get the rape out of your mind, have trouble sleeping and have nightmares.
- Feel too afraid or ashamed to go out.
- Make a point of going out to prove to yourself that you can.
- Have trouble eating or feel sick.
- Experience difficulty in trusting others.
- Have a loss of confidence.
- Notice mood swings.
- Not want to have sex or to be touched, even by people you are close to.
- Feel a great need for physical contact and comfort.
What can make it hard for men
As the above list indicates, an experience of rape or sexual assault can impact on a man’s physical, emotional and psychological well being beyond the initial assault. What can make these feelings and reactions particularly hard for men to deal with is the unrealistic idea that as a man he should be tough and able to cope with anything that is thrown at him, that he should be able to pull himself together and press on regardless. These unrealistic expectations can make not only the sexual assault itself difficult for men to deal with, but have men evaluating themselves in relation to how they handle the feelings and reactions they experience in the weeks and months after the assault.
Following an experience of sexual assault, men can feel a range of emotions that they are unfamiliar with. In men’s culture, expressions of anger and frustration are understandable, whereas expressions of fear and vulnerability are often discounted or discouraged. It is helpful for men who have experienced sexual assault to recognise that emotions are emotions. There are not right or wrong emotions; what is important is that men find a safe place to go in which to be able to express and explore emotions in a safe way. (For a more detailed discussion on men and emotions following sexual assault go to Men and emotions).
In the months following an assault, it is useful to remind yourself that an experience of sexual assault can affect concentration and memory; it can leave you with reduced energy, feeling unexpectedly tired, irritable or edgy. Also, at times emotional responses may be unexpectedly triggered by people, places or things connected to the assault. An experience of sexual assault can produce emotional responses or unwelcome thoughts from "out of the blue"; remembering this can help keep at bay thoughts that you're "going crazy" or becoming "mentally ill." Following an experience of sexual assault it is useful to cut yourself some slack, to be kind to yourself, to prepare yourself for the fact that you are likely to have some off days and find study, work or home life difficult to deal with.
Talking about rape or sexual assault or your reactions to it is probably the last thing you want to do. In fact, it's common to want to avoid conversations and situations that may remind you of the assault; many men have a sense of wanting to "get on with life" and "let the past be the past". However, don’t let this get in the way of accessing support if you need it. Talking with someone who will listen and try to understand – whether it's a friend, family member, counsellor or therapist – can help. Try to identify and spend time with people who validate you and your feelings, who know your strengths and positive qualities. Try not to isolate yourself. Talk about what is happening for you and the kind of assistance you want – you choose when, where, and with whom; finally, you decide how much or how little to talk about.
Practical ways to take care of yourself
In the days and weeks following a rape or sexual assault try to take time for yourself. Below is a list of some practical steps that men have found useful. Try to:
- Reduce physical tension and stress through exercise – walk, jog, cycle, swim or weight training.
- Engage in relaxation techniques – yoga, breathing and mindfulness exercises, meditation or prayer.
- Maintain a balanced diet and sleep cycle. Avoid overusing caffeine, sugar, nicotine, alcohol or other drugs.
- Take "time outs." Give yourself permission to take quiet moments to reflect, relax and rejuvenate especially during times you feel stressed or unsafe. Reading can be a calming activity, as can listening to music. Try to find short periods of uninterrupted leisure time.
- Consider writing, journaling or drawing as a way of expressing thoughts and feelings. Write a letter about how you feel about what happened to you. Be as specific as you want to, whilst prioritising your feelings of safety.
It may be that you do not wish to spend any more time thinking about how the rape or sexual assault has influenced your life; you just want to get on. It may be, however, that you feel there is still some stuff to work out, yet there is not anyone available to talk things through with. Provided below is some information and questions that you might find useful. Remember it is your choice where to from here.
Developing an account of your experience
Every person who has been raped or sexually assaulted has two different stories to tell. One is the story of the rape and its effects: how it occurred, who was involved, what happened and the effects that the attack has had and is still having. But there is a second story too, one that is sometimes more difficult to describe. This is the story of how the man survived the sexual assault: how he tried to minimise the damage, how he tried to protect himself, the things he thought about to get through each day and so on.
People who have been subjected to rape or sexual assault often find it important to have a chance to explore both of these stories in some detail. This next section will ask questions to assist in doing so. Some of these questions may appear unusual or be hard to answer at first but we hope they will be helpful.
The effects of rape or sexual assault
All experiences of rape or sexual assault are different and the effects vary for different people. Sometimes rape has physical effects: you may feel severe pain, shock, tremors of arms and legs, stomach problems, nausea or vomiting, loss of appetite, constipation, diarrhoea, nightmares and/or sleeplessness, headaches, dizziness. You may find yourself spacing-out as a way of coping. Some people have flashbacks, when memories of the rape intrude at different times. All these reactions are common; they are signs that your body and mind is trying to cope with what it has been through. Then again, other people do not have these sorts of responses. The experience differs for everyone.
The voice of rape
Apart from the physical trauma of rape, what rape often does is encourage people to think of themselves in particular ways. Often you need to deal with these thoughts in order to claim all of your life back from sexual assault. If you have been assaulted it is very easy to be overtaken by thoughts that say bad things about yourself. Attackers often encourage these views, as if you are to blame, as if you deserve it, as if you are weak, dirty or somehow not a man anymore. Resisting these thoughts can be really difficult. These sorts of ideas can hang around and keep the effects of abuse alive. The ‘voice of rape’ can often try to make you feel dirty, violated and guilty. It sometimes tries to take away your dignity and self-respect. We’ve included here some questions that might assist in thinking about the ‘voice of rape’ and how it might be influencing you since the assault:
- What has the ‘voice of rape’ tried to convince you about yourself?
- Has it tried to say that you were weak, or dirty, or that you deserved what happened to you?
- When is it most likely to get into your head?
- Are there times when it is less likely to be around?
- Are there any ways that you have tried to speak back to this ‘voice of rape’?
- Are there ways in which you have tried to get ‘the voice of rape’ out of your head?
The voice of self-blame
One of the most devious effects of rape is that it encourages you to blame yourself for what has happened. The voice of self-blame may try to convince you that the rape was somehow your own fault, that you should have been able to resist it, prevent it, that it was something about you that made the perpetrator(s) single you out. There are so many ways in which the voice of self-blame operates. It often appears when people are feeling most vulnerable. It twists the truth and can leave people feeling guilty or even hating themselves.
- Since the rape, has the voice of self-blame invited you to judge yourself harshly?
- Have you found ways to quieten the voice of self-blame?
- Are there any memories of people or past times that act as an antidote to the voice of self-blame?
- Who in your life would be the person who would most likely stand up against the voice of self blame, who would want to support you at this time? This person might be an old friend, a relative, your mother, a partner or ex-partner.
- You may or may not still be in contact with them. In fact, they may not even still be alive. Whatever the case, if they were present, if they could speak to you now, what might they say about self-blame?
Despair – a loss of hope
There are many things about life that can make despair grow large after an experience of sexual assault. This is particularly true if you are at risk of further assaults and when you have little control over your circumstances. Some people have described how a loss of all hope can descend at times like this.
- Have there been other times in your life where you have lost hope and where despair has been close by?
- How did you make it through such times in the past?
- Are there any hopes for the future that you still hold onto?
- What is the history of these hopes?
- Why are they important to you?
- Who would know that these are important to you?
Sexuality and your body
One of the effects of sexual abuse is that it can confuse people about their own sexuality and sexual preferences. Physical responses to assault can be very puzzling. Your body may have become physically aroused during the assault and you may have developed an erection and ejaculated. If the assault was by someone of the opposite sex, the attack may trigger questions about heterosexuality and sexual identity. If the assault was by someone of the same sex then this can bring questions about homosexuality and sexual identity. If you experience a variety of feelings, there is no need to try to put a label on yourself. Your body is trying to deal with a very complex situation.
Some people also describe that after experiencing sexual assault their sexual fantasies change; what is arousing to them may also change for a time. People’s bodies respond to sexual violence in different ways. Some people’s bodies close down for a while. They choose to avoid sexual activity. Others take steps to reclaim their own physical responses and sexual pleasure. If sex with a partner is not possible at present the world of fantasy and opportunities for masturbation are generally available. If reclaiming physical pleasure is important to you, or becomes important to you sometime in the future, we suggest you try to find ways of experiencing sexual pleasure free from the images and associations of rape. If you masturbate, it may be possible to explore holding different images in your mind – perhaps of partners or ex-partners, perhaps of places where you have been sexual in the past, times when you have felt in control of what was to happen, and when your choices were respected. There may also be ways of relating to your own body with kindness and tenderness. On a different note, some men try to claim back a sense of their bodies through engaging in sport, weights or exercise. There are many different ways or reclaiming a sense of your own body and sexuality. (See section on sexuality, sex, etc.)
A story of survival
Despite all the difficulties of the assault(s), if you are reading this, then somehow you have managed to survive.
- What does it say about you that you have survived?
- What strengths or skills have you drawn upon?
- What is the history of these skills? Where did you learn these survival strategies?
These sorts of questions may seem strange at first and difficult to answer, especially if you are feeling shaky. But they are important questions. This section focuses on the ways in which men might resist and survive rape or sexual assault.
Acts of resistance
Even if it is not obvious at first, everyone who is subjected to rape resists in different ways. Some people resist physically and fight back. Others resist by thinking particular thoughts, holding onto positive images or by blocking out what is taking place. Some people manage to almost leave their body and it is as if they are hardly present during the assault. Some people try to persuade their attacker(s) to allow them to perform certain sexual acts and not others, or to use a condom (where they are available). Others are deliberately quiet and physically passive in order to minimise the violence against them. Some men say and do one thing while thinking something completely different. They ensure that the rapist(s) do not know their thoughts and feelings. Others try to think about what they will do when the assault is over. They keep their minds focused on the future. It can be significant to acknowledge how you tried to resist the rape, or how you tried to minimise its harm. While these might seem like small actions at first, they often show what is precious to you and how you have tried to protect yourself in the most difficult circumstances. We suggest you try to think about these acts of resistance, and then ask yourself:
- What do these actions of resistance say about what is important to you?
- Who would be least surprised (and most supportive) to know that you resisted the rape in these ways?
- If they could be present now what do you think they might appreciate about how you are trying to deal with this situation?
Trying to stay safe
After an assault, people try to stay safe in many different ways. Some men seek support from those close to them. Some keep very quiet and try to be invisible. Every situation is different. What is always true is that people take some sort of action to try to be safer. Even if these efforts are not completely successful, even if the person is subjected to further violence, it is important to acknowledge the different steps that you have taken to try to stay safe.
- What are some of the ways in which you have tried to protect yourself?
- What do these actions and plans say about what is important to you?
After an assault, it can take some time to ‘return to life’, to re-engage with the things in life that are important to you. However, people often say that getting back to do the things that are meaningful in life is a critically important part of reducing the effects of rape. For instance, some people find it helpful to get back to exercising, study, writing to those they care about, reading, working, drawing or painting, playing sport, etc. Others find counselling, meditation or spiritual practice and prayer to be sources of strength.
- Are there ways in which you are ‘returning to life’?
- Are there small examples of ways in which you are re-engaging with the things that you value and enjoy in life?
- Are there ways you have held onto dreams or memories?
- If there are memories that you have held onto, why are they precious to you? What do they indicate that you value in your life?
- What is the history of these values? When did these things first become important to you?
- Are there ways in which you are now trying to act on these values in your life? Do they influence your actions in anyway now? If so, how?
- What would the people you have good memories about think of you calling up their presence? Is there any way of conveying to these people what these memories mean to you?
- Are there other people who are helping you get through life? If so, who are they and how are they demonstrating their support?
- Why do you think they choose to support you? What makes you open to their support?
- Have there been ways in which you have contributed to others dealing with difficult events? If so, how? And why?
- Have there been acts of kindness or care that have been significant to you? Have there been particular conversations that have meant a lot to you?
- Are there aspects of your life, or contact with family and friends, which are sustaining your hopes and dreams?
Finding an audience
It can make a significant difference to dealing with the effects of rape if you can find just one person who is willing and able to be an audience to the stories of how you are trying to deal with the effects of the assault. This person can reflect on the skills and strategies you have been using, they can acknowledge all that you are doing to try to get your life back on track. Finding such a support person can appear daunting. Remember it is your choice what to tell, when and to whom. You might be able to write to a friend or family member about your efforts and receive a letter from them in response. Alternatively, perhaps there is a counsellor, psychologist or social worker who you could trust with these stories. If you don’t want to tell them about the rape itself, it may still be possible to ask them to listen to your responses to some of the questions that are included in this document.
It can take a lot to reclaim your life from the effects of sexual assault, but people all around you have probably done just that or are still doing it. You are not alone.
Acknowledgements: This material has been created with reference to the Prisoner Rape Support Package: Addressing sexual assault in men’s prisons, as well as ‘Getting back on track’ and ‘Men and rape’ produced by the Victorian South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault.