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May 23, 2012

Understanding the Plight of Her Sexual Victimization

University Counseling Center
University of Notre Dame

"What happened to me? How did this happen to me? Why did this happen to me? Why did I act the way that I did while it was happening? What will I do the next time I'm in a similar situation?" These are the questions that many women who have experienced sexual victimization ask themselves. The process of answering these questions can be very painful. So painful that often times the woman chooses to sort through them with the help of a psychotherapist.

To understand the plight of a woman who has been sexually victimized one must first understand the different terms that describe the victimization. Sexual harassment refers to any unwelcomed sexual advance, verbal or non-verbal, of an offensive sexual nature. Sexual assault is a form of sexual harassment. It involves unwelcomed touching of another person. It can be defined as any unwanted physical activity forced by one person on another. Sexual battery is a form of sexual assault. It entails a particular type of touch, namely penetration. Sexual battery can be defined as forced anal, oral or vaginal penetration by any object, except when these acts are performed for bona fide medical purposes. Rape is a form of sexual battery because it entails sexual intercourse. Rape can either be at the hands of a stranger, an acquaintance, a date, or committed against the victim by more than one person (e.g., gang rape).

Sexual predators exist and they hunt for people who will make for easy prey. They hunt for women who appear to manifest certain characteristics. Namely, they look for those who seem to be (a) people pleasers (b) unassertive (c) naïve about the adversarial dynamics existing between men and women and (d) drug and/or alcohol abusers. It is not difficult for predators to find women matching these characteristics on a college campus. In fact, research consistently identifies freshmen women as the most likely victims of sexual crimes on campus. However, predators are not looking for freshmen per se, they are people who appear to them to be safe to victimize (e.g., the kind of person who will not put up too much resistance and/or will not give them trouble afterwards). This does not mean that the victim is to be "blamed" for having these characteristics. It only means that she may be more vulnerable to exploitation. She is not responsible for the assault, and she did not "ask" to be harmed. The predator is the one who is responsible for causing harm. Also, not all perpetrators have to fit the description of a predator. The young man who gets drunk to celebrate some successful experience and in a drunken stupor forces himself sexually on a woman also contributes to the rising number of victims.

What all forms of sexual victimization have in common is that they psychologically register as traumatic. A traumatic event is experienced as sudden, threatening and overwhelming. The reaction of people who are traumatized (due to a rape, a robbery, a car accident, or witnessing a tragedy) often reaches a threshold that warrants the clinical diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Even if they have repressed the event (or parts of the event), the people who suffer from PTSD know something is wrong. The key elements of PTSD are: (a) intrusive thoughts and feelings (such as flashbacks and nightmares) making it seem as if she is reliving the event, (b) attempts to avoid experiences that are reminiscent of the event or elicit negative thoughts and feelings related to the event, and (c) hypervigillence, i.e., constant surveillance of the environment so that they are not suddenly threatened and/or overwhelmed again.

The treatment for PTSD primarily involves grieving and making sense of what happened. For many people the toughest hurdle to clear entails accepting that bad things happen to good people. The victim of a sexual crime typically attempts to sort through who is to blame for what happened. Often, the victim attempts to regain control by erroneously taking responsibility for events for which she had no control over at the time. This leads to shame and self-blame. It also means that she is less likely to confront the perpetrator or pursue a chance at justice via legal means.

The healing process is difficult but possible. Support from significant others is extremely important. The people the victim lives with are the people most capable to detect that something is wrong and to encourage her to get help. Moreover, they can challenge any self-blaming arguments. Sometimes the significant-other is so close to the victim that they can be considered a "secondary victim" and they too may need to get help. Help is available.

University Counseling Center, University of Notre Dame

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