The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines sexual violence as “sexual activity when consent is not obtained or not freely given.” Survivors of sexual violence typically experience adverse effects that may lead to a host of reactions. Here, we discuss four common stages of reaction to sexual violence and how survivors can obtain guidance when dealing with them.
Stages of Reaction to Sexual Violence
When seeking ways to recover, a survivor of sexual violence may come to the realization that legal action is necessary. The passage through these stages of reaction is not always smooth or straightforward. Two stages can occur at once, or the survivor may go back and forth between stages for a time, or they may even find themselves stuck in one stage perpetually. The optimal situation is to reach a point of empowerment and resolution.
Stage One: Acute Crisis
In the hours and days following an act of sexual violence, shock and confusion are the most common initial reactions. It may be difficult to comprehend or believe what happened and why it happened. Some survivors may display strong physical reactions—visibly shaking, crying, fainting, or experiencing seizures—while others retreat to a subdued, almost catatonic, state of calm, cold detachment.
During the crisis stage, fear is often the predominant underlying emotion—fear of seeing the abuser again, fear of the places or situations where the abuse occurred, fear of another attack, fear of judgment, and fear of being ostracized or alone. Victims often feel as though they are somehow to blame for what happened, suffering tremendous guilt and shame. Some sexual assault survivors may choose to talk about their experience with someone they trust, while others may never feel comfortable discussing it—even denying it ever happened.
Stage Two: Denial
During the denial stage, a survivor may not recognize the sexual activities as abuse, or they may try to rationalize that the abuser’s behavior. In the documentary Leaving Neverland, one accuser said he never thought of the activities as a love affair until he reached his thirties, had a son of his own, and realized how he would feel if an adult did those same things with his child. This lack of awareness and inability to empathically connect with a former child self is common to survivors of sexual violence.
Denial is routine in situations where memories are unclear or repressed. Dissociation is a defense mechanism where a person disconnects thoughts, feelings, actions, memories, identity, and awareness of one’s surroundings. Dissociation can be used as a way to escape from fear, anxiety, pain, and horror. Later in life, a person may have no memories of the event, merely a vague suspicion that something has happened. Memories may return in flashbacks, dreams, or odd sensations during periods of intimacy or when encountering people and places from the past.
Even when a child immediately understands the nature of sexual contact as abusive, denial may prevent disclosure. Denial can lead one to think, “No one will believe me.” The burden of disclosure may be something a victim does not wish to share with a parent or other loved one. They may believe the pain will go away as long as they don’t think about it. Victims may change residence, jobs, or schools in an attempt to return to normalcy. They may also retreat to alcohol, drugs, overeating, overworking, or sleep to numb their feelings.
Denial can be a passing phase or it can be long-lasting.
Stage Three: Suffering
Once the reality of what has happened sinks in, the suffering stage typically begins. The harm suffered as a result of sexual violence can be physical, mental, and emotional. The symptoms can be debilitating and constant, or they can come and go in phases when triggered. For many, reading, watching, or hearing about similar stories of sexual abuse can be a trigger. Others may be triggered by changes in life situation—a new relationship, marriage, divorce, having children. Triggers can also be situational, based on encounters with people, places, or items from the past.
Going through the suffering stage can be challenging but it doesn’t have to last forever. “If you are one of the many people who continue to carry the secret of childhood sexual abuse, it is vital that you break your silence,” explains psychotherapist Beverly Engel. “Even though it is difficult to reach the point where you can finally tell someone, this dark secret can make you sick, emotionally, psychologically, even physically. It can eat at you from inside, draining you of vital energy and good health.”
Stage Four: Resolution
Resolution is a long-term process of coming to grips with feelings stemming from sexual violence, the attacker, and oneself. Often, through individual therapy or group support settings, adults move from “victim” to “survivor,” and become empowered to take action against what happened. They come to a certain acceptance, as painful as it may be, and learn to integrate the event into their overall timeline as a transformative moment that has defined who they are to become—a fighter, an advocate for other survivors, a resilient being.
Once a person is willing to speak about what has happened, there are two legal paths they can take:
- Press Criminal Charges
The first is the opportunity to press criminal charges. The survivor files a police report and waits to see if there is sufficient evidence to move forward with an arrest. If the accused is found guilty in criminal court, a prison sentence, fine payable to the state, probation, and registration on the sex offender list are possible consequences.
Do note that a 10-year deadline may apply if the abuse occurred prior to January 1, 2017. The State of California formally abolished the statute of limitations with SB 813, so childhood sexual abuse and rape survivors will be able to pursue justice at any time in their adult lives. There are exceptions to every rule, so it is wise to consult with a lawyer.
- File a Civil Lawsuit
Another path is the pursuit of a civil lawsuit. The two paths are not mutually exclusive; you can file a civil lawsuit while criminal charges are pending. The benefit of a civil lawsuit is that, if successful, your case could result in money paid to you for the losses incurred such as medical bills, therapy bills, lost wages, reduced earning capacity, and pain and suffering.
In civil court, there is a reduced standard of evidence. While criminal courts require you to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that your version of events occurred, civil courts base their decisions on “a preponderance of the evidence,” where the judge and jury must believe your version was 51% or more likely to have happened.
There is also a more generous filing deadline—until age 26 or “within three years of the discovery of harm.” Lawyers can argue that a myriad of factors interfered with your mental ability to comprehend what happened to you. Expansive lookback windows—in the past and currently under consideration again—make it even easier for adult survivors to file civil lawsuits against wrongdoers.
Civil courts also allow an expanded scope of liability. With civil litigation, it is not just the abuser who has committed a wrong, but any institution that knew (or should have known) about the abuse and did nothing. The benefit here is that these institutions are better insured than individuals to pay the money you need for rehabilitation. Civil courts have held schools, church dioceses, Boy Scout groups, medical facilities, youth sports associations, and other third parties liable for sexual abuse.
Experienced Attorneys Can Help Survivors of Sexual Violence
No path to justice is particularly easy. However, many survivors of sexual violence find they are empowered by speaking up after years of silence and seeking validation through the pursuit of justice. If you are ready to seek justice, the attorneys at Lewis & Llewellyn may be able to help. We have a proven track record of multi-million-dollar settlements against large entities. No matter what stage of reaction you’re experiencing, breaking the silence can help you move toward recovery.
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