What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault is a broad term that describes any sexual act that is coerced or in which the victim is incapable of providing consent. Rape (including vaginal, anal, or oral penetration), drug facilitated assault, intimate partner violence, groping, and sexual torture are all forms of sexual assault, as are flashing, peeping, cat calls and sexual harassment.
How common is sexual assault?
Unfortunately, sexual assault is incredibly common. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, someone in the United States is physically assaulted every 98 seconds. About 1 in 6 women and 1 in 10 men has been a victim of rape. The majority of sexual assaults are committed on people under the age of 30.
Who perpetrates sexual assault?
There is a general belief that most sexual assaults are committed by strangers, but that is not true. In reality, more than 70% of all sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim already knows. About half of all perpetrators are over the age of 30. Sexual predators tend to be repeat offenders. In fact, more than half of all alleged rapists have been convicted of a least one prior rape.
What are the effects of sexual assault?
Sexual assault causes a staggering array of negative effects. Immediately after an attack, victims may have to cope with physical injuries, STDs, or pregnancy, as well as flashbacks, lingering feelings of fear, and insomnia. If these feelings persist, they can eventually lead to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Victims of sexual assault are also at increased risk for developing depression, suicidal feelings, substance addiction, and eating disorders. Victims often have problems with trust after an assault and may have problems forming healthy relationships. They are at increased risk for self-harming behaviors.
The second injury
How a victim of sexual assault is treated right after an attack—or right after telling of an attack—has a direct impact on how quickly and how well she will heal. If victims are treated with callousness by medical personnel, law enforcement, friends or family, if they are blamed for the attack or not believed, they are much more likely to develop long-term symptoms of trauma. Historically, victims of sexual assault have been treated very poorly by other members of society, and many victims claim that this poor treatment is harder to deal with than the actual attack. This has led some to dubbed the poor treatment of victims the “second injury.”
What are remedies for the effects of sexual assault?
In order to insure the best long-term outcome for a victim, she or he must be treated with kindness and compassion directly after an assault—or anytime the victim chooses to disclose information about an assault. First and foremost, it is important to believe a victim of sexual assault. It is equally important not to imply to the victim that the attack was somehow her or his fault.
Directly after a sexual assault, helpers should ensure the victim’s physical safety and facilitate medical care if necessary. After this, it is important to give the victim control over the situation by allowing him or her to decide where to go and who to be with. Right after an assault, victims may or may not want to talk about what they’ve been through. It’s important not to press the matter. The first rules are to help the victim feel safe again and back in control.
If treated well by the people around them, many victims of sexual assault will naturally start to feel better over time. Others may need some form of group or individual psychotherapy to process what they’ve been through. Medication can also help in alleviating feelings of depression or anxiety.
With proper care and treatment, victims of sexual assault can overcome what they’ve been through and go one to lead satisfying, successful lives.
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a complex psychiatric condition that develops in some people after they have experienced or witnessed a severe traumatic event. PTSD can affect a person physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and even spiritually. People who suffer from PTSD often feel great distress when their symptoms occur. For this reason, those with the disorder often make attempts to avoid anything that will trigger their symptoms, including the avoidance of certain people, places, thoughts, feelings, and memories.
What causes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
In order to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a person must first be exposed to a severe traumatic event. Specifically, people who develop PTSD have usually experienced a situation in which they feared they would die in a violent way, such as from an assault, natural disaster, or accident. Someone who witnesses another person being hurt in such a way can also develop PTSD. (This includes first responders, medical personnel, and professionals who are repeated exposed to details of child abuse or sexual assault.) People who learn of the actual or threatened death (due to violence or accident) of their loved one are also at risk for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The difference between PTSD and psychological trauma
There is a big difference between the normal life stressors that cause normal psychological trauma and the unique stressors that cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In everyday life, there are many events that can make us feel traumatized. Divorce, the loss of a job, or a miscarriage are all things that can cause great distress. While these events are traumatic—and can certainly make us feel sad, anxious, angry, or depressed—they are not the types of situations that cause PTSD.
The types of stressors that can lead to PTSD are events that make a person panic and fear for survival. Terrifying events such as combat, assault, natural disasters, and horrific accidents trigger a person’s fight-or-flight instinct. This initial physiological response is a key requirement for the eventual development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (Witnesses who develop PTSD second-hand usually do so because details of the trauma trigger their own horror and fear for survival.)
How common is Post-Traumatic Success Disorder?
About 60% of men and 50% of women will experience at least one severe traumatic event in their lifetime. However, the vast majority of these people will not develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Only 7-8% of the population suffers from PTSD at some point in their lives.
Although slightly more men experience severe traumatic events, women are far more likely to develop PTSD. One explanation for this may be that people who suffer multiple traumatic events are at increased risk for developing the disorder. As females are far more likely to be sexually abused in childhood, sexually assaulted as adults, and victims of domestic violence, they have more risk factors for PTSD.
What are the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder stay in a state of mental, physical, and emotional crisis long after the actual crisis has passed:
What are remedies for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Because Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder affects people in multiple ways, it often requires multiple types of treatment. Physical symptoms such as hyperarousal, anxiety, depression, and insomnia are often best treated with medication. Eye-Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR) and neurofeedback have also been shown to be effective at relieving some physical symptoms of PTSD.
Medication alone, though, cannot address all the symptoms of PTSD. At their core, severe traumatic events cause us to question the world and our place in it. In order to resolve these existential questions, it is usually best to seek out some form of talk therapy. In the absence of individual or group psychotherapy, the support of kind, patient, empathetic loved ones can also be therapeutic.
Less than a month ago, TVs and iPads everywhere were ablaze with the shocking story of three women freed from a horror house in Cleveland. Every nuance of the case was covered, from the insensitivity of the 9-1-1 operator to the emotional distress of Ariel Castro’s family. Even the shenanigans of Big Mac-loving hero, Charles Ramsay, went viral. News outlet and bloggers across America seemed obsessed with the story.
And then, a few weeks later, nothing.
This is not surprising. It is the very nature of our 24-hour news cycle society. We salivate at the sight of a sensational story. Then we wait for the media to carve up the pieces, so we can devour each distasteful byte. And the Cleveland case sure was a sensational story—what with its padlock basement, chains of bondage and home-birthed baby. One couldn’t help but be shocked.
Unless, of course, they were me.
See, I specialize in this kind of thing. In fact, for the past six years, I’ve been researching various aspects of kidnapping, enslavement, sadism and sex rings, as well as the more pedestrian topics of pedophilia and child sexual abuse. I spend my time trying to figure out why the perpetrators of such crimes do what they do and how they manage to get away with it. I try to explain what violence does to the victims, both in the short-term and the long-run. I do all of this to shed light on a dark subject—a subject most people don’t care about unless it bombards them in the news. I want people to understand the peculiar kind of hell that women like Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus are forced to live through.
I want people to understand, because I lived through a similar hell. At the age of eight, I was procured by a man who turned me into his sex slave. For the next eight years, I was forced to endure bondage, humiliation, torture and rape. My captor didn’t kidnap me; there was no need. My young, broke, stupid mother was all too willing to hand me over to a practiced pedophile. If this sounds shocking, it shouldn’t. Cases like mine and the one in Cleveland happen more than you think.
We all know the names of survivors like Jaycee Dugard, Shawn Hornbeck and Elizabeth Smart. But there are other recent stories that, for some reason, never entered the national zeitgeist. In 2003, for example, a man named John Jamelske was arrested in Syracuse for abducting a 16-year-old runaway and locking her in a basement dungeon. As the investigation developed, police learned that Jamelske had been using the dungeon for more than 15 years. During that time, he held, beat, raped and released at least five women.
In 1999, David Parker Ray was arrested in New Mexico after one of his victims, naked except for the iron slave collar around her neck, managed to escape from his elaborate dungeon. Ray turned out to be an especially passionate sadist, having built an elaborate and expensive torture chamber that he dubbed the “Toy Box.” With its vast array of whips, chains, pulleys, surgical blades and saws, the “Toy Box” surely rivaled the most tricked-out dungeons of the Inquisition. No one knows for sure how many women Ray tortured and murdered (a few were released), but some estimates are as high as 60.
In the late 1980s, Gary Heidnik held six women in his Philadelphia basement where they were bound, starved, raped and tortured. In the mid-1980s, Colleen Stan escaped after being held as a sex slave for seven years. In Europe, Natascha Kampusch escaped a basement prison after eight years in captivity. Poor Elisabeth Fritzl had to wait 24 years before she could escape the underground hell of her own father’s making. During that time, she was forced to bear him seven children.
And these are just the big stories, folks. The stories unusual enough to get a Wikipedia page. If you’ve got time for the more run-of-the-mill sex slave stories, I’ve got about 20,000 of them.
Go on Google and search “sex slave.” Just last week, a couple in San Diego was sentenced for forcing a 12-year old relative to “clean and cook, take care of the couple’s three children and have sex with [her uncle] and with other men for money” (LA Times). This girl wasn’t missing. Loving parents weren’t begging John Walsh to plaster her pictures on America’s Most Wanted. She was just a girl being abused by horrible relatives—a far more common scenario when it comes to sex slavery.
But whether it’s a headline-grabbing escape or the mundane world of sex slaves in suburbia, the story never seems to change. There always seems to be a sadistic man who yearns for despotic control over women and/or children. And this sadistic man seems to possess an archetypal desire to lock his victims in basements, bind them, torture them and turn them into sex slaves. In her book, Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders, Anna Salter offers the general sentiment of this type of man:
“I had fantasies [of] having a large house and having the basement full of women locked up in chains. At first it was one woman, then more, then later on as the years progressed, it was more and more. And it became more and more deviant…I had redheads, blonds, brunettes. I could pick any victim I wanted. I’d have them all stored down there.” (p. 92)
In the past few weeks, the story of three women released from captivity made headlines. These headlines, like the headlines of similar stories before, proceeded in a predictable way. First, everyone expressed relief for the victims and outrage at the abuser. Soon, family, friends and neighbors expressed “shock” because the abuser seemed like such a nice guy. Very quickly, people started asking, “How could this have happened in our safe and quiet neighborhood?” Then, as people started to realize that really bad things can and do happen in safe and quiet neighborhoods, they started to grow scared.
In order to alleviate their fear, these bystanders need to tell themselves that it is within their power to avoid tragedy. This is why the townsfolk who originally expressed joy for the victims are starting to subtly blame them instead. Thus, we’re already seeing posts about the perils of hitchhiking. We are learning that, before her abduction, Michele Knight already suffered from mental illness. People have started asking, rather accusingly, why the victims never tried to escape. And many news articles have already criticized the victims for developing “Stockholm Syndrome.”
A clear example of how victims get blamed can be found in the “comments” section of an article about the case that appeared in New York Magazine online. Candid08 asks, “Almost 10 years—and none of them could get out of a house??
Then, the more enlightened FunBud23 responds, “There’s not enough info…yet to judge. If you’re terrified enough, you don’t try to escape.”
But Blanch_White jumps in with her own harsh opinion, “…the house isn’t out in the boondocks—it’s in a densely populated residential area…Did the captors NEVER leave the women alone during the ten years?”
And so it goes. This is how the good townsfolk of America always overcome their fear of violence after one of these stories breaks—by arrogantly assuring themselves that, in similar circumstances, they would be smarter, stronger, more courageous than the weak, pusillanimous victims on TV. Meanwhile, the victims, desperate to forget what has happened to them, unwittingly aid in their own shaming by asking for privacy and remaining silent. Due to this silence, bystanders never hear the gory details: how victims are rendered helpless through physical and psychological torture; how their lives, the lives of other hostages and the lives of loved ones are threatened should they try to escape. Instead, victims stay mum on the horrors they’ve experienced. This suits bystanders just fine, as they don’t really want to hear.
What people really want is to forget that bad things happen. That’s why, as Judith Herman notes in her book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness” (p. 1). This is what we’ve all done fairly quickly in the weeks since the story first broke; we’ve banished our fears about predatory sadists and missing young women and inept police. Unfortunately, in doing so, we’ve also banished thoughts of all the preventive measures we were going to take so this could never happen again.
That is, until the next story breaks and everything old is new again.
Dr. Michelle Stevens is a psychologist, writer, and expert on trauma. She wrote the bestselling book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving (Putnam, 2017).