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Possible reactions to sexual violence

Your reaction is entirely your own. Not everyone necessarily displays anger or panic during an episode of sexual violence, or even afterwards. Many people freeze or appear completely calm when they feel they are in danger or trying to deal with a distressing situation.

When intimate parts of the body are stimulated, a person may have physiological and sensory reactions, including arousal. Children may experience an agreeable sensation. It is important to understand that this type of involuntary physiological reaction must in no way be interpreted as consent.

Some people experience consequences shortly after having been subjected to sexual violence, while others do not react until decades later. Your own experience—in the short or long term—will depend on a multitude of factors, such as the form of the sexual violence, the context in which it occurred, your age at the time of the event, your relationship with the person who was responsible for the violence, the reaction of those close to you, and the resources available to help you.

Being attuned to your own needs, taking care of yourself and asking for help are the first steps down the road to recovery.

Mental health

One of the particular characteristics of sexual violence is that it violates human dignity, which can have serious effects on the victim, ranging from difficult emotions to serious psychological disorders. The following are examples of consequences that have been frequently observed.

  • Grief, discouragement, depression, suicidal attitudes and behaviours
  • Feelings of anger and rage, frequent mood swings
  • Self-mutilation
  • Low self-esteem, feelings of shame, self-judgement or feeling empty inside
  • Loss of memory linked to the episode of sexual violence
  • Fear: fear of being alone or in crowds, fear of evocative stimuli like odours, sounds or people who look like the perpetrator of the sexual violence
  • Symptoms related to post-traumatic stress: constantly reliving the traumatic event during nightmares or flashbacks, avoiding situations that recall the trauma (losing touch with reality and emotions), being in a constant state of hypervigilance
  • Feelings of anxiety or symptoms associated with anxiety disorders: difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, headaches or stomach aches, trouble sleeping, hot flashes or chills, excessive worry that prevents normal functioning.

Santé physique et physiologique

Depending on what was done to you, you may need immediate care or support for more long-term symptoms.

  • Injury, either external or internal
  • Sexually transmitted or blood-borne infections (STBBIs) that require prevention or treatment
  • Unwanted pregnancy
  • Generalized or specific pain (headaches or stomach aches, for example)
  • Fatigue, sleep disorders or nightmares
  • Eating disorders (such as loss of appetite, nausea, anorexia or bulimia)
  • Gynecological or perinatal complications (such as fear that a routine examination will trigger memories of violence)
  • Health risk behaviour (such as alcohol or drug abuse, substance addiction).

Intimacy and sexuality

For everyone—women, men or non-binary individuals—sexual violence is a violation of intimacy that can affect your relationship to sexuality and your body.

  • Difficulties during sexual relations (lubrication or erectile issues, or painful intercourse)
  • Fear of intimacy
  • Decrease in sexual desire (libido) or, conversely, hypersexuality
  • At-risk behaviours, such as unprotected sex or risky sexual hyperactivity
  • Questioning one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Social relationships

An act of sexual violence may be committed by someone known to the victim or by a stranger. For example, it could be a family member whom you trust completely or a complete stranger you meet in a bar. In every case and at any age, being subjected to an act of sexual violence can have short and long-term repercussions on social relationships.

  • Loss of trust in people in general or in new people you don’t know
  • Difficulty differentiating between healthy and unhealthy relationships, in setting personal limits
  • Fear of rejection, or need to please others at any cost
  • Attachment difficulties (i.e., reluctance to create emotional bonds)
  • Isolation or the feeling that no one understands you
  • Feeling of being rejected, or a tendency to systematically reject others.