Healing from Sexual Trauma: A Therapist’s Perspective

As a follow-up to Letter to Assault Survivors, Girls’ Globe contacted a therapist for professional insight into the psychological ramifications of sexual assault, and how survivors can heal. Michelene Wasil works with survivors of sexual assault, both men and women, many of whom were victimized in the military. Throughout her interview, Wasil repeatedly returns to a common theme regarding the struggles her clients face: “There’s a lot of shame involved.”

“Shame and guilt. That’s typically what happens.”

Paradigm of Pain

Victims of assault can have counter-intuitive reactions, which can in turn exacerbate their trauma and cripple recovery efforts. When we broached the question of maladaptive reactions, Wasil was unsurprised, having worked with clients who turn to chemical painkillers like drugs and alcohol, as well as those who develop internal ones, like sexual addiction or gambling.

She says that trauma can do more than alter a person’s behavior, it can also decimate their emotional capacity.

“There’s also a lot of emotional avoidance, unhealthy attachments, so they might get into abusive relationships. Numbness, emotional numbness, inability to really feel love.”

“Two [clients] can’t really have an intimate life, at least not very often, because it’s very painful…I’m not a doctor so I can’t tell you if it’s because of the rape, but I can guess that likely that’s a big thing. They can’t even enjoy sex anymore, or sex is cued with the trauma, so they are constantly reminded of what happened to them.”

Self-Blame

One of the most damaging tendencies, and one that acts as the biggest hurdle to recovery, is the tendency to pin blame on victims instead of perpetrators. 

“If you look at any typical rape case in a courtroom, women are interrogated about what they wore that day, they’re interrogated about their sexual history,” Wasil points out. “Someone defending a rapist will dig up the woman’s past, so there’s that whole idea of, ‘you shouldn’t have been wearing that short skirt,’ or ‘you shouldn’t be out past 2 AM,’ ‘you shouldn’t have had so much to drink.’”

A community’s willingness to blame victims can lead the victim themselves to shoulder responsibility, or tear apart every aspect of a situation, from what they said, to what they did, to how they felt.

“I have a client who was sexually assaulted in the military, so there’s that added layer of shame, as in, ‘I should have fought them off.'” explains Wasil, “And then if you…get really graphic, ‘I was aroused during this trauma, so I must have liked it somehow,’ so there’s all this self-doubt. It gets really murky and complicated.”

Wasil has also witnessed revictimization, where victims, either in childhood or adulthood, find themselves entangled in subsequent abusive relationships.

“I don’t think it’s that they choose dysfunctional relationships,” says Wasil.

“I think it’s that they’ve been so psychologically damaged from this horrendous trauma that I don’t know if they really know how to interact in a healthy way, and their unhealthy behaviors are attracting other unhealthy people.”

The Way Forward

The crucial thing for survivors of sexual assault to know is that recovery from an assault is possible, through the support of family, friends and professional help. However, survivors should start therapy with realistic expectations.

“It’s a long road to recovery,” advises Wasil. “It also depends; if you were raped as a child and raped as an adult, and haven’t talked about it, and it’s been 30 years or 20 years, whatever, that’s been festering for a really long time.” 

No matter what modality treatment takes, healing from sexual assault and breaking patterns of behavior – even painful ones – is not an easy process to undergo, although in some cases medication prescribed by a professional can help through the worst of it. “It can get worse the first month or two,” advises Wasil. “Just stick with it.” 

“I would say if you’re going to a therapist, and you don’t feel better in 8 – 10 sessions – if you don’t feel better at all – it might be time either find a new therapist or consider some medication.”

“Speaking the Unspeakable”: Sexual Violence in Conflict

Their suffering and desperation was so great that they begged them to kill them, to end their pain once and for all… but the men who had been raping them replied, “No, we’re going to leave you alive so you can die of sadness.”

This is the harrowing story told in the documentary “The Uncondemned” of the first time genocide, rape and sexual violence were prosecuted in an international tribunal. But this isn’t just a story of sadness and grief; it’s also a story of hope and healing. It is a story about the three brave survivors and witnesses who testified at the tribunal, identified then only as JJ, NN and OO.

Co-director Michele Mitchell said: “In the face of enormous tragedy and pain, the fact that three of them were laughing about the plane journey shows their great resilience and demonstrates how they had kept their humanity.” I was privileged to watch this amazing documentary when it was screening in New York City. I left the theater with a heavy heart, but also feeling extremely encouraged and motivated not only by the strength and resilience of the survivors, but also by the young lawyers and activists who made this historical trial a reality, bringing justice and at least some healing for these victims.

Processed with VSCO with a6 presetPhoto: Gabrielle Rocha Rios. You can watch the trailer for “The Uncondemned” here, and find upcoming screenings of “The Uncondemned” for 2017 in selected US cities here.

While researching for a graduate school project on sexual violence in conflict, I came across a paper that talks about rape as “speaking the unspeakable.” Indeed, talking about rape is speaking the unspeakable, especially the rape and sexual violence that happens during times of conflict and war. For a long time, it was believed that rape and other forms of sexual violence were an inevitable consequence of times of conflict and war, and not considered a serious crime of itself. However, today most scholars and activists agree that rape and sexual violence can be used as a weapon of war, and are considered a serious, prosecutable, and avoidable issue.

theuncondemned01_0One of the brave witnesses and survivors who told her story in the film. Photo: IndieWire

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established by the UN Security Council with the goal to “prosecute persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of Rwanda and neighbouring States, between 1 January 1994 and 31 December 1994”. After the ICTR, the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) and most recently the ICC (International Criminal Court), have joined in having successfully prosecuting rape as a war crime, crime against humanity, and genocide.

On March 22nd, 2016, the ICC issued its first conviction of rape as a war crime. Jean-Pierre Bemba, former vice-president of Congo, was found “guilty on five charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including rape, murder and pillage, committed in 2002-2003 in neighbouring Central African Republic,” according to the United Nations. The significance of high-profile personnel being convicted of such crimes – Bemba in Congo and Akayesu (who was a mayor) in Rwanda – is to show that a person is not exempt from prosecution because of his or hers position of authority, and does not need to be the one committing the crime themselves, but if they have authority over those committing these crimes, they can be found equally responsible.

Sexual violence has severe consequences not only for the victims, but also for their families and communities. An article by the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) explains: “sexual violence can result in severe physical and psychological trauma, HIV infection and, occasionally, in death. In addition, victims often face double victimization: not only sustaining potentially dangerous and long-lasting injuries and trauma, but also facing stigmatization and rejection by their families and communities”.

Most recently, the world has become aware of the reality of sexual violence in conflict thought the reports coming from Syria of women suffering sexual violence not only from ISIS but also anti-government rebels as well as government officials if they had been jailed. Women in the World has reported this ordeal: “Per The Daily Beast, according to Othman and other reports amid the chaos unfolding in the besieged city, sexual violence has been so prevalent it’s forcing women into an unthinkable choice. This morning 20 women committed suicide in order not to be raped,” Othman said. According to NBC News, “suicide is quickly becoming a preference to a violent death or capture by Assad’s troops.”

Talking about rape and sexual violence is indeed “speaking the unspeakable”, but it must be done. To talk about this serious issue is to find solutions, ways of preventing it, and to bring healing and hope for victims. Here’s an example: UN Women has supported a project that helps providing job opportunities for survivors of sexual violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina – “While prosecution of perpetrators and access to justice for survivors is paramount to ending impunity, affordable and appropriate services, such as free legal advice, health care and economic opportunities for survivors, are critical for preventing re-occurrence and rebuilding lives.”.

For more information on sexual violence in conflict, see the Women Under Siege project.

Featured photo: The Uncondemned

Europe, Don’t See Refugees as a Threat!

Terrorism, violence against women, unemployment – these are true threats that we are currently facing in Europe, yet far too often these issues are being equated with the refugee crisis that is visibly pressuring European countries. That equation is not only false, it is also a threat to our societies.

Recently, I was asked what we should do about the refugee crisis in our country (Sweden), because “refugee men and boys are coming here with a culture of violence and rape women.” I was shocked that someone so close to me could have such a perspective. Although I got angry, I realize that I can’t blame him entirely, because media is constantly painting that picture.

So, for those who may be influenced by that horrible image. Let me break it down for you in a few brief points:

Refugees are fleeing for their lives.

Don’t for a second believe that people choose to leave their homes, risk their lives on dangerous journeys and come to places where they have no security and don’t speak the language, if they had another option. Refugees are fleeing disaster, terror, violence, persecution, discrimination and poverty that makes life not worth living.

Gender based violence is a global epidemic.

The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 3 women have been subject to violence in their lifetime – and yes, those statistics are true for Europe too. At this point, I believe we are our own worst enemy if we don’t dare to see what is in our own backyard and inside our own homes. Every week, 50 women are killed in Europe by the hands of an intimate partner or ex-partner.

Europe needs immigration.

Many European countries are not going to survive their declining population, and in the long run, immigration is more than necessary for Europe to sustain societies and grow economies.

I am not turning a blind eye to the events in Cologne, Germany and similar events in Stockholm, Sweden – violence against women is always wrong – but we have a responsibility to fight gender based violence strategically. This involves strengthening gender equality and educating men and boys, as well as recognizing the differences in social norms and the status of women in the societies where migrants are from. Yet, it is a gender issue, not one of regulating the influx of refugees.

Despite my first point above, that refugees are fleeing for their lives, and despite international treaties that give them the right to seek refuge in new countries, Europe makes it close to impossible to do so. Instead of following human rights treaties and international laws, European politicians are closing borders and fostering intolerance, xenophobia and racism. To make things worse, some European countries are seizing refugees’ assets or implementing costs on “health tourism”.

This human rights issue is bigger than borders, and this opportunity too great to not take advantage of. We need to welcome women and girls, men and boys who reach our borders with hope for a better future. Alexander Betts says in his insightful TED Talk, “They’re human beings with skills, talents, aspirations, with the ability to make contributions — if we let them.” Together with them we can create a future that is better for all of us.

We need to share positive stories and we need media to reflect the true story of the individuals behind the refugee crisis. We need to spread hope – hope for safety and hope for peace. Let us be open to those who are seeking refuge instead of becoming fearful of them.

Cover Photo Credit: Josh Zakary, Flickr Creative Commons 

Gender Based Violence and the Refugee Crisis

In the last few years, we have heard the term ‘refugee crisis’ so often, it has practically lost it’s meaning for us. The examples are countless: from recent conflicts, like the Syrian war, age-old economic asylum, as seen on the US-Mexico border or the flow of migrants from Indonesia to Australia, the powerful surge in refugees to Europe now making international headlines, or myriad smaller crisis between smaller neighbouring nations and with the internally displaced.

“The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit group, estimates that about 60 million people are displaced around the world right now, a figure higher than the estimated 50 million people left displaced at the conclusion of World War II.”

Peter Dizikes, MIT

It is difficult not to grow numb to the plight of refugees, when it seems there are so many, in every corner of the world. Added to which, language and cultural barriers make it difficult to connect with those living in circumstances that are already impossible to imagine, much less understand.

Yet, refugee crises are one of the great tragedies of the modern era. Despite our advanced technology, increased connectedness and greater emphasis on global cooperation, we haven’t figured out how to grapple with the millions who find themselves displaced, disadvantaged and prone to exploitation or abuse.

Women caught in refugee crises are particularly vulnerable to gender based violence. A mass exodus of people in fragile psychological states, without basic resources or any guarantee of safety inevitably leads to a breakdown in societal structure. And, as in many cases, the brunt of this is borne by women and girls.

Women are at risk of being trafficked, coerced into survival sex, and subject to the sexual violence that seems entrenched in most humanitarian disasters. And, tragically, though it isn’t the norm, some perpetrators may be the very workers they are relying on for help.

For women, danger doesn’t only come from outside their communities.
Intimate partner violence increases. A women’s lowered status in society means she may be given more dangerous labour; one researcher highlighted women being sent to find firewood outside their camps because women were risking “only rape”, whereas men were considered more likely to be killed.

Farah-InfographicGender-based violence in conflict isn’t limited to sexual violence, though that is often an assumption. As UNICEF explains, women are victimized in a myriad of ways, some as damaging as sexual violence, though less discussed.

As in all situations, gender based violence can cause profound psychological and physiological damage. Internally, sexual trauma breeds self-hatred and shame (often drawing ostracizion from a girl’s community as well).

Denying a woman of the ability to be economically independent robs her of autonomy, and makes her dependent on family, partners or those in positions of power, a breeding ground for poverty and abuse. For women who have children, this can be a particularly devastating situation.

Physiologically, the risk of sexually trasmitted diseases, fistula, infections or unwanted pregnancies can destroy her social standing or cripple her to the point where she can no longer work. It is a devastating problem which has ramifications far beyond the life of the individual.

There are numerous obstacles to tackling the issue of gender-based violence in refugee situations. These range from the smallest measures, like ensuring locks on doors and sex-segregated bathrooms, to the slower and less straightforward work of education and shifting cultural attitudes, to the logistical challenges of providing safety and security. Government services and humanitarian organizations, however, are stretched thin, and sometimes are simply unable to effect change under their circumstances. (For example, while working, one researcher found that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there was only one worker investigating sex crimes in the eastern part of the country.)

These are not easy tasks in a world short on resources, and require hefty financial effort and political will. Its perennial presence in the news may have made investing in efforts against the cause seem fruitless.  But for millions of faceless refugees, the assistance of an aid worker, a safe place to sleep, access to food or basic education for their children – all the things we take for granted – are life-saving differences.

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Cover photo credit: Oxfam International, Flickr Creative Commons