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Questions, emotions and physical responses after a traumatic sexual experience

If you have had a traumatic sexual experience, you could potentially go through a very tough time. You may be confronted with a vast array of emotions, thoughts and physical responses. You may blame yourself for what happened to you or have questions about how come you reacted in a certain way during the assault. On this page, we hope to answer as many of your questions as we can. If you are left with any questions after reading this text, please feel free to contact the Sexual Assault Centre on 0800-0188. You can also chat with us. 

Talking and seeking help after a traumatic sexual experience

Talking about sexual violence

As a victim, it is probably very difficult for you to talk about what happened. You would not be the only one. Many victims keep silent about what has happened to them for years and some never talk about it. For your recovery, it is important that you seek help if you have any problems. The Sexual Assault Center has specially trained professionals who can offer you proper support.

Seek help within seven days

If you have had a traumatic sexual experience, you want to forget it as quickly as possible. You feel dirty and confused, sad, scared or angry. You are ashamed and perhaps blame yourself for what happened. That can make it very difficult to seek professional help. However, we do ask you to seek help within a week of experiencing sexual violence. Within that time, there are more medical, psychological and forensic options. These include securing traces of the perpetrator’s DNA, preventing a pregnancy and infection and preventing a post-traumatic stress disorder. The Sexual Assault Center specialises in offering this type of help.

Physical responses during an assault

Freeze response during an assault - Tonic immobility

Seventy per cent of victims freeze or cooperate during sexual abuse. This is also known as the freeze response or tonic immobility. Your body freezes, rendering you incapable of doing or saying anything. You feel paralysed as it were. This is the body’s automatic response, and you have no control over it. Your body goes this survival mode to protect you. If you experienced this freeze response during the assault, you may be angry at yourself afterwards for not fighting back. Therefore, it is important to know that your body takes over in times of extreme stress and that there was nothing you could have done about it.

Sexual arousal during an assault

Many victims notice their body physically responds during a sexual assault. Boys and men can have an erection or orgasm and girls and women can get a moist vagina. This is your body’s automatic response to protect you. Your body automatically reacts to sexual stimuli, even when those stimuli are threatening. Fear and stress cause all blood vessels in the body to widen, also around your genitals. That is how an erection or moistness can occur. Having a physical response has nothing to do with arousal or permission.

Symptoms after a traumatic sexual experience

Symptoms that can arise after sexual violence

Various symptoms can arise after going through a traumatic sexual experience. These symptoms can be different for everyone. Below, we list a few of the most common symptoms:

  • Flashbacks. Or in other words: the images of the assault play out repeatedly in your head. Some victims have this throughout the day, others mainly in the evenings when they go to sleep or in the form of nightmares. It can help to talk about what you have been through during the daytime. You could also distract yourself just before going to sleep so that you don’t have to think about the incident. Some victims think they are going mad due to the flashbacks. That is a normal reaction. If all goes well, the flashback will steadily decrease.
  • Avoidance. You avoid thoughts, feelings and activities that make you think of the assault. That is completely normal straight after experiencing sexual violence. If all goes well, the avoidance will decrease after a time. If that is not the case, try to differentiate between things you are avoiding because they could be dangerous (such as going into a dark forest on your own) and the things that ‘feel’ dangerous (such as going outside). Try and do the things that only feel dangerous. Your brain will learn that the things you are scared of, won’t happen. It also helps to try and pick up your normal life again as much as you can, by going to school or work.
  • Vigilance. Straight after an intense experience, many people feel they must be vigilant all the time because danger lurks everywhere. Due to the traumatic experience, your body usually remains in a state of high alertness for a while. This makes it harder to fall asleep, you have difficulty concentrating, get angry quickly and startle easily. This often decreases by itself. It also helps to pick up your normal life again.
  • Negative thoughts and feeling depressed. You could also be feeling depressed or have negative thoughts. about yourself, others or even the whole world. You feel like you can’t trust anyone anymore. The feelings of depression may cause you to be less inclined to do things or you talk less to other people. Seek support from those around you. Talk to people you trust, so that they can help you to remain positive in what is a difficult situation for you.
  • Feelings of guilt and shame. As a victim of a traumatic sexual experience, you may blame yourself for what happened and/or be angry at yourself because you think you didn’t do enough to stop the perpetrator. You would not be the only one. Many victims of a sexual assault or rape have those feelings. It is important to differentiate between being guilty and feeling guilty. Even if you feel guilty, you are not. No one is allowed to touch you without your consent.
  • Doubts about your sexual preference. Experiencing sexual violence can cause you to feel confused. If as a boy or man you were assaulted by another man, you could for example start questioning whether you are homosexual, certainly if you had an erection and/or ejaculated during the sexual assault. The fact your body reacted by getting an erection has nothing to do with arousal or consent and it does not reflect on your sexual preference.

Long-term consequences of sexual violence

Stress responses after sexual violence

If you have gone through a traumatic sexual experience, you will most likely have stress responses right after the sexual assault. These include feeling numb, insomnia, fear and anger. These are all normal responses. It is important to know that these stress responses usually decrease with time. If these stress responses do not decrease after four weeks, there is a big chance you have a post-traumatic stress disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after sexual violence

A post-traumatic stress disorder means you are unable to process the traumatic experience or experiences. You keep going over it in your mind, while doing your best not to. You anger easily and have negative thoughts about yourself and others. It is terrible to have a PTSS. PTSS is often accompanied by depression or another disorder. It is important to get over that PTSS through trauma therapy. Also, because if you have a PTSS, you run a higher risk of becoming a victim of sexual violence again.

Recurring memories after sexual violence

Even if you have had professional help to process the sexual assault, and even if it happened a long time ago, troubling emotions could recur. There is a chance that certain events in your life could trigger the trauma. For example, when starting a new relationship or having children. It may also be the case that you only understand what happened to you during your childhood when you reach adulthood. If issues related to the sexual violence you experienced resurface, you can always call the Sexual Assault Centre for information and advice. We can then refer you to the right help near you.

Responses from those around you

Support from those around you after sexual violence

After going through a traumatic sexual experience, it is extremely important that you get support from those around you. People you can trust, who you can talk to and who are there for you. Victims who are supported by those around them recover quicker than victims who don’t get that support. The Sexual Assault Center has several tips that you can show to others.

Victim blaming after sexual assault

Many people who have experienced sexual violence, receive negative responses from those around them. The victim is not believed or is seen as being guilty. Examples of this are: ‘You shouldn’t have gone there on your own.’ ‘You shouldn’t have gotten drunk.’ Or: ‘You shouldn’t have worn such a short skirt.’ Others may ask you questions, such as ‘Why didn’t you simply get away.’ ‘Why didn’t you fight back?’ These types of questions could make you feel guilty. We call these responses from those around you ‘victim blaming’: you are blamed for what happened, while you are not guilty at all. Victim blaming can have negative consequences for you as a victim. It could cause you to feel guilty and ashamed. And it could negatively affect how you process the traumatic incident.

If you have had a traumatic sexual experience and need help, contact the Sexual Assault Center. We are available day and night on 0800-0188. Calls to us are free. You can also chat with us.


We made this booklet specially for people who have experienced sexual violence. It contains information, tips and experience stories. You can download the booklet for free using the button below.