We discuss and debate over how to punish the victim or why it happened. We all have our own theories and analysis on this issue. But what we usually miss out on is what happens to the woman after the trauma she faces. We have courts that deal with the criminal and the society moves on with their lives but what about the girl? Do we ever discuss about what she thinks and how she lives her life? Our conclusions end at killing the rapist or changing the society but it never touches the afterlives of the victim. This article aims at bringing forth what rape does to a woman and how we can help her lead a normal life.
In psychological terms, during the act of sexual assault the brain sends signals of either fight or flight. If the victim is unable to run away from the situation or is unable to fight the offender and is unable to escape the situation in anyway, the brain commands the body to shut down or freeze. Many rape victims described this as if they felt like they were floating outside of their body and could feel nothing throughout the harrowing experience. This stress response of the brain activates a particularly defined memory formation and makes the victim more vigilant. If the victim survives, the body uses this stress response to avoid any such future incident to keep the body alive, the natural instincts of the brain. This process is termed as “fear conditioning”. The sensory details of the event- the smell, noise, and surroundings etc- become inextricably connected to the memory of the incident. Any one detail that might be similar to the actual event would trigger the victim’s memory, thus reactivating the response of fight or flight. The memory is so sharp that the victim feels as if she is living the assault all over again.
If I use an example, a girl went for a personal interview. The interview was to be held at a home/office of the interviewer. When she reached there, there was nobody else beside her for the interview. She panicked and wanted to leave as quickly as possible. She vividly remembers the details as she painfully recollects them, “He forced himself on me and I could do nothing. My brain was having a battle over what should I do. I tried pushing him way but he was too strong for me. He had a peculiar smell, similar to garlic. I was numb and could hardly move.” She describes a later incident when she was travelling by the Delhi metro and smelled a similar smell around and all that she could think of was running away from that smell. For her, the smell triggers a fear that cannot be escaped.
This example shows how the brain triggers a response of fight or flight to alert the body of a possible danger through the smell of the previous attacker.
Most rape victims suffer through PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). After a traumatic experience, the victim feels intensely vulnerable, fearful and powerless. The victim suffers from flashbacks and numbing of certain memories. A woman told how she could no longer remember a huge chunk of her childhood because of being raped at the age of seven. She said that she does not remember the event clearly as somehow it has been blocked from her memory. Along with it, she can longer recall chunks of her childhood.
The immediate reaction of the victim after the assault is of shock followed by disbelief and then maybe anger. These reactions are often followed with mourning as they suddenly cannot relate to life they used to live. She no longer trusts life, the way she used to and every step or every person or everyday feels unsafe for her. She loses all self esteem or desire to live. Rape counselors say that the after effects of rape could be chronic depression, suicidal tendencies, nightmares or loss of appetite. The women cannot walk the streets without consistently checking behind them. Some women keep checking their door locks out of fear. Entering a relationship with a man becomes close to impossible as many women start hating or fearing men. Some women turn towards lesbianism while the ones who find a supportive male life partner have difficulty in having a satisfactory sexual life. Another severe consequence is that of alcoholism and promiscuity. A rape victim said in an interview, “I could not tell my family that I was gang raped by four men. I just told them that I fell of the stairs and broke my tooth. I did not want to live, I did not feel like this was my body or that I was a part of this world. I became an alcoholic, just to fade away the real life. I would drink enough to be knocked out. I was promiscuous and enjoyed using men. I manipulated men to have sex and loved controlling them. Then I had a relationship with this woman who changed my life. She was the first person I told everything. Since then, things have changed and I am trying to live a better life.”
There are thousands of unreported rape cases and people question why the woman did not report her abuse. This is a question that should be directed towards the society rather than the victim. A victim said that she felt that nobody would believe her, another felt ashamed of being violated while the other feared how the society would respond. The victim continues to keep this secret buried inside her which does more harm than good. Most rape victims tend to feel guilty of the rape and fear that she will lose her friends or her family would be ashamed of her. Medical counseling could help the woman in overcoming the trauma but most importantly she needs be positive and respect herself which depends a lot on the reaction of the first person she confides in. The rape survivor needs to believe that there is someone in whom she can confide and who will not judge her or accuse her. So, please understand. It is a huge battle for her, she is viewing the world with a new lens and to still be alive and positive is very difficult. She needs your support and assurance, not pity.