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Understanding the Trauma Endured by Sexual Assault Victims

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Sexual assault is the least reported violent criminal act reported to Canadian police by victims. According to the latest Statistics Canada criminal victimization report , numerous studies suggest that only about 6% to 12% of sexual assault victims report the crime to the police. In light of this dismal figure and spurred by the #MeToo movement and a 2019 series of Globe and Mail articles detailing police deficiencies in addressing sexual assault reports, Canadian Government agencies have launched sweeping initiatives to prevent sexual assault and encourage victims to report the crime.

According to a 2019 Department of Justice report — The Impact of Trauma on Adult Sexual Assault Victims — getting more victims to report the offence to police will likely be challenging. “It is well known that many victims choose not to report the crimes of sexual violence committed against them. For those who choose to report and go through the trial process, sexual assault complainants have frequently experienced the criminal justice system as a place that retraumatizes and even harms them.”

The report details the trauma sexual assault victims can undergo, and public and criminal justice system misconceptions about the victim’s experience. It highlights steps the Justice Department should take to create a more trauma-informed justice system. To create a more trauma-informed justice system, we must understand the trauma victims endure. So, let’s review the traumatic impacts a sexual assault can have on the victim.

Factors Affecting the Degree of Trauma in a Sexual Assault

According to the Justice Department report, “[s]exual assault is an experience of trauma, and trauma has a neurobiological impact — that is, it affects our brains and our nervous systems” over both the short and long term. Research suggests that sexual assault is the definitive leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in women. The degree of trauma a sexual assault victim experiences depends on numerous factors, including:

  • The nature of the assault.
  • How long the assault lasted.
  • Victim’s relationship with the assailant.
  • The extent of any physical harm.
  • Health consequences like sexually transmitted diseases (STD) or pregnancy.
  • Whether the victim had previous experiences with sexual abuse.
  • Previous mental health issues.
  • Whether it was a one-time or multiple-occurrence assault.
  • Cultural beliefs and attitudes regarding sex and sexual assault.
  • Victim’s age (trauma is often more severe in younger victims).
  • How family, friends, and others respond to the victim’s narrative of the assault.

Due to Trauma, Victims May Not React as One Might Expect

Given the trauma induced during and after a sexual assault, victims often don’t respond to an assault in ways non-traumatized people might expect. Trauma can impede a victim’s ability to protect themselves and otherwise affect decision-making before and after the assault. Some of the actions a victim might take that may seem inconsistent with the sexual assault experience include:

  • Freeze up during the actual assault.
  • Not say no to clearly undesired sexual contact.
  • Limited emotional expression after the assault.
  • Maintain a relationship with the assailant after the assault.
  • Not report or delay the reporting of the assault to police.
  • Blame themselves for the assault.
  • Deny or minimize the assault.
  • Not remembering details about the assault.
  • Be unable to describe the assailant.
  • Struggle to provide consistent narratives about the assault.
  • Recant the assault at a later date.

Short- and Long-Term Trauma Experienced by Victims

According to researchers, trauma is subjective, and what might be traumatic for some people might not be so for others. Trauma causes short- and long-term physical and psychological impacts on people who’ve been traumatized, and the range of potential negative impacts is broad. Anyone who has been sexually assaulted may experience the following short- and longer-term physical and psychological reactions:

  • Shock
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Hyper-alertness
  • Paranoia
  • Irritability
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Nightmares
  • Reliving the experience
  • Feelings of detachment
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Sense of shame
  • Embarrassment
  • Feelings of betrayal
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased need for control
  • Desires for isolation
  • Feeling detached from life
  • Emotional numbness
  • And more

How the Trauma Impacts Other Elements of the Victim’s Life

The trauma caused by a sexual assault can have significant impacts on other elements of a sexual assault victim’s life. A sexual assault can be noticeably life-changing if it injures the victim, infects them with an STD, or induces pregnancy. However, the trauma caused by a sexual assault can have numerous other life-changing ramifications. Depending on the degree of trauma a sexual assault victim might face:

  • Difficulty working and keeping employed.
  • Disruptions to their educational pursuits.
  • Financial strain due to medical bills, therapy fees, legal costs, and job loss.
  • Chronic health issues.
  • Increased risk of substance abuse.
  • Difficulties with their personal relationships.
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
  • Disrupting change in their social life.

Criminal Justice System Enhances Focus on Sexual Assault Trauma

Many Canadian government initiatives launched in recent years to prevent and fight the scourge of sexual assault strive to place some focus on addressing the trauma experienced by sexual assault victims. From a law enforcement perspective, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) appears to be adopting some of the recommendations in the 2019 Department of Justice report. Among the goals stated in the RCMPS’s Sexual Assault Review and Victim Support Plan is to “[t]reat victims of sexual assault with compassion, care and respect, informed by established evidence-based best practices.” To do this, the service has established protocols to carefully address trauma when interviewing victims and is training its officers on how to conduct trauma-informed investigations.

Secure a Robust Defence with the GTA Sexual Assault Criminal Defence Lawyers of Mass Tsang

We empathize with sexual assault victims and know that the experience can be quite traumatizing. However, we also believe that Canada’s sexual assault laws can be draconian because the legal threshold for what can constitute an assault is so low. In some cases, the law can categorize non-consensual touching of a sexual nature, whether an unwanted kiss or accidental touch of the wrong body part, on par with rape or other aggressive sexual assaults. To avoid the harsh penalties that can result from an error in judgment or misunderstanding, consult with an experienced sexual assault defence lawyer if the police have charged you with the offence. The sexual assault criminal defence lawyers of Mass Tsang have successfully defended 100s of clients from the charges in the Greater Toronto Area. To secure a vigorous defence against your sexual assault charges, contact the skilled lawyers of Mass Tsang.

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