Updated: May 8, 2020
An Existential Offering Of Overcoming The Experience Of Rape
Written by Natalie Fraser, 2018
Coursework for The Existential Academy
From Victim To Hero
Despite legal systems acknowledging the severity of sexually violent crimes, extensive literature demonstrates victims significantly underreporting their experiences. Exploration into the impact of sexual assaults reveals the incredibly traumatic and long-lasting impact which they have on the victim. It is fundamental that victims receive the appropriate personal, social and therapeutic care they need, enabling them to heal from their experience and continue living an authentic and fulfilling existence. While most commonly victims in Western communities are diagnosed with PTSD and have their symptoms treated by medical models, contemporary holistic research highlights the importance of honouring the unique complexity of each individual's experiences, addressing not just the presented symptoms but the existential and experiential issues which result from traumatic experiences such as sexual abuse.
The word rape derives from the Latin word Latin "rapere" which translates to ‘seize’ and refers to the act of violently seizing someone else's property. The Oxford English dictionary (Oxford Dictionaries | English, 2019) defines rape as: "The crime, typically committed by a man, of forcing another person to have sexual intercourse with the offender against their will."
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 classifies both rape and sexual assault, which are differentiated by intentional penetration using the penis and intentional penetration using "part of his body or anything else"(Legislation.gov.uk., 2019). According to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 a "belief" about a rape or sexual assault having occurred "...is reasonable is to be determined having regard to all the circumstances, including any steps A [perpetrator] has taken to ascertain whether B [victim] consents." Under the same act a person found guilty of either offence is liable to imprisonment for life (Legislation.gov.uk., 2019).
Yet despite the severity of this offence, statistics show an exceptionally high rate of sexual offences occurring within the UK. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) statistics collected in 2017 found that an estimated 12.1% of the population, equivalent to 4 million people, were victims of sexual assault. Furthermore, 3.6% of the population had experienced domestic sexual violence with 3.1% of these from an intimate partner rather than a family member (Ons.gov.uk, 2019). Yet despite this high prevalence, 31% of victims reported not having told anyone about their assault and only 17% had reported the incident to the police. These statistics indicate that the vast majority of perpetrators are never reprimanded for their crime, with 45% stating that they would be too embarrassed to report their assault and 35% believing the process would be humiliating and not properly handled (Campbell and Johnson, 1997; Ons.gov.uk, 2019).
Having been through such a traumatic experience, the disinclination to share their story is only too common amongst victims. Further exploration into the impacts of rape and sexual assault may give insight into why that is. For ease of reading: rape; sexual assault; and sexual violence will be referred to as rape within the context of this essay.
Despite the apparently clear definitions, research demonstrates that individual interpretations of rape vary (Chasteen, 2001). The influence of cultural ideologies, acceptance of patriarchal dominance over women, desensitisation of violence through media exposure, and the prevalence of victims being assaulted by an acquaintances all contribute to complicating the understanding of the experience (Donovan, 2007). These convoluting aspects appear to have resulted in people doubting the validity of rape unless it occurs precisely as implied by the 'traditional rape script' (Peterson & Muehlenhard, 2004), which has lead to both the development and acceptance of 'rape myths' and stigmatic views of the victims.
Rape myths come in various forms, and are defined as socially created ideologies that excuse violent sexual behaviours, often advocating that the victims are responsible (Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994). Rape myths include but are not conclusive of: alcohol consumption; being an acquaintance or in a relationship; having made a sexual advance; types of clothing; flirtatious demeanours; having had previous sexual relations; and regular occurrence (Kahn et al., 2003; Payne, Lonsway, & Fitzgerald, 1999,). Research suggests that the prevalence of these myths in common discourse act to justify instances of rape and become normative explanations of situations which prevent rape being labelled as such by those who experience it (Deming, Covan, Swan & Billings, 2013).
The Impacts Of Rape
Shame And Guilt
Feelings of humiliation and embarrassment are commonly experienced by rape victims and contribute to victims refraining from sharing their experiences with others. Studies suggest these feelings manifest from the stigmatic views held about rape victims and from the rape myths which convolutes understandings about the experience (Fisher et al., 2005; Peterson & Muehlenhard, 2004). Extensive research into the underreporting of rape cases also highlights the insensitive treatment of victims by the social justice system which increases the experience of feelings of guilt and shame, and significantly contributes to lower self-esteem. This insensitive treatment by authorities is increasingly referred to as secondary victimization within rape literature and is found to be a strong contributor to victims blaming themselves for the experience (Campbell and Johnson, 1997; Grubb and Turner, 2012).
Dissociation From Self
Research into the effect of abuse on self identity demonstrates that dissociative states are incredibly common. Walker (2016) describes this dissociation from the mind and the body as a form of mild self hypnosis which protects the victim from the terror and pain of their experience. While it may appear a passive act, dissociation is an active choice of the individual in attempt to protect and maintain their fragile self. Phenomenological explorations of dissociation after traumatic events have been described as dreamlike states; watching their body behaving without feeling connected to their lived world. Prolonged dissociation leads to a collapse of identity, preventing the mind and body to work as an integrative unit (Lempert, 1994)
A commonly diagnosed impact of rape and interpersonal violence is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Philhps, Rosen, Zoellner, & Feeny, 2006). Historically, symptoms of trauma were termed as 'hysteria', a typically female condition. Psychoanalysts such as Freud, Janet and Breuer noticed that hysteric symptoms masked traumatic events which they terms to have been repressed into the unconscious, and that through verbalising these memories the symptoms would often be alleviated (Day, 2009; Herman, 1997). Contemporary neurological tests found empirical evidence to support these dated theories, demonstrating that trauma memories are stored in the hippocampus region of the brain, with emotions and sensory information preserved intact (Walker, 2016). Clinical treatment of PTSD sees symptoms as solely biological reactions to trauma, ignoring the influence of cultural norms and a sense of meainglessness which have been found to play a significant role in people's reactions to traumatic events (Kroll, 2003), as exemplified by the impact of rape myths and victim shaming.
Existential Therapeutic Implications
Working Existentially With Trauma
When victims are unable or reluctant to acknowledge their experience as a rape, it may be an important part of the therapeutic process to understand what the experience means to them. While a large body of literature has collected common experiential aspects amongst rape victims, it remains important when working existentially to retain a sense of phenomenological epoché (Tymieniecka, 2009) and bracket assumptions of what rape may mean to the therapist.
While medical treatment of PTSD symptoms addresses cognitive and behavioural adjustments of symptoms, it ignores the complex, unique and existential impacts being experienced after the event (Day, 2009). Kroll (2003) highlights the importance of understanding trauma as an individual experience, suggesting that treatments should consider the context and meanings attached to the client's experience. Traumatic experiences are existential by the very nature in which they impact the world of each individual yet despite the prevalence of existential themes, existential issues are relatively underexplored in trauma literature (Jenmorri, 2006).
Rather than aiming to alleviate symptoms, existential therapists attempt to empower clients to discover and create productive paths for their suffering (Fernando, 2007). With both personally and socially convoluted understandings of rape experiences, the existential phenomenological exploration of client's experiences enables both therapist and client work towards a meaningful understanding of the client's world view, allowing their experience to be heard in the present moment and authentically understood - often for the first time. By understanding and accepting traumatic experiences, clients arrive at a deeper connection with their self which may have been dissociated or lost after the traumatic event (Fernando, 2007). This self discovery can be a powerful experience for those who have felt powerless both during and since the traumatic experience (Bugental; and Bracke, 1992; Day, 2009; Fernando, 2007).
Exploring Meaning Through Narrative
A common theme amongst existential thinkers is the innate human responsibility to choose their attitude to life. While this acknowledges the internal and external situations which bring suffering, there remains what Frankl deemed to be the last of man's greatest freedoms: the ability to choose one's attitude to any given situation (Frankl , 1985).
While the traumatic experience of rape cannot be undone from the past, the victim forever has the ability to choose how they see the event (Frankl et al., 1967). While experiences of rape may be traumatic to discuss, exploring experiences as narratives moves the therapeutic focus from the trauma to the story itself (White et al., 1990), allowing the experience to be worked through in a less direct and more sensitive way. By retelling their story in a therapeutic setting, clients may become empowered through regaining authorship of their storied world (Speedy, 2000).
Rather than accepting past experiences as concrete facts, narrative ideas encourages clients to abandon 'certainties' in life. By deconstructing traumatic life stories and retelling them with new meanings, clients are able to discover and develop richer stories and understand their experiences in more varied and meaningful ways (Speedy, 2000). By doing so, it may be easier for clients to accept the reality of their experience while understanding it as a past event. Clients can be assisted to understand that they possess the choice about what aspects of this they bring into their future storied lives (Speedy, 2000).
Through the process of exploring the event through their narration of it, the meanings which have become associated with the experience can be revealed. Rather than their story being one of a rape victim, alternative perspectives may surface. A common and healing alternative perspective is the understanding of their story as a process of self-transformation (Lempert, 1994). Dissociations between the mind and body which are commonly experienced by rape victims can be worked through, enabling the client to realign their dimensions of the self (Van Deurzen, 1997) and healing their temporarily collapsed sense of identity. Rather than being the victim who was abused, through therapeutic interventions working with their narrative, they can reassess the meanings associated with their experience and become the hero of their story; the survivor of their trauma.
The Emotional Compass
Not only do rape myths and convoluted understanding of their experience impact the victim's self-view and self-esteem, misguided social and cultural views of rape victims significantly contribute to feelings of guilt and shame experienced by victims (Fisher et al., 2005). The attitude of others towards victims of rape have been found to play an important role in the recovery process, with emotional support linked to increased recovery while negative social interactions such as stigmatic treatment and victim-blaming has been found to create psychological distress and postpone the recovery process (Yamawaki, 2007).
From an existential perspective, internalising other's blame which manifests as shame is intrinsically linked to the gaze of others (Sartre, 1977); the existential notion of assessing the self in relation to the assumptions of other's views of one's self. With rape literature highlighting the prevalence of victim-blaming in rape cases (Grubb and Turner, 2012), a key aspect of working existentially with victims is to explore the emotional impact which blame has on the client and the meaning attached to it.
Existentialists consider emotions not as cognitive responses to stimuli nor as pathologies, but as the basic way which humans connect to the world. Emotions are considered neither as negative nor positive, and acting with their own intelligence they directively reveal the true values and goals of the individual. Van Deurzen (1997) deemed emotions to be inherently connected to values and by connecting with ones emotions one connects more deeply with themselves. Rather than being accepted as validating a 'true' external opinion about the self, the shame may be understood as a useful developmental tool. In her Emotional Compass, Van Deurzen considers shame to be the first step towards the healthy anxiety which engages people on their upward progression towards happiness (p.309; fig. 34.1). Through phenomenologically exploring how the client is meaningfully experiencing their shame, they may be realigned with their values in a new perspective and see more clearly what their shame is aspiring towards (p.311).
While there may be common symptoms between survivors of sexual violence, it is inhumane to neglect to respect that each experience of trauma is uniquely experienced by the victim. Beyond these common symptoms lies the fundamental existential turbulence resulting from the experience, often with long lasting impact on the victim's sense of self; their meanings; and their values. Through the non-invasive and supportive nature of existential therapy, not only may client's symptoms alleviate as they are offered the space to discuss their experience for the first time, but powerful transformations of identity may be achieved. Traumatic emotions such as shame and guilt may be newly understood as helpful resources providing guidance towards true fulfilment, and by rewriting their existence clients may finally transform their lost self from a victim to the hero of their story.
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