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Examples of common reactions to sexual assault

Misunderstood but valid responses from survivors

After a sexual assault, there is a social script that dictates what many people think would be “normal” activity. There are usually some variations in this. It can include the survivor fighting back during the assault. It could also say the survivor should cut ties with the perpetrator immediately afterward if they know each other (which they usually do). Or that all survivors get examined at a hospital for their Sexual Assault Evidence Kit as soon as possible. There is also an expectation that all these steps are done logically. The survivor “must” also never doubt that the assault itself occurred. But these are not always examples of common reactions to sexual assault.

reactions to sexual assault

We will look deeper into how unrecognized sexual assaults can lead to cycles of abuse for vulnerable peoples in a later article. However, in today’s post, we will explore how rape myths and rape culture make valid responses by survivors seem unusual.

This article is adapted from the Women’s College Hospital’s online course. For more information, complete Understanding the Commonly Misunderstood Reactions to Sexual Assault.


Normalization happens when a survivor tries to put the assault into the context of what is considered “normal” activities. This idea of “normal” is usually fueled by rape culture, which hides the fact that a sexual assault legitimately happened. This can be made worse when the survivor knows the perpetrator, which they do in the majority of cases. Some research says this is because people in intimate relationships believe sex is “expected“. Plus, social scripts usually tell us that sexual assaults are committed by strangers. So, when the perpetrator is known to the survivor, then it might not fit their idea of what a sexual assault “should” be.

Examples of common reactions to sexual assault: Normalization


Explanation is when a survivor tries to rationalize what happened to them and explain away the assault. This can happen especially when there is an existing relationship between the survivor and the perpetrator. Explanations are usually fueled by rape myths and grounded in rape culture.

Examples of common reactions to sexual assault: Explanation


When a survivor uses minimization, they usually refer to another situation that could have been worse. They recognize that they said no and that they didn’t consent, but think about how they might have “gotten off easy” compared to someone else.

Examples of common reactions to sexual assault: Minimization


When a survivor engages in dramatization, they will openly talk about the assault. This might lead others to feel like the assault didn’t affect them, but in reality it’s a part of processing the assault and healing from it. Dramatization could lead the survivor to think that those around them “must be sick of hearing about it”. This can cause feelings of shame. However, connecting with others and being open to talking with helpful people may allow a survivor to bring in the help they need to recover.

Examples of common reactions to sexual assault: Dramatization


Suppression is the opposite of dramatization. When a survivor suppresses the assault, they try not to think about it. They may do everything they can to keep the memory of the assault out of their mind and disconnect from their supports who might know about the assault. Being able to know how to support and talk with someone who has gone through a sexual assault might be helpful in supporting the survivor in your life.

Examples of common reactions to sexual assault: Suppression


Dissociation is when a survivor becomes disconnected from their body. They may feel empty, numb, or nothing at all. We’ve described this before as being “a dream-like state”. During dissociation, your brain filters some experiences from consciousness to protect you. This can lead to memory loss, feelings of surreality or detachment.

Examples of common reactions to sexual assault: Dissociation/numbing

Changes in Sexual Activity

Survivors may have changes to their consensual sexual activities after a sexual assault. Some people may engage in more, riskier sex. Others may shut down and not be able to have consensual sex. The whole spectrum represents real, valid responses to sexual assault. Being able to recognize changes to someone’s experience might help them process what has happened.

Examples of common reactions to sexual assault: Changes in Sexual Activity

Supporting a survivor with these responses

Recognizing the symptoms of trauma and knowing more about reporting are key pieces to healing after a sexual assault. We’ve recently explored the difficulties a survivor may face in reporting a sexual assault, but there is hope. Traditionally, only approximately 5% of sexual assaults are reported to the police. But now, VESTA Anonymous Reporting and VESTA Online Reporting offer trauma-informed ways for survivors to report their experiences. Survivors can use the tools as a way to document their experience for their own benefit. They can choose to use it to report anonymized statistics to campus or relevant authorities. Or they can submit a full police report.

We hope that one day rape culture will be eradicated. And we are trying to play our role in making that happen. When survivors can be supported to access the resources they need to heal, the system will get more information on how to support them. Since no two survivors are the same, the more information the system has, the better it can support those who come forward. When everyone who is sexually assaulted feels they can come forward, our society can heal itself from the ills of sexual violence. Then, that will be the day where an equal society can emerge and rape culture can be left behind.

reactions to sexual assault

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