Female Perspectives on Ending Sexual Violence: Overcoming Rape-Related PTSD

by Stephanie Koehler
USA

Audra 1

For Audra, “The Lesson is Always Love.”

Stephanie Koehler is a journalist and photographer residing in California. She is also an advocate for the Rape Crisis Center. The goal of “Female Perspectives on Ending Sexual Violence” is to unite women all over the world to document the pain they endure as a result of sexual violence and the healing approach they take to grow from victim to survivor. Each installment includes a photo essay of a female survivor and is a platform to tell her story. Stephanie’s vision is to grow this project into an international sexual assault awareness campaign. Former installments can be read here.

Audra’s earliest recollection of traumatic violence dates back to before she was three years old when her step-mother repeatedly beat her into unconsciousness. The trauma of physical violence and sexual abuse continued throughout Audra’s life and ended at age 21 when she separated from her then husband. Now in her 30s and a mother of three children, Audra seems a perfect example of how one can heal the wounds inflicted by severe psychological trauma. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which often results from such trauma, has shaped Audra’s life. She says, “I had to be all these things that society expected me to be. I [had] to have this mask … and nobody wants to hear about [sexual violence].”

According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the National Institute of Mental Health groups symptoms of PTSD into three main categories: “re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyper-arousal.” Re-experiencing refers to “repeated reliving of the event, including flashbacks, frightening thoughts, recurrent memories or dreams, and physical reactions to situations that remind the survivor of the event.” Avoidance is illustrated by “the desire of a person to change their routine to escape similar situations to the trauma.” Hyper-arousal explains the physiological symptoms of PTSD, such as “difficulty concentrating or falling asleep; being easily startled; feeling tense, and ‘on edge’; and angry outbursts.”

Describing commonalities women experience in the aftermath of sexual violence, Audra points to fear. “Not love, not compassion, [not] joy, not help, but absolute fear. This is a disservice. And it’s such a loud emotion to have to live through … [in] a world where you are taught to be silent.”

Sexual violence is an act that touches the survivor on a cellular level, and the fear associated with it can be triggered randomly. Audra explains how such triggers affect her personally: “That smell [that she associates with the attack] is now there and it snatches [me] out of the present moment.”

Audra expresses part of her healing process in poetry. Her full poem can be read here. She writes of PTSD as a result of her experiences with violence;

audra 2PTSD and Me

We have a long history
I was beaten unconscious countless times before I turned three
By six, someone was molesting me
At the tender age of nine he tried to steal my virginity
16 raped, post-abortion me – made plans to die

And of her healing path and insight into what freeing herself from PTSD might look like, she composes:

Inspired by the fact that love came back to me
My symptoms, no longer in brutal control of me
And the three year-old that was and is in me
She dances and she plays – while I cry for her and for me
Wishing I could go back in time and save me
Or give birth to me
Be my own mother – the way I have been for three
What a dream that would be
I wonder who I would grow to be

Audra’s experience with sexual violence-linked PTSD is not uncommon. According to the National Women’s Study by the Medical University of South Carolina, “rape victims were 6.2 times more likely to develop PTSD than women who had never been victims of crime (31 percent versus 5 percent). The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are approximately 96.3 million adult women in the United States age 18 or older. If 13 percent of American women have been raped and 31 percent of rape victims have developed PTSD, then 3.8 million adult American women have experienced rape-related PTSD (RR-PTSD).”

The US Department of Veterans Affairs describes “one study that examined PTSD symptoms among women who were raped found that 94 percent of women experienced these symptoms during the two weeks immediately following the rape. Nine months later, about 30 percent of the women were still reporting this pattern of symptoms. The National Women’s Study reported that almost 1/3 of all rape victims develop PTSD sometime during their lives and 11 percent of rape victims currently suffer from the disorder.”

Thus far, PTSD is still widely underdiagnosed and misunderstood. Some clinicians believe that the array of PTSD-related symptoms one experiences depends largely on the way one’s body processes chemicals and hormones related to stress. Predisposition to depression and anxiety may play a role as well, and are often diagnosed in combination with PTSD or instead of it.

As the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress (AAETS) puts it: “[PTSD] is a normal human emotional reaction to an abnormal situation.” And it is believed that as a psychological phenomenon there is hope for a full and complete recovery. An important step in the healing process is identifying what triggers a survivor. Once a trigger has been identified, over time, the survivor can learn how to cope with the situation in a way that prevents it from spiraling back to the assault and allows the survivor to stay in control of her or his feelings. This could be through breathing techniques that calm the nervous system, or other learned mental or emotional tools to prevent the trigger from running its usual course.

It is important to listen intently to a survivor suffering from rape-related PTSD. A large part of my training as an advocate for the local Rape Crisis Center focused on the interaction with survivors, be it through the crisis hotline or in person when accompanying a survivor and assisting in the hospital after a rape is reported. Only when a survivor feels heard and safe, not belittled or degraded in any way, can she or he break the cycle of PTSD and start on the path to healing.

Audra emphasizes the importance of conversations about post-trauma recovery. “[W]e need a lot of post trauma conversation … remaining silent … is just as damaging. Those survivors are going to have issues, and they are going to need help… Every day they wake up in the same body that was violated. We don’t talk about that.”

When asked what must be done to ignite change, Audra states that an open dialogue starting at home is important. Although this was not instilled in her, she feels strongly that one can take an active role in breaking the cycle and making social change happen. Audra is a better role model to her children than her relatives were to her and instills in them the values of honesty. She fosters a loving relationship that encourages them to seek her advice, or simply share what is happening in their lives. Audra believes that “conversation starts at home. … If education doesn’t happen at home, then it’s the next generation [that will have] to break the cycle and … make social change happen.”

Looking back, Audra stresses that the opportunities available today were not around for her, and she is excited about the change: “Locally, I am very excited to see many of the things that are happening that weren’t when I was a kid. … there is a My Life Club and My Strength Club run by the local Rape Crisis Center and offered in the high schools… These programs provide education to youth and take an important role in the prevention of violence in general and sexual violence in particular.”

The My Life Club provides an environment that empowers young women to embrace their strengths, make safe and healthy decisions in their lives, and create positive change in their communities. Its male counterpart, the My Strength Club, promotes “My Strength is Not for Hurting” and encourages young men to take action to end sexual violence and to build healthy relationships. Similar clubs exist around the country and are geared at youth in middle through high school.

Listening to a woman who has endured so much and has such a beautiful outlook on life gives me hope. We need more courageous women to stand up for our rights. Audra is one of these women. Through her courage, perseverance, and inner beauty, she transformed trauma into the strength and became to be a voice for others. It is because of women like Audra that we have a chance to change.

Worldwide inquiries about Female Perspectives on Ending Sexual Violence are welcome. Participation is voluntary and the scope of each photo shoot and interview is determined with each participant to ensure women’s boundaries are honored and respected. To participate in this project or for more information, please contact the author at femaleperspectives@gmail.com.

stephanie koehlerAbout the Author: Stephanie Koehler is an artist, professional photographer and the founder of Heart-Filled Productions. Her work focuses on capturing the heart, soul and spirit of her subjects. Born and raised in Germany, she earned her Master’s Degree in Linguistics from Bergische Universitaet & Gesamthochschule Wuppertal, Germany and moved to Spain at age 27. She has lived and worked in various countries and now resides in California. Stephanie’s international background in marketing and event and program management combined with her creativity allows her to view the world through a lens of cultural diversity. She is an advocate at the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center and also works on a photojournalistic project that focuses on female survivors of violence, in which she highlights the beauty of traumatized women and gives them a voice to tell their story. Some of her photography can be seen at Heart-Filled Productions.

Posted in Arts & Culture, FEATURE ARTICLES

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