Survivors of sexual violence often struggle with anxiety, depression, symptoms of PTSD, or sleep disorders, which are sometimes dismissed as being “all in your head.” Based on decades of practice and research, Bessel van der Kolk shows how traumatic experiences leave a physical imprint in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Despite the somewhat intimidating small print and large number of pages, this book is an invaluable resource for anyone working through trauma or supporting survivors of trauma.
Kolk begins by explaining how the brain processes traumatic incidents. The threat of danger triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response, which changes how somebody interprets, processes, and remembers a traumatic experience. Due to the different ways people interpret trauma, survivors exhibit a range of responses when dealing with the aftermath of an assault. Some may express intense emotions, like rage or hopelessness, while others may seem shut down or disconnected. Many survivors experience all of these responses at different times during their healing process.
In honor of International Forensic Nurse’s Week, we acknowledge the effort and dedication of the highly trained cadre of SANE nurses that provide sensitive and skillful medical attention to survivors of sexual assault. SANE stands for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, a specialization that is necessary, beneficial, and valuable. SANE nurses receive extensive training to fulfill two equally important roles: collecting forensic evidence and providing trauma-informed medical care to survivors.
An Exploration of Rape Trauma Syndrome in It Follows
Horror films have a complicated and long history of depictions of rape. As many people have pointed out before me (most famously in Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film), the violence in horror movies tends to be undeniably gendered, sexualized, and unabashedly voyeuristic. Also, let’s not forget rape/revenge films: a cult subgenre of horror in which an assault survivor creatively dismembers her (often multiple) attackers after being similarly brutalized herself on screen.
At first glance, it may seem that the rape/revenge subgenre might be empowering for survivors. However, it nearly always simply serves as a vehicle for more and more sensational and gratuitous violence and, ultimately, a reinforcement of the status quo for our society’s understanding of survivorship. While these movies include sexual assault as a direct part of the plot, others feature story lines that present allegories for survivorship — intentionally or not.
One such movie is It Follows, an independent film released last March that was described to me as a story about “a sexually-transmitted haunting.” This phrasing immediately made me think of STI prevention and safe sex cautionary tales. As a lover of horror and sex education, I was on board immediately. I expected images and metaphors of disease transmission, condom use, or the plague fear-mongering so commonly seen in modern zombie films. But instead, the visuals and set-up of this film immediately brought trauma response to mind.
Admittedly, it is not uncommon for me to see symptoms of trauma when they are not intentionally being depicted. I work one-on-one with sexual assault survivors as a Companion, and I am a rape survivor myself who experienced a case of Rape Trauma Syndrome which lasted for years, so it’s not unnatural for me to read my own experiences and training into the media I’m consuming. By the director’s own admission of the inspiration for the film – a recurring dream he has had since childhood – I sincerely doubt the meaning I took from the film was intentional on his part. However, I saw it with a friend of mine, also a survivor, who saw the same metaphors that I did. Maybe the intentions of media aren’t quite as important as the messages the audience can take from it. I believe this is especially true for survivors of sexual assault, who often never feel safe or comfortable publicly identifying as a survivor. In such an isolated state, it’s common for survivors to feel like they are ‘crazy’ or overreacting. Without honest, accurate, and sympathetic depictions of the toll of sexual assault, survivors will continue to feel like they are damaged and alone in their trauma symptoms.
Rape trauma syndrome (RTS), a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is a stress response very commonly experienced by survivors of sexual assault and rape. Symptoms can occur immediately after an assault and may continue for months or even years afterwards. It is characterized by disruptions to normal physical, emotional, and social functionality. Physical symptoms can include shock, sleep and eating disturbances, and fatigue. Behavioral and emotional symptoms cover many issues including disorientation, purposefully isolating oneself, fear of being alone, crying more than usual, feeling restless or agitated, emotional numbness, hypersexuality, increased anxiety, feelings of guilt, feeling alone, and more.
Every survivor’s emotional experiences after an assault are uniquely personal, and symptoms can be as varied as they can be damaging. The symptoms I’ve listed here are only a few of those possible, and I chose to only include symptoms that I saw depicted in the film, which should give you some indication of the scope and variety of RTS experiences.
It Follows focuses on the story of Jay, a girl in her late teens or early twenties living with her inattentive mother and sister. The horror portion of the film doesn’t really start until Jay goes on a third date with a guy named Hugh, who seems to be roughly her age. After having consensual sex with Jay, he then chooses to chloroform her and tie her to a wheelchair in an abandoned parking garage. He does this in order to have an opportunity to force her to listen to some very unbelievable and time-sensitive warnings. He tells her:
We support survivors of all types of sexual violence, such as rape, assault, harassment, stalking, sex trafficking, incest, and child sexual abuse. We are also available to talk to those who feel negatively impacted by a sexual experience. Our services are available to all members of the community regardless of race, socioeconomic class, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, religion, disability, age, language, national origin, and immigration status.