Surviving the Long-Term Trauma of Sexual Violence

After she was raped, this photographer asked 29 other survivors about their stories.

Comments: 53

  1. Kate Ryan and all of the other survivors have performed a great public service.

    Sexual violence is a horrific crime and must be outed, shamed, prosecuted and eliminated from human civilization.

  2. We also need to focus on prevention which means stopping sexual violence before it occurs. This involves teaching children, adolescents, and adults that healthy relationships are based on respect, communication, consent and equal power. Of course, it’s going to be very difficult to do this right now with our odious sexual predator president. But it’s imperative if we really want to end all forms of interpersonal violence, including sexual assault.

  3. Rape and sexual violence is a crime, yes. It is also trauma which makes it a significant public health issue. There is serious biology to trauma, and it plays out in our bodies. The book, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma” has helped me immensely with healing from the trauma of rape. There are therapies for healing trauma that are not as mainstream as they could be. Our nation has the knowledge necessary to respond more effectively to sexual violence trauma for all of those who have suffered, survived but not yet healed. The choice is ours—as a people, a society—to act on what we know. Prosecution, yes. AND. Access to trauma therapies involving brain, mind and body are also necessary.

  4. My sister was raped twice, once by three men. I think that I never thought about how she could still be affected decades after these attacks. Yet I'm hesitant about asking her about them, ostensibly because I don't want to open old wounds, but maybe I have other reasons I can't face.

  5. Thank you Kate Ryan for doing this.....

    I am a survivor and will tell my story for the signed x project...

  6. I've always wondered why the act of rape and rape's impact, is difficult for some men to understand. I hope these stories help overthrow the stigma women and girls carry here and in other countries where rape is a lifelong sentence. I feel hopeful viewing the photos and hearing their voices.

  7. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Thank you for this article which I will share with my clients most of whom spent lifetimes recovering from child sexual assault.

  9. Thank you for this wonderful piece. It is beautiful, heartbreaking and deeply inspiring. My gratitude goes out to the brave women who have shared their stories here, and my heart to everyone who lives with the aftermath of sexual assault.

  10. This is phenomenal. I appreciate that this is particularly geared towards women, but a part of me wishes that the stories of male (and transgendered) survivors were also included. There is a cruel irony in my particular cultural privileges: being a straight white male adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse is about as lonely as it gets.

  11. Thank you Andrew. There are a few men involved so far. One of their stories is on the website. And I have been actively reaching out to organizations working with transgender youth and adults to be sure those stories are heard. I hope to make Signed, X as diverse and representative of the massive population of survivors as possible. Please pass the project along to anyone you know that may with to share their story.

  12. Thank you all for speaking out and for having the courage to let other people know what happened to you. You have my admiration.

  13. Thank you.

  14. Phenomenal series, thank you.

    I want to harness the intelligence, strength, and fury of these women (and all women w/ similar experiences--so many) and unleash it into our political climate.

    They're coming. We're coming.

  15. We all have mothers and grandmothers, many of us have sisters, aunts, neices, cousins, daughters. We all grew up with girls around us. We smile and laugh, work and play with women, we have known and been around women all our lives.

    What is wrong with us?

    Thoughtless animals?

    Just grab 'em by the whatever?

    Is this who we are?

    Who we've always been?

    I don't feel comfortable.

  16. I hope Kate Ryan will interview some male sexual-assault survivors because when guys get the message that they could be victims/survivors also, there might be a little less forced sexual activity and a lot more pro-active intervention, in my opinion.

  17. ...also for the healing of the men

  18. Thank you.

  19. I was kidnapped and violently raped at 16 by my sister’s ex-boyfriend...I was a virgin. I married at 19, divorced at 35 and 43 years later have never been able to have a committed solid relationship because I cannot sexually surrender to a man.

  20. Thank you to Kate Ryan, and to the amazing and strong women in this story. In telling your story, you are educating our men on the devastating impact of sexual assault. Thank you for your courage and willingness to be part of such an important project.

  21. Sharing stories and experiences is very important. But I would caution those who have been raped to not let the rape define you and render you a permanent member of a victim group. If 'rape victim' or 'rape survivor' becomes your primary identity it will rob you of all the positives in your life. Bad things happen to good people, every day, all day long... don't let that be your primary focus for the rest of your life.

  22. This “cautioning” is not warranted. No one wants to be a victim, but by shaking a finger, it is implied that is exactly my desire.

    Days, months go by and nothing reminds me of what happened. I’ve made tremendous progress in 25 years since then.

    ....but when the reminders come, when the PTSD flares, who is going to be there to offer support when things shatter again? The nay sayers who worry more that we are being self-indulgent or people who listen and care?

    If you’re tired of listening and supporting while people deal with things, kindly go focus on your positive things in life instead of sounding an alarm over what happens when people with common experiences take the time to share their lives with each other and heal. Yes, you’ve suffered too, but healing is not a one size fits all solution.

  23. I think that all of us who have been sexually assaulted can find ourselves here, or someone like us. I really wish that the men who assaulted us could read this, listen to us, and understand, but I suspect that the only way for them to "get it" is for them to be sexually assaulted, themselves, by someone bigger, meaner, scarier and more opportunistic.

  24. I have a five year old sensitive, beautiful daughter. I love her. And I'm so scared for her. What do I tell her, when the time comes?

  25. Straight white male adult survivor of childhood Satanic ritual abuse here, wondering, have you tried local peer run support groups? I found peer groups to be a good way to stay connected and avoid isolation.

    The Survivors of Incest Anonymous (SIA) website lists two in-person meetings and one phone meeting in Philadelphia. None say women only, which indicates all genders are welcome. SIA does not require members to be incest survivors. It says, "The only requirement for a member is that you are a victim of child sexual abuse and that you want to recover." Someone I know who does not like the 12 steps had no problem with SIA's gentle and survivor-appropriate revision of the traditional steps.

    Also, Meetup is a good online resource to find support groups. You can sign up for free, then search for various keywords within a given radius of Philadelphia. For instance, a search for "sexual abuse" within 50 miles of Philadelphia yields the "Sexual Manipulation and Abuse Survivors" group in Haverford, which is "a fellowship of men, women and trans-genders who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other," and the SOSCA Peer Support Group (Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse) in Philadelphia.

    I suggest not being dissuaded by what might appear to be low meeting attendance for Meetup survivor groups. Some groups use Meetup as a promotional front. Their members may attend meetings without saying so on Meetup, so actual attendance can be higher than what Meetup shows.

  26. Yes, of course. But how do you bluntly prepare someone for the fact that it is dangerous to love and trust, that there are so many people who are selfish and take what they want without thinking of or recognizing the hurt they might cause? That these people might seem like friends at first, or be kind in other ways? Especially when loving others is the answer to the problem. I want to empower her, not scare her into a shell.

    The saddest part about all of this is that so many people have been hurt, it starts to looks like an inevitability.

    As someone who (apparently miraculously) grew up safe and sheltered and unharmed, the reality of the world was tough to accept. My first girlfriend had been raped when she was 15. Literally every other woman I've been intimate with has had her own story. I learned to understand that pain, to support and listen silently - that was a hard skill to earn. And when you have a daughter, it all comes back anew.

    I figure she has as good a chance as anyone of making it through the gauntlet of life and relationships. She has a strong and supportive family and is surrounded by love. Why it has to be a gauntlet at all is terrifying and sad, and I wish for everyone that we didn't have to teach her. But we will.

  27. Thank you for this. I just want to put in a word for male survivors too. I was raped when I was 4, and my trauma kicked in last year in a big way. I’m 45. Ptsd is crippling. I have suffered terrible panic attacks, the inability to work, rage, suicidal thoughts, etc. I’m finally getting help...working with a trauma therapist, receiving EMDR, attending a group for male survivors. Thanks again for doing this...very meaningful.

  28. Thank you Aaron. There are three men involved with the project so far. One of their stories is up on the Signed, X website. It is my home to reach as many men as I can. I am so sorry to hear that you are struggling right now, but hopeful that the steps you're taking will help. Feel free to reach out to me directly if you are interested in participating in Signed, X.

  29. The trauma of rape goes on for a lifetime, but one can still have a life afterward--it's difficult, but it can be done. These women are so brave, and their photos are so beautiful. I wish them the best of everything.

  30. Thank you to those who read the stories of Signed, X and reached out here or by email. The project will continue to grow in size and diversity of voices in the coming months. I hope you will continue to engage with the project and share the stories of those involved.

  31. This makes me angry, sad and hopeful in equal measure. Angry and sad that it happens at all, and hopeful that these women have found some strategies ( at some level) to live/grow with the aftermath. I feel fortunate to never have been assaulted, and hope I can live out my life with that fortune...
    I was most struck by woman who said that there was no vocabulary equivalent for demeaning men in the same way that men demean and degrade women. I think that is remains with us always in the background.

  32. The summer I was 18 (I’m now 61) I was babysitting for my 18 month old goddaughter, and after she was all tucked in I fell asleep on the couch in front of the TV. I was awakened when my head was jerked back by the hair and a butcher knife put to my throat. I never saw his face, and for many, many years it became every face I saw. Night terrors waking up screaming, paranoia, hearing that voice echo in my head over and over growling “I’m going to kill you”… I’ll never forget, never not be afraid to be alone at night without every door and window secured, and a plan to get away just in case, even as old and bold as I am now, alone in the house at night, I’m still that terrified 18 year old girl.

  33. Thank you. It's been 27 years and I doubt I'll ever forget it, but I finally stopped thinking about it every day. It helps (and hurts) to know I'm not alone.

  34. As a survivor, I thought I had put it all behind me. Even though I've gone through 4 major depressions since college, when it first happened. Even though my sex life had never been good, I'm inhibited and hardly ever get aroused. I thought I put it behind me because it's been 25 years, and there are some weeks when I don't even think about it.
    Then Harvey Weinstein hit, and the flood gates opened. I realize I am not okay - I haven't been for a long, long time.

  35. It is a lifelong sentence.....rape is a violent violation of body AND soul. I was eleven. ELEVEN. I still wanted to believe in Santa Claus. And I stayed silent and ashamed. No therapy. No support groups. No place to talk about it. I packed the memory away in a deep dark part of my brain. Forty five years later at my high school reunion I learned there were other victims. You see, our rapist was also our sixth grade teacher. I felt such a sense of sadness, relief, love, empathy, and gratitude toward my fellow survivors. We were was not our fault. I finally understood what a vicious predator he was. I do not know how many children (both boys and girls) he violated, but I know that night, so many years later, we found comfort with each other. Comfort and peace.

  36. It was not your fault, P R.

  37. I echo the comments by sfdphd and Socrates: thank you to Kate Ryan and the other survivors. This work will help people to understand the aftermath of sexual assault. Suffering an assault changes a person and can permanently alter the course of their life.
    We live in a world in which sexual assault is denied, and its impact minimized. We who have been affected must speak up, because it's the only way everyone else will understand what has happened to us and how it has affected our lives. Everyone needs to know that there is an immediate impact, and then there are the long-lasting repercussions, which is what seems to be more difficult for the un-molested to understand. There are many aspects of being violated in this way that affect how others respond to a person who has been harmed. The un-violated want to preserve their good fortune and may unconsciously blame the victim. Others are discomfited by the pain, their own potential guilt, and their own vulnerability. I hope that it is true that the more people try to understand the suffering, the greater the understanding will be, and that the arc of the universe will continue to bend toward justice for all. I also hope we can devote sufficient energy to prevention. A person who carries out a sexual assault is a damaged person: damaged by upbringing or circumstance. In addition to keeping potential victims safe we need to stop the perpetrators from being harmed in the first place.

  38. I ask men if they have known a woman who was afraid of sex, afraid of men, and whether or not they talked to those women about a history of sexual assault.

    I also ask men whether or not they have talked to other men about making women feel afraid.

    Ask yourself, and ask other men to think about what they may be doing or have done to cause women's fear.

    Men may be aware of what they have to do protect themselves from other men, but they don't have to think about being attacked by women. Women have to spend so much time and energy to protect themselves from men, and then after rape, they have to spend the rest of their lives in recovery, as well as staying alert to a possible repeat attack.

    It's exhausting....

  39. Listen to these horrific accounts. Why rape isn't taken more seriously in our society baffles and saddens me to no end. Life in prison, ONE STRIKE.

  40. It’s not taken seriously because it is largely a crime that men commit.

  41. I had an experience where I was sexually harassed (assaulted) at school for about four months. This was in 1989. It was in between when schools got rid of the strap but before Ritalin and zero tolerance policies. I complained to my mother who told the school. It was seen as bullying and that’s the way I thought of it for years. But after #metoo I realized it was really a sexual thing. He was grabbing my grotch — feeling my thighs — every couple of days.

    My friends and I constantly plotted against him, although I was the only one he was touching. Eventually I took revenge in a way you might see in a movie and it was great!

    It did probably change my life, though. I am sometimes afraid of men and I often don’t like them near me, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I remember at a party at uni I felt things were going south and I became hyper vigilant (I couldn’t leave because I was visiting a relative). I became pretty publicly prudish, but I think that’s fine. I could never tolerate a man who was mean and I married a great guy who makes me feel safe.

    For me I think a lot of positives came from this experience, including the ability to see the world as it is. At the same time, it makes me sad that my teachers couldn’t do anything. It started, by the way, in a sex ed class where he was sitting at a paired desk with me (paired by the teacher for other subjects). There’s a reason they separate the girls from boys, especially for sex ed, but at one time for everything!

  42. I salute these women who were brave enough to speak about their experience. May their stories reached the corners of this Earth where victims seeks shelter from shadows and help them cope up with the stigma.

  43. Kate Ryan, Thank you. Thank you to the women who participated.You know all that writing on bathroom walls (that is now also in comments sections)? This should go there and also in looping public spaces like around parks where you see a stunning photo and walk up to read the text.

    You are strong. You are brave. You are beautiful. You are making us more human one story at a time.

  44. This is a great piece, and it comes at a time where I truly believe that things are changing for the better. The photos make it some much more personal and palpable.
    As a man, even we “good guys” have a lot to learn about respect and how to treat others. We can all do better, and the people of my generation ( I’m 54), grew up in a very different time....we need to evolve.

  45. I always felt that if a woman knew how to handle herself in a fight it would lessen the chance of ever being assaulted. That's why I sent my Daughter to Martial Arts when she was 4 and 1/2. Now in her late-20s and having studied a number of different fighting styles she knows exactly what to do if faced with someone intent on sexually assaulting her.

  46. The first thing my father asked me was, "Where was your knife?" It was in my pocket. It's naive to think that the playing field is always even, or that there's going to be a chance for a fair fight.

  47. That seems like a prudent precaution, John, but perhaps you should have gone a step further and ensured she were born a man. Then she wouldn’t have been fighting from her back foot.

  48. I’m afraid my perspective differs. As a victim of a violent rape (stunned, tied, raped by an intruder only to escape/run naked to a nearby convenience store) I think we all need to not fall prey to this victim mentality and move on already. Women are more likely than men to be victims of this form of abuse and we are only perpetuating the perception that we are weak and not worthy of promotion, advancement, a place at the proverbial table. We need to stand up, be strong, and be fearless. Sure it’s painful and traumatic.. but once we recover it’s time to reclaim our positions and not perpetuate this notion that we are weak.

  49. @Sarah Coxi You miss the point. These women are stronger because they can tell their stories. It’s not your business to tell them whom to tell, where, when, or how. Don’t be part of the problem

  50. My adopted son brought true awareness of sexual violence into my life. When he was 15, I become a mentor to Brandon. He had spent his life in an extremely abusive family situation, and received no support from his school system (outside of Boston). In his junior year when the assaults on him grew, he was banned him from the school; they sent teachers to the public library, rather than holding accountable those who were groping him, simulating rape, etc. I took Brandon in at the age of 18 when his family threw him out. He is 26, a graduate of The New School (3.9 GPA) and beginning his MA to go into clinical social work. Through Brandon I have learned what having PTSD and Anxiety Disorder is like, and what living with a survivor of sexual abuse in a loving, compassionate, and supportive way means.

    A few years ago Brandon discovered Hidden Water NYC, a volunteer nonprofit working exclusively in the realm of sexual abuse. Hidden Water uses the indigenous modality of healing circles. There are circles for survivors, circles for family members of survivors, circles for non-abusing parents, and circles for perpetrators. If each of those in a family unit has completed their own work, they will also conduct a family circle. Brandon trained as a circle keeper, and now leads for survivors. I have participated in a circle for family members, was trained and now keep circles for family members. We conduct circles in-person in Tribeca, and online. Healing is difficult, and is possible.

  51. I am a physician (MD) and I have an interest in a drug called lowdosenaltrexone (LDN). Initially naltrexone was used for addicts. A doctor found that a small dose, about one tenth of the usual dose, worked for numerous conditions. For years I have been prescribing it eg for fibromyalgia and numerous auto immune disorders. The main list is on the American website
    Last year I came across a reference to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its effects on rape victims. A student was raped, spent several months in a psychiatric unit and came out on two antidepressants which did not work. I put her on LDN and six months later she was back in college, had a good relationship, was off the antidepressants and her only medication is 4.5 mg of LDN.
    Last year a patient of mine was in despair. Aged 52 he told me he was raped frequently when he was a boy. He described his quality of life as 0/10. On LDN it is now 5/10, He was reclusive, could not work or have a relationship . Now on LDN he is living with a girlfriend and working part-time.
    The range of LDN is extending all the time and now it is sometimes used in psychiatry. Apparently LDN is an antiinflammatory drug without the usual side effects and mental conditions have an inflammatory aspect.

  52. Thank you.