The month of April is sexual assault awareness month. In recognition of this, Jesse Mitchell, a PREA coordinator and counselor at the Crisis Center spoke at Samford University about sexual assault on Monday, April 15. Samford’s Delta Xi Phi’s sorority sponsored the event.
According to Mitchell, sexual assault impacts more than victims and is a larger problem than numbers suggest. Only one-third of victims report, Mitchell said. Sexual assault is reported even less on college campuses. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 90 percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault.
“We know that it is something that is affecting our culture and society and all of us have to deal with it. It is not just women that are victims and it is not just men that are perpetrators,” he said. “There is a lot of information out there to help support someone in the best way.”
Mitchell said in Alabama, 78 percent of the time sexual violence occurs, it happens between two people that already know each other. Only 5 percent of the time is the attacker a stranger. Seventeen percent of incidents are facilitated by alcohol or drugs and in these cases the perpetrator is generally unknown.
Nationally, Mitchell said 90 percent of perpetrators are male and in central Alabama, 98 percent of perpetrators are male.
“With 5 percent of those strangers, it’s actually safer to walk down a dark alley than it is to be with your partner. We want to be aware of the person we are spending our time with,” he said.
At the event, Mitchell explained the body’s responses during a sexual assault, the phases of trauma and the road to recovery.
According to Mitchell, the part of the brain that stores memory, the limbic system, shuts down during a sexual assault.Therefore, survivors may struggle recalling details about the assault.
“The first thing we have to remember, especially when working with survivors of sexual violence, is just because we don’t hear a linear story from them doesn’t mean they were not telling the truth,” he said.
Next, the brain will choose between three survival responses: fight, flight and freeze. From his experience, Mitchell said freezing is a common response to sexual assault.
“We don’t know why our brain chooses one of these three and sometimes it can be completely illogical. The brain is just surviving as best as it can and it is not necessarily logical but all of them are reasonable and rational,” he said. “This person wasn’t thinking ‘freeze up’ and his or her brain is just doing it and they didn’t have a whole of lot of conscious choice at that point.”
After a sexual assault, survivors will often experience four phases of trauma and may even develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Sexual assault survivors are the second largest group to experience PTSD after veterans.
“So, there are people that have been in active combat and then there’s survivors of sexual violence. We know that this is an intensive experience that affects people’s lives,” he said.
The first wave of trauma is the acute phase, which spans 72 hours to a week after the assault. During this phase, the survivor will feel numb, space out and remain hypervigilant. They will continuously scan their surroundings and sit on the edge of their seat. They may also experience an exaggerated startle response, meaning the person is startled easier. Loud noises can trigger this response, including a door closing, an alarm clock buzzing or even a phone ringing.
Next, survivors will experience the Apparent Readjustment Phase where the brain will minimize the traumatic event in order to cope. As part of this phase, the person will often suppress the event.
“Our brains are desperately trying to feel like something awful didn’t happen. It is our brain’s survival coping strategy,” he said. “Our brains do not know how to handle something as heavy as what just happened.”
However, the traumatic event will return through flashbacks and nightmares, which indicates the person has shifted to the next phase, the Reorientation Phase.
“These are essential symptoms of PTSD because that is what is happening,” he said.
Survivors may also uncontrollably think about the traumatic event and blame themselves. Next, they may become depressed and isolate themselves.
This phase occurs when suppressing a traumatic event begins wearing on the brain. Flashbacks and nightmares exhaust the person because they can’t sleep or think during the day. The brain tries to halt this strain by storing the traumatic experience with similar memories but often can’t. Mitchell said these types of experience don’t fit into any particular category, such as violent memories.
“Rape doesn’t always look the same as other kinds of violence. Frequently, there are no visible marks with rape, only 40 percent of the time. It is not like someone stabbed, or punched or pushed you,” he said.
The last phase is the the Long-Term Adjustment Phase.
“This is when a person can integrate that experience into their overall life, it is neither defining nor ignored,” Mitchell said.
Someone’s personality, resilience and their support system will influence the speed of recovery. Mitchell said a support system is especially important.
“That is who in their life is going to believe them. This may sound like an odd question to ask but the number one reason sexual assault survivors don’t come forward to talk about it is because they feel like no one is going to believe them,” he said.
If a person shares that he or she has been sexually assaulted, Mitchell advised to respond with kindness, compassion and empathy. He also advised that listeners follow this plan:
Keep the person in the here and now
Ask “When did you feel safe again?”
“(They may not feel safe) until right then when they are telling you. The reason we do this is because when someone starts talking about trauma again, it can feel like it is happening again,” he said. “We don’t want to leave someone drifting in their trauma.”
Mitchell recommends friends and family of survivors help them develop a short-term self-care plan, which the Crisis Center can also assist with.
“With a self-care plan, we are not trying to eliminate the experience, we are trying to help them manage it,” he said.
Mitchell also said these are the best phrases to help calm survivors following a sexual assault:
I am glad you told me
I know it wasn’t your fault
No one deserves this
I’m sorry it happened
I will do my best to keep you safe.
You did everything right to survive.
I believe you.