The Second Rape Effect
I remember doing extensive research after realizing I had been assaulted. I was looking to know that my feelings weren’t invalid and that I wasn’t alone in feeling them. That’s when I came across the term, second rape. It is used to describe the physical and emotional after effects of sexual assault. I had seen this term used in a few articles online, but there wasn’t much information on what this effect feels like. I’m sharing this for survivors to know they aren’t alone.
After my assault I had difficulty with intimacy, even with someone I trusted. I became romantically involved with someone I had been friends with for over four years. We met in high school, went to the same church, had the same interests, were both Nigerian, and kept very much in touch throughout college. Once our friendship shifted to a budding romance, I told him what happened to me. I told him how I was assaulted by people that I trusted 100%, and that it makes it hard for me to let people in. I told him about the friends I lost and the pain I felt. I told him about having felt depressed and suicidal. I told him about how difficult everything was for me.
He told me it wasn’t my fault. He told me that they were horrible people who did a really horrible thing. He told me that he was here for me 100%. It was a convincing argument. I believed him. Now, I don’t think he was lying at the time. I just think he was in way over his head. There was a lot that he couldn’t understand. So imagine the confusion, bewilderment, shock, disappointment, self-blame, and an immense amount of hurt when he didn’t understand why I was struggling with intimacy.
“You’re being a tease.”
“What…? I’m being…a what…?”
“You’re being a tease. You told me you wanted to have sex with me all this time. We’ve been together for months, and now all of a sudden you act like you don’t want to have sex. You’re being a tease […] Yeah. I feel like you set me up. I’m disappointed.”
He couldn’t understand how frustrating it was for me to want to have sex with him and not be able to do it. That night, I was ready. I had us leave the party early so we could have sex together for the first time. I had been horny all day. We were watching Netflix and he started touching my body gently, but the moment he made contact with my skin, I had flashes of my assaults. In that moment, my body couldn’t tell who was touching me. I had him stop and spaced myself slightly away from him and went back to watching the movie again. After a while, I thought I was ready again. My body told me I was not. All I could feel was my abusers’ hands on my body. I started freaking out inside my head and fought to hold in tears. As the movie kept playing, I eventually fell asleep.
Honestly, I had come a long way from where I was initially after the assaults. I used to cry during sex all the time, unstoppable tears that came out of nowhere. I had gradually reintroduced my body to touch so that it would become comfortable again. By the time the aforementioned event happened, I thought I was good. I thought I was healed, that I was normal again. There were still times when I couldn’t have sex, but I didn’t see that as much of a big deal…until he reacted. It felt like a 250 lb boulder was thrown onto my chest.
As a result of his reaction to me not being able to have sex (his anger, his disappointment, him going so far as to send me screenshots of online threads where guys talked about how not wanting sex some nights makes women teases), my healing stalled. I got more afraid. This was a full year ago, and I still haven’t been able to have sex with emotions, only meaningless partners. It’s hard for me to sleep with people I trust because I’m afraid of them betraying that trust and hurting me again.
The “second rape” is likened to feeling assaulted and abused all over again due to treatment that causes the resurfacing or creation of trauma that continually hurts the survivor. It’s brought up by the way society negatively reacts to survivors’ traumas and experiences. The feeling of “re-traumatization” is not unique to me as a survivor; it’s incredibly common. It’s formally called “the second rape” or “secondary victimization”. The term is used by authors Lee Madigan and Nancy C. Gamble in their 1991 book titled The Second Rape: Society’s Continued Betrayal of the Victim and in other research material. After my own secondary victimization due to my ex’s reaction to my inability to have sex, I became more afraid of my body to the point that I swore off sex.
His response despite knowing my trauma hurt me so much more. It felt like hell. My body was hurting again, both emotionally and physically as I remembered all these incidents at once. I trusted him, but he didn’t seem to care about me outside of sex anymore. His anger and self-entitlement showed me that he saw me the exact same way as my abusers, a wanted object to give them pleasure. All the things I felt during and after my assaults came rushing back to me because of this. I wanted to die again; it hurt that much. I cried for weeks. Seeing his name online still reminds me of that night and the nights of my assaults, as well. I became traumatized all over again, when all I needed from him was to just be patient with me.
It was not only this incident that traumatized me. I lost all my friends because none of them believed me. People spread rumors about me. People came up to my then-boyfriend after my assault and told him I was a horrible girl to date and reasons why. This just made me feel like a burden in my relationship, and I grew incredibly insecure in my existence in others’ lives. I was unable to go on a major networking trip paid for by my school because one of my rapists told people I falsely accused him. These people then told more people who happened to be in positions of power for this trip. The authoritative members then went out of their way to have co-ed hotel suites for this trip, knowing both my rapist and I were chosen to attend and that I wouldn’t go. I’ve had my rapist’s face plastered in a GroupMe chat for people of my major by people who took his side. I’ve been regarded with the most abysmal lack of respect. I could see in people’s eyes that they hated me for “what I did to him.” And I’ve had my romantic partners disrespect my desire for physical space when needed.
The second rape effect also occurs when the people in the survivor’s life do “not treat the victim with dignity, compassion and respect. If a victim is treated with dignity, compassion and respect, she may have less difficulty dealing with these immediate and long-term crisis reactions. If she is treated poorly, these reactions may be made worse.” The lack of respect and care given to survivors generates a feeling so powerfully painful that “many victims say the betrayal of these experiences … was worse than the rape itself.” It is the abuse or mistreatment of an already vulnerable person, whether mentally, physically, or emotionally. The events following an assault are crucial and have major long-term impacts. The way people treat and view a victim shapes and dictates our healing. Sometimes the second rape goes so far as to cause people to commit suicide; I almost did.
I still haven’t been able to have sex with someone that I truly liked. Being a 2x rape survivor, I’ve come across a seemingly endless number of people who I trusted to know what happened to me and whose unrealistic expectations hurt me further. These people stated that they’d support me as I healed, but I have come to learn that healing is a complex process. Relationships and intimacy are something that I am having to relearn. Understanding the “Second Rape Effect” is something that is helping me do that. I’m currently romantically involved with someone new, and I’ve told him about all of this. We haven’t had sex, so I don’t know how that will go. But I’ve been incredibly transparent with him about all my struggles. Right now, that’s all I can do. The rest is up to my body and my memories.
If you become involved with a survivor of any kind of abuse, make sure to listen to them. Trust them when they tell you they are still healing and be a source of comfort, not stress. Don’t disregard their trauma, and don’t blame them for “failing” at something. I assure you, we already have feelings of inadequacies when our trauma stops us from doing something that we want. Each survivor may not feel the exact same combination of emotions that I do, which is perfectly fine. Each survivor copes and experiences things differently. Just make sure to listen and support them. Be patient and understanding. Do your own research to better understand what they are experiencing. And never put a timeline on someone’s healing.
Written by Simisola Ade