I am writing you about a friend I am concerned about. Approximately one to two years ago she was in a relationship with a guy she claimed to have really loved. From what she has shared with me, one day she was forced to have unwanted sex with him after a date, she unwillingly gave in fearing she would lose him. Sexual intercourse continued to happen in the following few months before the break-up and from her words she did not enjoy it at all, saying it hurts and only wanted it to be over as soon as possible, but put up with it for the sake of keeping him with her.
She is aware that it was rape after the eventual break-up, but she seems to blame herself for not liking sex. After the break-up she “tested” herself by sleeping with a guy she does not like, a friends-with-benefit relationship, that lasted about a week or two, concluding that she just does not like sex and feels no pleasure from sex.
Fast forward until now, it seems that she is constantly thinking of said boyfriend, blaming herself for being easy, not liking sex, feeling the guilt of losing her “purity” (she used to believe in keeping her virginity till marriage), feeling dirty, with occasional loneliness and that her best friends (not I) would not understand, would judge her.
All of these are what I can extract as I am the only one she shares this story with and usually she seems cheery, normal, energetic and seems to be doing okay with her life. It’s only occasionally that she thinks and talks about these events (weekly, sometimes twice a week).
Do you think these are symptoms of Rape Trauma Syndrome? If so, is there a way for me, as her guy friend, to help her? I do not think she is aware of her situation, and would be in denial if I were to mention seeking professional help. Like I said they are not very visible as she is normally an energetic person.
— Concerned Friend
Dear Concerned Friend,
I thank you for writing about a topic that is sadly familiar. You are correct in seeing that her experience was rape and that she is now adjusting her life as a result. She is fortunate to have you as a caring friend and confidante, but you cannot really be all the support she needs in order to deal with what happened to her and how she is coping. It is not uncommon for someone who has been raped to blame themselves or to behave as if nothing happened, creating a divide between their outer personality and the hidden pain of the experience. She is coping, which is a good thing, but it is not meant to be a permanent way to deal with the difficulties of life and ultimately she will need to process what has happened.
While rape is a violation of one’s sexual autonomy, it is more about power than about sex. A person feels the loss of control over a part of them that is at the essence of who they are. It is not unusual for a rape victim to feel confusion about sexuality, to feel a loss of self-esteem or self worth, to feel shame or guilt, and for it to affect their ability to trust and therefore establish healthy relationships. All of these things can be understood and healed over a period of time with therapeutic support.
You feel your friend is not ready to address this with a professional, and you are right to understand that there is readiness involved. Gentle encouragement is a better approach than pushing or anything forceful. You might share with her some reading material (The Courage to Heal, by Laura Davis, is a famous book) and continue to let her know that you are concerned, and thankful that she has been willing to trust this with you. Your role is sensitive, holding the secret without judgment and helping her to realise that it is okay to face it more directly with professional help.
I wish you and her… the wellness that comes from caring, the healing that comes from facing the truth and moving through that which is difficult.