Understanding the Survivor

Understanding the Survivor

The purpose of this section is to define survivorship and provide information on the aftermath of sexual violence. Specifically, this section will address the trauma that a survivor might experience during and following an assault, common short-term and long-term health consequences of sexual violence, and survivor sexuality.

Why do we say “survivor?”

“Sexual assault is a physically, emotionally, and spiritually traumatic experience, an intimate violation of the worst kind.”- Jeffrey T. Burgin, Jr. of the Dean of Students Office at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga 


We often hear various terms used to describe a person who has experienced sexual assault. Among them are “victim” and “survivor.” While people who have experienced or are experiencing sexual violence are victims, they are also in a constant state of “surviving” the experience. The idea of survival carries within its definition the ongoing fight to live or “survive” a traumatizing experience, a process that includes dealing with a multitude of feelings and health consequences. Furthermore, a survivor will also have to cope with living in a society in which victim blaming is rampant. In light of these circumstances, this manual will refer to those coping with the aftermath of a sexual assault as “survivors.”

Surviving the Act(s)


There is no singular survivor narrative for violence. The bodily experience of sexual violence in particular can be complicated by many external and internal factors.  Some sexual violence is perpetrated against intoxicated or incapacitated persons, leaving the bodily effects to be understood after the fact. Other times, sexual violence is perpetrated on partners who know the violence is coming but do not feel they can refuse. Survivors will each have their own unique response to an assault, and they will not all look or act the same way or say the same things.

Survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence may experience a host of physical reactions to sexual violence: arousal (vaginal lubrication or penile erection), orgasm, tonic immobility (a catatonic-like state characterized by loss of all/most motor function), gynecological injury (of the genital area and/or reproductive organs), bodily resistance, or coerced engagement (appearance of interest or enjoyment for the sake of not upsetting the perpetrator or for their personal safety). Survivors may express different verbal cues - silence or screaming, for example - based on their assessment of safety. It can be the case that sexual violence begins following a sexual act to which the survivor previously consented, confusing the his/her/hir interpretation of the experience. These variations are not meant to overwhelm the reader but rather broaden our collective understanding of what sexual violence is. In creating a campus environment that is supportive of survivors, we must work to understand and respond to their varied needs without imposing our own assumptions about what constitutes a “correct” response to an assault.

While understanding the survivor is crucial to ensuring a fair and supportive adjudication process, it is just as important to understand the perpetrator. When adjudicating a sexual misconduct case, you should consider these questions:

  1. What are my expectations of survivors’ behavior, before, during and after the assault, and how am I allowing this to affect my assessment of the perpetrator’s behavior?

  2. What messages have I received or am I still receiving from friends, family, my community, the media, and society about survivors? How am I imposing these messages onto the cases I am assessing?
  1. Break the scenario down into a set of actions that led to the assault and, at each step, ask yourself what the perpetrator could have done to prevent a sexually violent act from occurring.

Surviving the Trauma

Survivors suffer a great deal of physical and emotional trauma as a result of a sexual assault. Responses to a sexual assault can be immediate or delayed, with effects lasting anywhere from a few days to the remainder of the survivor’s life. Each survivor of sexual assault responds uniquely, and the recovery process is different for each individual. While there are individual differences to survivors’ experiences of sexual assault, there are common patterns to trauma recovery that are normative and natural.

Please review the lists below for a description of common health effects following sexual and relationship violence, while keeping in mind this list is not exhaustive and may not represent your experiences or those of someone you know.

short term effects


Immediately following sexual assault, survivors may be faced with a host of physical, behavioral and cognitive outcomes that evidence a traumatic event. Behavioral and cognitive effects are often most noticeable amongst the survivor’s closest circle as they disrupt the survivor’s normal patterns of activity. Genital injury, which has been previously documented in up to 68% of reported rape cases (Slaughter et al., 1997), may go unnoticed if not assessed quickly by a health professional. Reproductive injuries, which can sustain their effects for longer periods, require a gynecological exam that survivors may find invasive, painful and triggering. Due to a delay in assessment following sexual assault, such physical effects can go unnoted and thus be immaterial for future judicial use. Furthermore, a lack of early assessment and treatment following sexual assault can cause more disastrous health consequences in the future. It is for these reasons that understanding and supporting survivors as quickly as possible can be critical to their ability to seek justice and receive effective treatment. However, in the case that disclosure is delayed due to survivor comfort, advocates and professionals can still play a vital role in promoting the health and safety of the survivor.

long term effects                                                                   


The long-term effects of sexual violence often arise out of a complex interaction between psychological and physiological trauma. One such condition commonly found in assault survivors post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which is characterized by three distinctive categories of behavior:

1. Re-experiencing: Reliving the event, which might include body memories and flashbacks, in a way that can interfere with daily life.

2. Avoidance: Often expressed as guilt, depression, or numbness and most noticeable as an intense need to escape various situations that were once typical for the survivor.

3. Hyper-arousal: Survivor is easily startled, tense, anxiety-ridden, and plagued by angry outbursts.

The intense, difficult effects of these conditions, along with the added difficulty of accessing ongoing affordable and effective treatment, can leave survivors with little energy or few tools to properly advocate on their own behalf.

Questions to ask yourself:

1. How might the cognitive effects of sexual and intimate partner violence affect a survivor’s ability to disclose and describe their assault(s)?

2. As an advocate, do I have any characteristics that may cause the survivor to associate me with the perpetrator? How can I respect this person’s boundaries while carrying out my role as a social justice advocate?

Supporting Male Survivors

1 in 6 men will experience sexual assault or rape in their lifetime. While both men and women who are survivors of sexual abuse struggle with shame and stigma, societal stereotypes of masculinity present a unique set of obstacles for male survivors of sexual assault and violence. 

Few studies have been done to gather evidence on the sexual assault or sexual abuse of males. The Department of Justice estimates that males underreport or report less frequently than do females, making it very difficult to truly understand the magnitude of the issue.

The physiological reactions that a male-identified person experiences during a sexual assault may make it more difficult for him to recognize that he was sexually assaulted. Some men may have an erection or ejaculate during a sexual assault and may thus feel confused, wondering if this means that perhaps they enjoyed the experience. Male survivors may also feel concerned that their arousal will cause others to believe that they were not really assaulted. In reality, erections and ejaculations may be purely physiological responses, sometimes caused by intense fear or pain. In fact, some perpetrators will deliberately manipulate their victim to orgasm out of a desire to completely control their victims. It must be reinforced that sexual assault and violence are about power and control, not about sexual pleasure and enjoyment. It is a commonly perpetuated rape myth that male survivors of sexual violence cannot truly feel assaulted or abused if they showed physical signs of arousal during the incident.

Masculinity can mean different things for different people depending on one’s socialization, culture, and environmental influences. A societally-induced expression of masculinity is that men are always in control, emotionally stoic, and aggressive and/or resilient in situations of physical abuse. This cultural assumption may cause a male survivor of sexual violence to feel isolated in his reaction to the abuse, and hesitant to share his feelings with someone else – especially if the perpetrator is a woman. In some cases, a survivor may question his own sexuality or ‘manhood’,  and be concerned about how others perceive his sexuality. If the survivor himself or those around him believe that a “real man” would have been able to protect himself, it makes it even harder to feel comfortable seeking help and support.  Sexual assault is never a sign of physical weakness in the survivor.

The degree to which the issue of male sexual assault is taken seriously by law enforcement agencies is evidenced by the fact that the annual Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Uniform Crime Report only includes female survivors under its definition of “forcible rape.” Several health care professionals are not trained to look for signs of sexual assault on a male-identified person, and some police departments do not even collect statistics on its frequency in their districts.

Survivors Liking/Loving Their Perpetrators

Survivors and their perpetrators may share varying kinds of relationships/connections following violent behavior(s). As survivors often know their perpetrator(s), it is understood that a history of romantic and/or friendly relations will precede assault. Such connections make the naming and disclosure of assault especially difficult. Whether it is someone with whom they have shared a semester-long course or a long-term relationship, understanding perpetration at the hands one has previously trusted can mean emotional and/or social upheaval. Social, economic, emotional, and/or sexual factors often necessitate and complicate ongoing relationships or connections between survivors and perpetrators.

Sharing the same social circles, family ties and/or identity groups, for example, can leave survivors with a conflicting sense of loyalty. If they disclose the assault, who will believe them? And is it worth the risk of disrupting the peace within a social group or community? When survivors and perpetrators share family connections, internal pressure can silence the survivor. The disclosure of a violent act or acts can mean family relations change in ways that negatively affect the survivor’s support system.

Also, if the survivor and perpetrator are from a marginalized group, the survivor may feel pressured into remaining silent so as not to bring negative attention to the group. The group may assure the survivor that they will deal with the matter among themselves, but this can leave the survivor more vulnerable to victim blaming and reduce his/her/hir access to necessary resources.

Financial disparity between survivor and perpetrator can also dissuade a survivor from seeking help or justice. Perpetrators with more access to institutional power may make it clear to the survivor that any pursuit of justice would be impossible and/or humiliating. For perpetrators and survivors sharing finances or other significant material possessions, leaving the abusive relationship can be financially devastating. As government policy offers incentives for these entanglements, many survivors will delay seeking help to figure out a complex exit strategy from their partners. However, ongoing violence and emotional ties can often further delay the process of leaving an abusive situation.

Previously trusting someone, sharing positive memories with them, and/or feeling a romantic attachment to them may make it easier for survivors to pass off their perpetrator’s behavior as non-violent. Survivors may also reciprocate violence or become physically defensive over a period of time, making it increasingly difficult to recognize and speak out about the violence someone is perpetrating against them. Additionally, survivors might interpret their intense emotions – fear, arousal, stress - as sexual feelings, and come to desire the heightened sensations. These feelings may subside over time, end with the termination of a sexually violent relationship, or continue as the survivor begins to navigate their sexuality post-assault.




Survivor Sexuality


Coming to terms with sexuality after sexual assault and IPV can present survivors with many difficult lifelong challenges. Not only are survivors faced with numerous physical and psychological consequences following assault, they also must navigate these effects in a society with many expectations about sex and sexual behavior. Survivors deal with these colliding forces through various coping strategies that can be both healing and re-traumatizing. While sexual violence is never about ‘having sex’ for the perpetrator, the violation can manifest for the survivor as a direct attack on their sexuality. As such, many survivors may feel a sense of sexual dysfunction long after their assault(s), finding that sexual stimuli trigger feelings of guilt, shame or anxiety. Physical intimacy, which can share mechanical similarities to the acts forced on the survivor, may be plagued with bodily memories (a physical reliving of the assaults), flashbacks, and insurmountable discomfort. Survivors may also feel their sense of orientation (or who they are emotionally, physically, or sexually attracted to), gender or sex are “wrong,” as a coping strategy to distance themselves from personal qualities they blame incorrectly on the assault. 

Inadequate responses from health and legal professionals compound the trauma and confusion that survivors are already experiencing. Factors that may further impede survivors’ recovery include:

  1. Lack of access to and availability of prompt, sensitive medical care
  2. Medical staff improperly or insensitively conducting forensic exams
  3. Law enforcement showing insensitivity or disbelief when handling the case
  4. Law enforcement and legal professionals taking too long to follow up on the case or failing to keep the survivor informed of their progress
  5. Pressure from law enforcement officers, family, friends, and community members to press charges
  6. Pressure from law enforcement officers, family, friends, and community members to NOT press charges

The ecological model presented below (Figure 1), explains how these factors relate to each other. These factors are often exacerbated when the survivor identifies as or is perceived to be socioeconomically disadvantaged, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, an immigrant, or a member of a racial or ethnic minority.

Figure 1.Ecological Model of Sexual Violence Causes and Consequences


Challenges and Barriers to Reporting


Many survivors choose not to report experiencing sexual violence to law enforcement or Conduct Officers. Fisher et al. (2000) found that 95% of sexual assaults on college campuses go unreported, making it the most underreported crime.

There are many reasons why a survivor might choose not to report or to stop pursuing a case after reporting it. This section will examine the reporting process at Emory and describe some of the barriers that survivors may encounter when deciding whether or not to report. A 2009 study by the Center for Public Integrity revealed that the most often cited reason for not reporting a sexual assault was institutional barriers on campus. As a Conduct Officer, it is therefore crucial that you make every effort to ensure the survivor has full access to all of the resources you are able to provide. Ensuring a comfortable and supportive environment for the survivor does not mean you have to compromise fairness and impartiality in the conduct process.

Why might a survivor not report an assault?


  • The survivor might blame him/her/hirself for what happened or believe that others will do so.
  • The survivor might be embarrassed about what happened or not want to publicly discuss sexual acts or repeat the story over and over again. 
  • The survivor might believe that involving the police or justice system could lead to a time-consuming and invasive process with little chance of a tangible result. He/she/ze might also worry that the lengthy process could delay recovery.
  • The survivor is worried that the Conduct Officers or justice system will find the perpetrator not responsible, making the reporting seem like an unnecessary and demoralizing ordeal. If the survivor pursues the case with the Office of Student Conduct and the result is not expulsion or some other desired penalty, he/she/ze will not feel safer. A finding of “not responsible” or a failed legal case can make the survivor feel even more at fault for the assault or make him/her/hir feel that no one believes the assault took place.
  • The survivor might not want others to find out about it and gossip or retaliate. Survivors might fear both physical retaliation and the social consequences that can inhibit their ability to successfully navigate their Emory experience. 
  • The survivor might want to move forward and continue with his/her/hir studies, extracurricular activities, and other plans rather than going through a process that could interfere with that. 
  • The survivor might not want his/her/hir family, significant other, or friends to find out for fear that they will worry, become overly protective, blame him/her/hir, retaliate against the perpetrator, or pull him/her/hir out of Emory.
  • The survivor may not recognize that he/she/ze was sexually assaulted or raped. He/she/ze likely knows and sometimes cares about the person(s) who committed these acts and so might need help but would not want to pursue actions that label the assault “rape.”
  • If the perpetrator is found responsible for committing a sexual assault and receives a significant punishment, the survivor may face retaliation from other members of the community for getting someone in trouble.
  • The survivor may have been threatened by the perpetrator or be in fear of the perpetrator. 
  • The survivor may fear compromising or complicating relationships with mutual friends.
  • The survivor may fear that others won’t believe an assault occurred. A common reaction the survivor might have experienced from friends or family members is that situations like this could not possibly happen. Another common reaction is to blame and scrutinize the survivors’ behavior, making the survivor reluctant to report assaults in future.
  • The survivor may have already had a bad experience with legal systems or the conduct process, or know someone else who has.
  • The survivor might not have access to money for any legal fees that could be associated with reporting.
  • The survivor might be focusing on coping with mental health symptoms, depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, PTSD, academic difficulties, and safety concerns, and not have the time, energy, or support to pursue the case. Investigations often exacerbate these problems rather than alleviate them.
  • The survivor may have been engaging in other embarrassing or illegal activities and fears the conduct or legal process will uncover these.
  • If the survivor identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or queer, or was engaging in sexual activity with a person of the same gender at the time of the assault, he/she/ze may be concerned about being outed in the legal or conduct process. 

Adapted to Emory University with permission by a team of Respect Program staff and interns from the University of Michigan’s Striving for Justice document.