The effects of trauma from an assault are often misunderstood. Often, they’re completely different reactions than people, and the system, expect. In 2016, the high profile trial of former CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi shone a long-overdue spotlight on the real effects of trauma.
Ghomeshi was ultimately acquitted on four charges of sexual assault and one of choking. Since then, countless other high-profile cases have spurred on a discussion about the effects of trauma, but there’s still much that is misunderstood.
During the proceedings, the complainants were accused of lying and withholding information. In his ruling, the judge spoke of the victims being “deceptive”, and of their lack of “reliability,” and “credibility”.
What are the real effects of trauma?
Anyone who has worked closely with people who have experienced sexual assault or other forms of intimate partner violence knows the real effects of trauma are varied, unpredictable.
Often, they’re completely different reactions than people, and the system, expect.
Common effects of trauma
In the wake of an assault, victims may feel shame, panic, humiliation, grief, guilt, depression, and anxiety.
They may question themselves and their memories of the abuse. Or they may pretend it didn’t happen at all as a way to lessen the trauma response. They may make nice with the abuser because they don’t want to be seen as a bad person. Or do so as a misguided way of fixing things, or normalizing something that is far from normal.
And when it comes to victims effectively telling their story, in a courtroom or elsewhere, the reality is that trauma affects memory.
Victims of trauma are sometimes unable to express an articulate narrative. This is because the brain tends to hone in on only the most essential details of what occurred. When victims later try to string together the full story of what happened, the details are inaccurate. Often, they’re not recalled in a lot of detail. They may change from telling to telling.
Why are so many assaults unreported?
Too often, when women report an assault, their absolutely natural, post-traumatic inability to relay details of what happened sets them up for failure from the outset. It’s often too difficult to report an assault in a matter that satisfies the strict consistency and credibility requirements set by a system that just doesn’t get it.
This helps explain why assaults are so underreported, and convictions so few. Studies show half of Canadian women have experienced physical or sexual assault. Yet fewer than one in 10 report a sexual assault to police.
There are about half a million self-reported sexual assaults each year in Canada. But in 2006 for example, there were only a little more than 1,500 convictions.
Would you like to learn more about domestic abuse in Canada? We discuss seven facts you need to know about domestic abuse in Canada in this post.
Women who experience sexual and other assaults say they don’t report for many reasons. These include fear reprisal, re-victimization, stigmatization, and a justice system that will not help them.
In the wake of the Ghomeshi trial and others, those barriers no doubt loom larger than ever. Especially for any woman considering reporting an assault, something which takes incredible strength and bravery to do.
While it may not increase the confidence of victims to come forward, there is still hope. At the very least, the discussion and debate sparked by the trial increases public education about the need for more trauma-informed practices at every level of the policing and judicial systems.
Once the effects of trauma are better understood, it’s our hope the barriers to taking brave steps in reporting assaults come down.
If you’re experiencing the effects of trauma or you’re in an abusive relationship, help is available. But we understand it’s tough to know where to turn.
We offer several resources to help you get the support you need.
Our counsellors are available 24-hours-a-day at 250-763-1040. We can offer advice and help you come up with a plan. We are also here if you need a place to stay, with food, clothing, and toiletries. Additionally, we can offer you and your children ongoing counselling and support.
For a full list of our programs and services, click here.
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This article was originally published in 2016, and has been updated in 2020.
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