From our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge 2017) author Kristin Davisson writes:
Nine of thirteen participants (69%) identified a noticeable decrease in their personal sense of safety following their exposure to the traumatic stimulus. In all nine cases, women reported current impact in their lives. For these women, time from the event ranged from 6 months to 5 years and did not appear be a factor of significant influence in their reaction (that is, women who were closer in time to the traumatic event did not generally report heightened concerns of safety in comparison to other women). Though many women endorsed alterations in their perceptions of safety, the depiction of their experiences varied, as did their responses.
Hypervigilance and decreased sense of trust. Five women (38% of the sample) identified enhanced awareness of their surroundings, often manifesting as hypervigilance and collectively relating to feelings of discomfort. This was occasionally spoken to in conjunction with a hesitance to trust men. To this, one woman remarked, “I wish I could get to that place where I have a ‘healthy’ sense of awareness. Instead, I freak out. I look at every man who walks by. Is he a rapist? Is he capable of this? My nervousness has skyrocketed.” Like this participant, several women spoke of increased vigilance and distrust towards men. One factor of influence here appeared to be the relationship status of the participant. Generally, single women appeared more likely to struggle with diminished trust towards men, and women in established relationships were less likely to endorse this specific concern.
One 31 year-old single women with an MBA shared:
I am a single woman. And it’s hard enough to meet a man when you are a successful woman in your early 30s. Who’s to say I can ever meet a man and feel safe, trusting or protected? It’s like I have to sum up all my courage just to think about it. Not a great feeling. So I think what has replaced hope about my relationship future is sadness and fear. Maybe women can’t have it all… maybe I was foolish to think I could.
In this woman’s response, we can discern a sort of resignation and hopelessness alongside her questions about safety, trust and protection. It seems she is referencing the difficulty successful, educated women can encounter in the heterosexual dating world, joined with (or complicated by) her newfound feelings of distrust related to her friend’s assault (occurring 6 months prior to the interview).
There also appeared to be subtle differences relating to trust in relation to victims that were brutally assaulted within a “trusting” relationship. A 29-year old, unlabeled female reported that her friend was assaulted in a dating relationship. The participant recalled her friend confiding in her that she was tied up and anally raped by her boyfriend at the time. In regards to her personal safety, the participant shared:
I definitely feel less safe. I feel like my eyes are open to it now. It’s really sad. And what am I going to do about it? Live my life in fear? Or have fun and hope that I don’t get raped? I guess I don’t have the answer. I try to ignore all my fears and feelings of distrust, but inside, I’m terrified.
This brings up a dilemma that several women alluded to, the idea that following their exposure to the traumatic event, they seem at times, unsure of how to live their lives. When asked how this dilemma made her feel, this participant responded, “It makes me uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable.”
A 29-year old woman whose friend experienced physical and sexual violence inside a committed relationship shared:
I think it makes you understand that sexual assault is not the serial rapist, or the person in the shadows, it’s the person you know. And it reminds you that you can never be safe. You can’t trust anyone completely. People who do those things and act in those ways are very good actors.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.