n our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) author Kristin Davisson describes the emotional responses of women who were witnesses to rape.
Women reported a range of emotional responses when asked to recall their initial reaction to their friend’s disclosure of sexual assault. Every woman interviewed (100%) reported initial reactions of shock, often (though not exclusively) tied to feelings of helplessness, anger, fear or guilt. One participant reported physical symptoms of nausea, vomiting and lack of appetite, lasting for several days. For many women, emotions tended to be clustered together, leading to feelings of confusion or conflict. One woman shared, “I was shocked. Pissed at him, but also at her. Angry that she hadn’t told me, angry that she let him to do that to her. Then I went from feeling angry to feeling guilty.” Like this participant, most women interviewed described experiencing a sequence of emotions. By far, the most common sequence was shockangerguilt, with approximately 60% of women reporting this succession of emotion. Most women reported that strong initial reactions subsided after several weeks, or sometimes months. A small number of women indicated that strong reactions of shock, anger, fear and/or helplessness remained present in their lives for years following the incident. The impact of these feelings was most strongly related to shifts in worldview, which will be discussed in a subsequent subsection.
Anger and guilt. Of the 10 women who reported feeling anger, 40% endorsed anger toward both the victim and the perpetrator. Most of the women in this category directed their most intense anger towards the perpetrator and described anger or frustration towards the victim for reasons of not sharing their assault sooner, not reporting the incident to law enforcement, or for “not fighting back.” Generally, anger in response to “not fighting back” or “staying in the situation” existed in the context of a victim-perpetrator long-term relationship. Reacting to this, one participant shared:
She always had healthy relationships in the past, so I just didn’t see it happening and then I just couldn’t understand, like “Why do you think this is acceptable? Are you in the twilight zone?” You know, it was like a feeling of helplessness, frustration, anger… and then you feel guilty because you’re mad at them. Then you tell yourself, “come-on, don’t punish the victim.”
Like this participant, most women who expressed anger towards the victim reported subsequent experiences of guilt. For many women, harboring anger towards the victim created cognitive dissonance and feelings of conflict or confusion. Some women noted their awareness of the frequency of sexual violence; two participants referenced the idea that there exist “myths” around rape. Correspondingly, their feelings of anger toward the victim appeared to feel “off limits” to them. In their case, guilt may be a result of “turning anger against the self,” a mechanism of defense whereby feelings of aggression are redirected towards oneself due to some aspect of unacceptability (White & Gilliland, 1975).
Of the remaining 6 participants who endorsed feelings of anger, half reported anger directed exclusively toward the perpetrator, and half spoke of anger directed toward the victim. Generally, anger towards the perpetrator also included some reference to “anger at the world” or “anger on behalf of all women.” Unlike anger towards the perpetrator himself (all perpetrators were reported to be men in this study), anger directed towards “the world” seemed not to be transient and was clearly connected to conscious feelings of helplessness, often leaving a lasting impact on women’s lives. Perhaps the most direct example of this (and most extreme) is evident in the following participant’s remark.
Three women got raped by where I live, from September to March, in the same block. And I think about that all the time. Like when I think of incidents like that, or if I’m walking home alone at night, I just feel really angry that I would have to… that patriarchy has placed a curfew on me for being a woman, and if I break that curfew, I suffer consequences of rape. And how I want to kill people. I want to kill a man. I get so angry, that I could kill a man if he approached me. Like instead of feeling afraid, I just feel angry.
I asked this woman if she had ever acted on these feelings, or felt close to acting on them. She responded, “No, I think in those situations, I feel completely helpless. Like I don’t have the strength to stand, let alone….” Notably, her friend’s experience of sexual violence occurred 4 years prior to the interview, ruling out initial shock as cause for her intensity. What appeared to be furious anger, rage even, was transformed (or gave way) to profound helplessness for this participant and was associated with multiple elevations on the Inventory of Altered Self-Capacities (IASC). Similarly, other women reported heightened awareness of sexual violence and described changes in their feelings of personal safety and/or worldview.
Interestingly, anger alone (when not tied to helplessness) seemed to act as a protective factor in the conscious distress of the interviewee. That is, by her report, if a woman felt anger that separated her from the victim (i.e., “it’s her fault for putting herself in that position; how could she do that?”) she was more likely to report less conscious distress. (Notably, this did not always coincide with symptoms as measured by the IASC and TSI.) Reactions characterizing “blaming the victim” are addressed in more detail in a subsequent section.
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.