Understanding the Harmed Party/Victim

The focus of this section is information about the experience of victims of sexual violence. This section will review terminology that is used to describe victims of sexual violence, common reactions for victims, and other unique issues to be aware of as you interact with victims of sexual violence. This section can help panel members understand the experiences of the victim that may impact their reactions in both the aftermath of the act and throughout the hearing process.

Use of Terminology

  1. Many individuals will use the term survivor when dealing with victims of sexual violence. Handeyside, Wickliffe and Adams (2004) explain the use of this term:

“We, along with many other experts in the field because it is a more empowering term. Because so much power is taken from a person when he or she is raped, the idea is to restore the sense of power. Thus, the term ‘survivor’ is more empowering and potentially helps victims in the healing process. Although people who have experienced sexual violence are victims, they are ‘surviving the experience’ The idea of survival carries within its definition the continual fight to live or ‘survive’ an adverse or traumatizing experience” (p. 29).

  1. The Office of Student Conduct & Community Standards uses the terms Harmed Party and Complainant throughout the process.  These general terms are used to be inclusive of all types of complaints that fall under the University non-discrimination policy and the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities. 

The University recognizes that each student may have different feelings regarding the terms survivor and victim. The University is student centered and will work with each complainant using terms that best reflect that student’s personal experience and preferred terminology and language.

  1. Additional information and exercises related to the use of language can be found online via the National Justice Education Program’s module Raped or Seduced? How Language Helps Shape Our Response to Sexual Violence and Jackson Katz’s Violence Against Women Language Exercise.

Common Reactions to Sexual Violence

Handeyside, Wickliff and Adams (2004) provide a chart of common symptoms of sexual violence victims. It is important to note with this chart “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” (p. 31.):

Physical Emotional Cognitive Social
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Eating Disorders
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal irritability (nausea, vomiting)
  • Headaches
  • Muscular Tension
  • Nightmares
  • Physical Injuries (cuts, bruises, broken bones, etc.)
  • Pregnancy
  • STIs
  • Substance Abuse
  • Soreness
  • Stress-related depression
  • Immune system responses (less ability to resist colds, flu, etc.)
  • Anger (both at self and others)
  • Anxiety
  • Denial
  • Depression, Sadness
  • Despair
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Humiliation
  • Irritability
  • Loss of control
  • Low self-esteem
  • Mood swings
  • Numbness
  • Obsessions/compulsions
  • Phobias
  • Sense of disbelief
  • Sense of unreality
  • Shame, guilt, self-blame
  • Shock
  • Vulnerability

Common thoughts include:

  • Am I damaged goods?
  • Am I dirty?
  • Bad things happen to bad people. Good things happen to good people. Therefore, I am bad.
  • I deserved it because. . .
  • If I forget about it, it will go away
  • What if I hadn’t done. . .
  • What will people think?
  • Why me?
  • Will others reject me?
  • Will others blame me?
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Flashbacks
  • Changes in lifestyle
  • Difficulty getting things accomplished
  • Difficulty with intimacy
  • Difficulty/apprehension around men or apprehension around persons having similar attributes to the perpetrator
  • Discomfort around other people
  • Disruption in sexual reactions
  • Fear of being alone
  • Fear of living residence (especially alone)
  • Fear/Nervousness in crowds
  • Hypersensitivity when relating to others
  • Loss of trust in self and others
  • Withdrawal from people, activities

Gender-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Previously known as Rape Trauma Syndrome, gender-related posttraumatic stress disorder was first described in 1974 by Burges and Holmstrom and has also been researched by Judith Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery. In their work, they identified a series of symptoms that survivors may experience. They put these symptoms into stages. With each individual the length of each stage may vary. Additionally, survivors may move between stages. In working with harmed parties, it is important to recognize that they may be progressing through these stages, and each survivor may be at a different place in their trauma recovery.

NOTE: This is just one model of the effects of sexual assault. A complainant may not manifest in any stage or may heal in a way unrelated to “stages.” You should never try to place a complainant in a particular stage. The journey of each complainant is unique. The following information is provided to give you one perspective of the healing and coping process.

1. Acute Stage

In this stage, there is a spectrum of emotional reactions as summarized by King County Sexual Assault Resource Center from the work of Burges and Holmstrem. Initially, survivors may feel shocked and in disbelief this happened to them. Following this, they may begin to feel fearful. Other common emotions are humiliation, guilt, shame and embarrassment, as well as self-blame, anger and a desire for revenge. Given the large gamut of emotions, there is a potential for mood swings throughout.

There are two styles of emotional expression in this stage –expressed and controlled. In the expressed style, emotions are more visible, including crying when describing details of the incident. In the controlled style, emotions are more hidden. Survivors will appear calm and subdued.

Physically, survivors may feel general aches and pains. Others may report feeling sore in specific areas related to the assault. Additionally, sleep patterns may be impacted. Some may have trouble falling asleep, others may report interrupted sleep, and others may have nightmares related to the assault. Eating patterns can also be impacted with survivors having a lack of appetite, or reporting adverse reactions to the taste of food. Nausea is also a symptom, and for some, it may be a result of simply thinking about the assault.

Behavior in this stage involves feelings of fear and confusion. Even simple, everyday tasks become difficult, as is problem-solving. Learning new information in this stage is significantly impaired. Wanting to move forward, this stage may involve survivors changing their living situation, not staying in their place of residence, and/or changing contact information.

This stage can last for a few days to a few weeks. During this initial reaction stage, survivors are vulnerable, and the immediate responses from others is important.

2.Stabilization Phase

Lasting from six months to a year, this stage is characterized by the following physical, behavioral and/or emotional impacts as outlined by Handeyside, Wickliffe and Adams (2004):

Physical Impacts Emotional Impacts Behavioral Impacts
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Nightmares
  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of Sexual Response
  • Nausea
  • Guilt
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Disbelief
  • Feeling ruined
  • Avoidance of relationships
  • Depression
  • Socially withdrawn
  • Inability to go outside
  • Self medication
  • Suicidal feelings
  • Inability to talk about the assault

In addition to these symptoms, harmed parties will often feel anxiety and/or hyper-alertness. This is particularly prevalent for students on campus who are concerned about encounters with their perpetrator.

3. Resolution Phase

During this stage, the harmed party has sought out support services, such as counseling, to address their needs. Harmed parties have begun to identify strategies they might utilize to move forward after the assault. Even though this stage is moving the harmed party toward “resolution,” it should be noted that this is still an emotional time, and that healing is a continuing process.

Other Behaviors and Reactions to Note

1.Mental Health

  • The Kansas Academy for Victim Assistance Resource Manual (2014) reports that one-third of rape victims will develop PTSD during their lifetime, and one in ten will experience PTSD closely following their assault.
  • Major depressive disorder is also a major mental health concern for victims. The Kansas Academy for Victim Assistance Resource Manual (2014) reports that 30% of rape victims experience at least one major depressive episode in their lifetime. Rape victims are also three times more likely to have had a major depressive episode.
  • Rape victims are also 13 times more likely to have attempted suicide when compared to those who have never been victims of crime. This statistic speaks to the gravity of impact an assault can have on a victim’s mental health (KAVA Resource Manual, 2014).
  • There is evidence that rape victims can have higher rates of drug and alcohol consumption and additionally are at higher risk for drug and alcohol-related issues. Compared to women who have not been crime victims, rape victims who suffer from PTSD are 13.4 times more likely to have two or more major alcohol problems, and 26 times more likely to have two or more serious drug abuse problems (KAVA Resource Manual , 2014).

2.Physical Injury

  • The Kansas Academy for Victim Assistance Resource Manual (2014) makes note of misconceptions related to the harmed party involving physical injuries:
  • 70% of rape victims reported no visible physical injuries.
  • Only 4% sustained serious physical injuries.
  • 24% received minor physical injuries.
  • Even though many victims did not sustain physical injuries, they feared being seriously injured or killed during the rape. 49% of rape victims described being fearful of serious injury or death during the rape.


In working with survivors of sexual assault, it is important to note that every survivor will respond differently. While the information provided here is statistically backed, each survivor’s response and progression through stages (if at all) or coping strategies will vary. Acknowledging both the generalities of responses and uniqueness of each harmed party is a crucial and necessary strategy.


Handeyside, A.K, Wickliffe, S.L. and Adams, J. (2004). Striving for justice: A toolkit for judicial resolution officers on college campuses. University of Michigan Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center.

Office of the Governors’ Grants Program (2014). Kansas Academy for Victim Assistance Resource Manual.

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