And I’m well aware that many more of my clients may have been through such an ordeal without revealing it to their therapist.
Cosby has denied any wrongdoing and said the sex and drug-taking were consensual in court deposition.
Immediate impact of Wednesday’s reversal
Based on my client feedback, few of these women were surprised by Wednesday’s reversal. I’ve been hearing a lot from teenage girls and young adult women. My clients have given me full permission to share these thoughts:
One client, only 18, suggested, “As far as I know, the guy who raped me only raped me. Today’s news is probably great for him, but I’m scared. Not just of him, but all men.”
Meanwhile, a 20-year-old college student told me, “That guy who assaulted me is super popular on (that campus). You don’t think they’re going to find a way to get him off those charges?”
And a 27-year-old professional, drugged and assaulted after a work event, expressed hopelessness: “This just makes me so angry, fearful and sad. After all of the attention on sexual assault against women, I hope women and men continue to stand up against it.”
For many, anger, fear and hopelessness have been immediate reactions. Some women now continue to worry that they won’t be believed if they are sexually assaulted, while others fear the justice system will fail them regardless.
The psychological implication for women and girls
As noted above, the psychological fallout of sexual assault is devastating. Along with the symptoms cited, many of the women I’ve worked with have suffered ongoing relationship difficulties and intimacy issues, as well as significant trouble trusting men. In the extreme, eating disorders and suicidal ideation are not uncommon. And clinically, these issues are all quite resistant to psychological treatment, as the therapeutic relationship needs to be based in trust, a commodity often reasonably lacking in victims.
I have worked with sexual assault victims who have gone through the process of prosecution without a satisfactory outcome, and in these cases the psychological fallout can be far more complicated. They may distance themselves from family, friends and caregivers, truly feeling that nobody will be able to help them. In these circumstances, a profound sense of hopelessness tends to follow as well. Feeling a lack of power and agency, many of these women take their fears, anger and loathing out on themselves, self-harming or, in the extreme, attempting suicide.
A clinician’s perspective
Further, as a clinician who has worked with women who have been assaulted and failed by the system, I can tell you that these situations are agonizing and ongoing. The hopelessness of being doubly victimized reads an awful lot like grief in therapy. My patients have grieved for the loss of their own innocence, their faith in humanity, and far too often, their own sanity. A good night’s sleep without nightmares is a rare treat. A date with a significant other or new partner too often feels foreign or dangerous, and sex for many of these victims is not a consideration for years.
Mostly, I hear that a victim’s sense of safety, which before the traumatic event had typically been taken for granted, is now entirely elusive. Men no longer feel like allies to them, they tell me, but overt threats. And the possibility that justice may not be served too often feels like an overwhelming, untenable breach for an already compromised psyche.