Although what happened to them was not their fault, many rape survivors experience both guilt and shame after being sexually assaulted. Here is a place to explore the cause of these emotions and hopefully find our way past them.
Let's start with the basics and define both guilt and shame (Webster's College Dictionary):
Guilt: n. 1. the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, esp. against moral or penal law.
2. a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
Shame: n. 1. the painful feeling of having done or experienced something dishonorable, improper, foolish, etc.
Many people think of guilt and shame as the same thing (and the dictionary defines them this way). They are, however, extremely different. Rape survivors feel guilty, for the most part, because they feel they did something wrong which caused them to be sexually assaulted ("if I wasn't wearing that dress...if only I hadn't drank so much...I shouldn't have been alone with him," etc). They feel guilty because it seems like their actions caused the assault.
Shame is what prevents many survivors from speaking about what happened to them. Shame is an attack on the survivor as a person ("I am a bad person because this happened to me..."). It is the feeling you get when you are sure that someone will think poorly of you because you were assaulted. Shame is longer lasting, and ultimately more dangerous than guilt.
Nancy Venable Raine, in her book After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back discusses the difference between guilt and shame:
Shame is often confused with guilt, but Lewis notes that whereas shame is "the complete closure of the self-object circle...in guilt, although the self its the subject, the object is external." Guilt is produced when you evaluate your behavior as failure, but the focus is on what you could have done differently-and what you can do to repair the damage. Guilt is less intense than shame and less negative because the focus is an "action of the self rather than the totality of the self." When corrective action is impossible, guilt is converted to shame. Rape, by definition, is a situation where corrective action is impossible.
The feeling of shame is so intense for rape victims that many never tell anyone what happened to them. Even in psychotherapeutic settings, victims of rape often avoid talking about what happened to them. Despite more than two decades of change in social attitudes about rape, I still found it difficult not to feel ashamed when others reacted to me with embarrassment or discomfort. And this feeling of shame silenced me. Lewis notes that an intense feeling of shame can actually cause loss of memory. Shame silences because it encloses the entire self.
Rape shame is hard to escape...Attempts to dissipate the same by giving words to the unspeakable seem only to increase it. The shame is mirrored by the listener, sometimes quite obviously by a blush, an averting of the eyes, or a hunching of the shoulders, sometimes by silence. The telling then feels like a confession, an admission of wrongdoing, and the sense of is deepened. Shame is what the rapist, not the victim, should feel. Yet his shame is transferred to the victim, and her shame renders her mute. And her muteness seems to confirm the moral rightness of this transfer. The feeling of shame seems to make being the victim of rape an act of wrongdoing...
Guilt and shame are difficult to escape, and as Nancy Venable Raine notes, you can tell yourself that what happened wasn't your fault, but sometimes it is really hard to believe it. Here are some suggestions for combating guilt and shame:
- When you are feeling guilty about being sexually assaulted, take a minute to look up the definition in the dictionary. It sounds silly, but sometimes it is all it takes to help you remember that you are not the one who committed the crime. It is the person who assaulted you who should feel guilty about their actions.
- Keep a journal. When you are feeling ashamed or guilty, write down your feelings. Then, write a paragraph about why you are feeling that way ("I feel ashamed because I told my friend what happened to me today, and she seemed embarrassed...), then write a paragraph evaluating the situation ("I should not feel ashamed because I was assaulted and if my friend has a problem with me telling her, it's a problem with her and not with me..."). Here's a link to HealthyPlace.com Support Network where you can keep your Journal
- Talk to someone you trust about how you are feeling. Sometimes it helps to have another person tell you that what happened was not your fault. Talking about your feelings can help you make sense of them.
- Buy The Courage to Heal Workbook and do the exercises. Many of them will help relieve your feelings of guilt and shame.
- Created: 18 November 2008
- Last Updated: 14 January 2014