RCASA’s Sunday Book/Article Review: “Why Me? Addressing the Spiritual and Emotional Trauma of Sexual Assault”

In Advocacy, Outreach, Sexual Assault Awareness on January 31, 2010 at 9:00 am

Article Review: “Why Me?  Addressing the Spiritual and Emotional Trauma of Sexual Assault”

By Rev. Pamela Washburn, MDiv., BCC

as reviewed by Tanya Singleton, Intern

Those who work in the hospital emergency room/trauma center arena witness catastrophic injuries on a daily basis, and sometimes find themselves numb to the spiritual and emotional issues that arise, especially in the face of life-threatening injuries.  There are usually patient representatives or advocates assigned to care for the basic needs of accompanying family members.  In this article, Rev. Washburn presents the concept of a multi-disciplinary team approach to care for victims of sexual assault during the critical incident stage in the emergency room, which consists of the sexual assault nurse (SANE) examiner, a professional chaplain, and a specially-trained  patient advocate.

Washburn (2003) gives a thoughtful examination of the many rape myths that society has thrust upon women since the dawn of recorded history.  She makes the argument that “the tendency of society is to equate and confuse sexual activity with sexual violence.  These attitudes are communicated and embellished through our methods of socialization, our belief systems, and our behaviors”(p.236).  Throughout time, from the medieval to the women’s movements of the 20th century up until now, sexually assaulted women have had to prove their innocence of any provocation of the crime enacted upon them.  Washburn (2003) lists several societal myths concerning sexual assault; (1) the victim in some way asks or deserves to be sexually assaulted; (2) sexual assault is an act of impulse; (3) sexual assault offenders are strangers or “perverts”; (4) sexually assaulted individuals have significant visible injury to their body or genitalia; (5) the primary motive behind sexual assault is sex; (6) if a victim really wanted to prevent the sexual assault they could; (7), the best method of recovery is to put the event in the past and move on with life; and (8) it would not happen to me. 

The fact that these are MYTHS is evident of the faulty thinking that accompanies such beliefs.  Unfortunately, what society believes is what the victim also believes, which adds exponentially to the grief and shame experienced by persons who have been sexually assaulted.  The reality is that 71% of all sexual assaults are premeditated, acquaintances, family members or friends account for 50% of all reported sexual assaults, most persons assaulted show no physical injury, control is the primary motivation behind sexual assault – which is an act of violence; threat of bodily harm or force is used in 90% of all rapes.  Giving voice to the crime is a critical tool in healing from sexual assault.  Anyone can be a victim of sexual assault, and it is not a consequence of poor judgement.

The mythology aids the rapist, giving him a safe haven from prosecution, as most know that even though laws are on the books to protect the victim, the ideology is so well ingrained in the individual that at every level of justice there exists the mindset that oppresses the victims into silent submission.  Washburn (2003) stress that the first encounter with the victim is crucial in preventing revictimization.  In her program, the chaplain is specially trained in crisis intervention counseling and critical incident stress debriefing and provides this service to the victim and their support system.  “The immediate emotional and spiritual needs of the patient are to experience safety, support, compassion, and understanding. . .relating to the patient as an individual whose life has been interrupted by sexual assault as opposed to a victim of sexual assault”(p. 238) establishes a foundation from which to build trust and hope.

The defusing process used with sexual assault patients is six-staged, based on critical incident debriefing: (1) introduction, (2) facts, (3) thought reaction, (4) emotional reaction, (5) reframing, and (6) teaching/reentry.  “The experience. . . is reframed in a way to realistically reflect the choices made by the perpetrator, the response of the survivor, and the interpretive lenses of society.  The hope of this process is to empower the survivor to accept the experience, not as something deserved, but as a crime against them”(Washburn, 2003, p. 239-240).

Upon patient discharge, the chaplain offers a defusing with the sexual assault team.  This technique is essential to decrease burnout with any team that deals with critical incidents on a frequent basis.  Washburn explains, “Through this type of crisis ministry, the chaplain becomes a companion to the staff, the survivor, and the support system of the survivor, as each struggle with questions of responsibility and meaning.  The chaplain provides a tangible reality to the belief that God is present and grace can be found even in the violation of sexual assault”(p. 241).


Washburn, P. (2003). Why me? Addressing the spiritual and emotional trauma of sexual assault . Topics in Emergency Medicine , 236-241.


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