How to deal with trauma from sexual harassment or assault

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Between 2017 and 2019, there were 6,988 reports of sexual assault in Singapore, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs. This includes rape, sexual assault by penetration, outrage of modesty and sexual offences involving children and vulnerable victims.

Worryingly, the number of cases seems to be rising every year. Aware's Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) has seen 515, 808, 777 and 967 new cases from 2017 to 2020, respectively, according to Shailey Hingorani, AWARE's Head of Research and Advocacy.

According to SACC, around seven in 10 clients choose not to report their experience to authorities. This means that we'll never truly know the prevalence of sexual violence in Singapore as it's clearly underreported.

The issue of sexual assault made the news again in early November when Workers' Party Member of Parliament Raeesah Khan admitted to lying in Parliament about details of a sexual assault case.

During a Parliamentary debate on empowering women in August, she shared a story about how she had accompanied a 25-year-old rape victim to make a police report three years ago, and was met with inappropriate comments by the police officer who interviewed the victim, thus alleging the case was mishandled by the police. 

On Nov 1, she retracted that anecdote and apologised in Parliament to the Singapore Police Force.

She explained she had made up those details as she wasn't brave enough to admit that she was part of a support group for women who had been victims of sexual assault, which she had experienced when she was 18. The story had been shared by another woman in the support group, and Raeesah wasn't directly involved in the incident.

As a result, she was hauled up to face the Committee of Privileges, which looks into any complaint alleging breaches of parliamentary privilege. Leader of the House Indranee Rajah said Raeesah's allegations did a "great disservice" to the survivors of sexual assault and rape.

Aware said in a Facebook post that, despite believing that Raeesah's intentions were sound, they were disappointed that she lied about the details of the situation. 

Raeesah resigned from the Workers' Party on Nov 30. The Committee of Privileges, however, would continue with the investigations.

While her story was fabricated, there's no denying that sexual harassment and assault issues deserve more discourse in Singapore.

Sexual harassment/assault is underreported

Her World's What Women Want 2021 survey revealed that 15 per cent of respondents were sexually harassed at work, while 14 per cent had witnessed sexual harassment at work. Worryingly, 27 per cent did not report sexual harassment incidents at work.

Why is sexual harassment/assault underreported in Singapore? Shailey Hingorani, Aware's Head of Research and Advocacy, lists the following reasons:

Fear of not being believed or not having enough evidence

"This is often the reason given to us by survivors for not reporting. It is often compounded as a result of victim-blaming and skepticism that survivors receive from others - friends and family, official personnel, commenters on the internet, etc."

Practical barriers to reporting

Many survivors are apprehensive about complicated and lengthy legal procedures, as well as uncertainty of outcome.

The perpetrator is someone close

Survivors are also sometimes not willing to report when the perpetrator is known to them, such as a spouse or family member who they are dependent on, as opposed to cases where the perpetrator is a stranger.

These survivors may still care for the perpetrator's future, family and their career.

Fear of triggering the trauma

There is the chance that speaking about the experience - especially if they have to do so over and over again, to strangers - will trigger another wave of trauma, especially if the listener reacts in an insensitive or judgmental way.

"In the last few years, the government has introduced facilities such as the OneSafe Centre and enhanced their training for police officers dealing with sexual assault cases, to make the reporting process less traumatic for survivors.

"However, we believe the criminal justice system can still be made more survivor-centric, and have made suggestions to that effect, including specialised courts with expedited processes and trained judges; and improved communications with survivors."

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The individual experience of sexual harassment/assault

How a survivor deals with trauma from sexual harassment/assault depends on the individual.

"Sexual assault and harassment is a very individual experience for each survivor," Shailey shares. "In our Sexual Assault Care Centre's experience, there is no typical response to sexual violence - while some may show their feelings of anger, hurt and fear, others may not show it at all."

She adds that the psychological effects can be short-term or long-term, and can include fear of others, depression, anxiety, anger, flashbacks, nightmares, numbness and denial.

Consequently, recovery, which includes coping with trauma, varies greatly from survivor to survivor, as well.

Shailey notes that trauma responses often happen entirely instinctively, without logical decision-making. Common responses include fight or flight, but also freeze (a sort of temporary paralysis), fawn (soothing or appeasing the assaulter) and more.

Shailey believes that disclosing an experience of sexual violence can often be the first step in a survivor's recovery process. However, we should recognise that speaking up is entirely her choice and that her main responsibility is to herself.

"She should prioritise her physical and emotional well-being and do what she needs to do for her recovery," Shailey advises.

"Bystanders should keep this in mind and not pressure survivors to take certain steps (file a police report, seek counselling, or even elaborate on an abusive situation) with which they are not comfortable."

Women should also find the type of therapy that's best suited for them in this situation.

Aware runs Singapore's only dedicated Sexual Assault Care Centre, providing services such as counselling, legal information, befriending (accompanying a victim to court, police stations and elsewhere), Helpline, WhatsApp, email and drop-in centre.

Sexual harassment survivors can reach out to SACC through its helpline (6779 0282, Monday to Friday, 10am to 6pm), where they'll get support and information on possible next steps.

In addition, several alternative therapies can be used to cope with sexual harassment/assault.

Alternative therapies to deal with sexual harassment/assault

Art therapy

What it is

Buvenasvari Pragasam is a survivor of sexual abuse, and now a registered art therapist who runs her own practice, Solace Art Psychotherapy. Art therapy combines the principles of psychotherapy and art.

Facilitated by the art therapist, clients use the creative process in the forms of paintings, drawings or sculpting to convey thoughts and feelings that may be difficult to say. 

"It can be triggering to ask sexual harassment/assault survivors to talk about their trauma or what happened to them. It can result in emotional flooding and re-traumatisation," Buvenasvari explains.

She adds that there is also a neurological explanation behind this - traumatic memories are stored in the body and in the right brain, which may block off the memories as a form of protective mechanism. This makes it difficult to process trauma through verbal communication, which is a left-brain activity.

How it works

As art therapy involves non-verbal communication, it allows sexual harassment/assault survivors to safely process their trauma through externalising their trauma or struggles through art.

It is also a non-intimidating process that allows clients to express and process difficult emotions, non-verbally.

Before embarking on your healing journey, it's important to assess that the therapist is the right fit for you.

"If things don't work out, it's okay. Continue to look for a suitable therapist," Buvenasvari advises.

What to know before trying it

She recommends checking if the therapist is a trauma-informed practitioner. And once you have found a suitable art therapist, go in with an open mind.

"The healing journey is never easy or comfortable but it is important in order to move forward without any setbacks," says Buvenasvari.

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EDMR Therapy

What it is

Dr Natalie Games, a clinical psychologist at Alliance Counselling, elaborates on this form of therapy: "EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy is a psychotherapy technique that has been successfully used to treat people who suffer from anxiety, PTSD, and other emotional issues.

"It is considered a breakthrough modality because it can bring quick and long-term relief from emotional distress. Of course, everyone's experience is different and effectiveness can depend on a number of factors, including history of trauma."

How it works

A typical EDMR therapy session involves the client participating in a form of bilateral stimulation while, at the same time, focusing on specific elements of the trauma memory.

Bilateral stimulation (BLS) is often left-right eye movements. This includes following the therapist's fingers, a wand, or using a light bar.

However, the therapist may use other variations of BLS such as back-and-forth sounds with headphones and/or alternating tactile simulation by tapping the back of the client's hands or using a handheld device that vibrates.

"Although the therapist will need some information about the incident(s), what's different about EMDR is that you don't have to keep telling your story over and over again," Dr Games explains.

It is believed that EMDR creates changes to the "wiring" in the brain and works to make connections in the brain so the thinking and feeling can be linked.

"In the case of sexual abuse/assault, a person will still know the experience was negative/bad, but they won't have the same negative feelings, sensations, reactions and thoughts about it," says Dr Games.

What to know before trying it

If you're considering EMDR and you have a history of complex trauma, ensure that your therapist has experience in working with both.

"Make sure, also, that your therapist talks to you about extensive preparation and stabilisation; these aspects will be a necessary part of your healing journey.

'It is important to be certain your therapist has the proper education, knowledge and experience to provide this specific type of treatment," she adds.

Hypnotherapy

What it is

Using hypnosis to produce a natural, yet heightened state of consciousness where your attention becomes narrow and incredibly focused through the induction of deep relaxation, a psychotherapist can make suggestions for behavioural change while you are in an induced state of relaxed awareness.

This can have positive effects on the client's perceptions, attitudes and behaviours.

How it works

Grace Loh, psychotherapist, counsellor and coach at Counseling Perspective, explains how hypnotherapy works: "Hypnotherapy can be used as a gentle way to heal trauma by helping to stabilise overwhelming emotions, strengthening the ego, addressing negative self-beliefs and self-schema, and supporting the reprocessing of traumatic memories in a non-evasive way, as well as facilitating the reinstatement of better feelings of self-esteem and self-worth.

"This can be used alongside other therapeutic techniques such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) and other therapeutic modalities."

What to know before trying it

Grace notes that hypnotherapy should not replace medically-necessary treatment, and there are no instant cures or quick fixes. It is, instead, a tool to facilitate self-improvement and behaviour modification to enhance the healing process.

Grace says: "The most common reason for failure to induce a hypnotic state is a lack of rapport with a hypnotherapist, or working with someone who lacks proper training.

"The hypnotherapist should never force the survivor to relive painful memories; instead, the focus should be on helping the survivor learn to self-soothe when distressed from triggers and to activate one's inner healing state, and to embrace resilience-building for personal growth and positive outcomes," she adds.

ALSO READ: How EMDR helped a grieving mother deal with her trauma

This article was first published in Her World Online.