Sexual violence is one of the main themes throughout the trending Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. It contributes heavily to Hannah, the main character’s, final decision to end her life. While the show has inspired some difficult conversations both about suicide and rape culture, there seems to be a missing piece to that conversation. How does sexual violence directly affect the mental health of a survivor and, most importantly, how can you find healing after experiencing the trauma of sexual assault?
Start from a place of help, hope, and healing
People who live through sexual violence face a range of challenges. We see many examples outlined in 13 Reasons Why. No degree of sexual violence is insignificant to the person who experiences it. People survive sexual violence every day, and find creative and resilient ways to deal with the aftermath of this experience. Sometimes the ways survivors cope or survive can be scary, and even seem harmful. It’s important to remember that these responses are also signs of resilience. It takes great courage to face the realities and aftermath of sexual violence. Help is available and healing is possible. Keep the hope in your heart that things will get better and you can continue to survive this.
Many people face and heal from many different kinds of sexual violence
One in 4 women and 1 in 6 men experience sexual violence in their lifetime. Chances are good that you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted. Most people don’t talk about it and few report it to police. When we talk about sexual violence most people assume that only means rape - but sexual violence includes a whole spectrum of unwanted sexual attention. Catcalling, unwanted contact, stalking, trafficking – these behaviors are all a part of that spectrum. Any time a person uses force, threat, coercion or manipulation to commit sexual actions or behaviors, it is sexual violence. All forms of sexual violence can lead to a traumatic response in the survivor. It can have long-lasting social, emotional, and physical consequences, which if left untreated, could be deadly.
In 13 Reasons Why Hannah experiences a wide range of sexually violent behaviors that escalate over time. Starting with sexually exploitive digital harassment, the behaviors continue and include sexual harassment, sexual objectification, attempted sexual assault, witnessing a rape, and experiencing a rape. The impact of this escalating violence is exponential.
In the right environment, sexually violent behaviors escalate
When sexually violent behaviors are ignored or endorsed by the community, it sends the message that sexual violence is ok. It sends the message to victims that their experiences don’t matter. It sends the message to peers that people can be reduced to their bodies and treated as objects of sexual gratification (think about Marcus’s actions on a date with Hannah). It sends the message to potential perpetrators that their actions will be tolerated and that they can continue to commit additional or increasingly violent behaviors. What we say and do about even seemingly minor incidents of sexual violence matters.
Sexual violence has short and long-term mental health impacts on survivors
Sexual violence often causes a traumatic response, and understanding some realities of trauma can give us a better starting point for discussing 13 Reasons Why. The more sexual trauma a person experiences, the more likely it is that a person will have intense and serious trauma response. This is very clearly seen in the episode where Hannah witnesses the rape of her unconscious friend at a party. When this happens, she freezes.
Our body responds to trauma in three ways – fight, flight, or freeze. Eighty-eight percent of rape victims freeze during their assault and are physically unable to move because of the chemicals that are released by the brain. This freeze response created an intense amount of guilt for Hannah that she carried with her throughout the show, but this was nothing Hannah had control over. The brain’s trauma-response mode can even impact survivors during non-trauma experiences. Think about how a consensual interaction with Clay went downhill in 13 Reasons Why. Small reminders of a traumatic situation can launch a survivor right back into the feeling of being assaulted again.
Later in the show Hannah is raped by the same athlete that carried out her friend’s rape. He never asks Hannah for her consent and ignores her physical response of trying to get away. Later, Hannah describes feeling dead inside. This is a common response to sexual violence and just one of many ways that our brains, bodies, and feelings can react during the healing process.
When a person experiences sexual trauma, especially when the violence is ongoing, repeated, or very severe, the brain and body react by producing chemicals that can cause hypervigilance, flashbacks, or nightmares. To manage these intrusive reactions, many survivors will use behaviors that many would consider scary, harmful, or a sign of mental health issues. For instance:
- Rape victims are four times more likely to consider suicide and 13 times more likely to attempt it.
- Many survivors will also struggle with substance abuse, self-harm, and eating disorders.
- Risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental health diagnoses is significantly higher.
Friends, family, and others can help or hurt the situation
Most survivors will never report to police. Some will never tell anyone at all. Many will seek help from friends, family, teachers, or others. What we say in response to a disclosure of sexual violence matters. While many survivors feel guilt or shame for not stopping their attack or for the ways their traumatic responses impact their other relationships, it is not their fault or responsibility. Suggesting otherwise (like in the case of Hannah’s guidance counselor) is victim blaming.
For a long time, mental health providers didn’t know what to do with the trauma symptoms that survivors brought to their doors. Now we know that addressing the root cause of the symptoms (the trauma) can have a lasting, positive impact on a survivor’s mental health and well-being. In 13 Reasons Why, Hannah struggles with many of these trauma symptoms but no one ever makes the connection to her trauma or helps her to find support.
Hope is essential to an individual experiencing a crisis situation. Imagine if things had been different. Imagine if someone had named these small incidents as sexual violence and spoke up to stop them. Imagine if someone had told Hannah that none of this was her fault. Imagine if someone had told her she could heal, and that they would be by her side all the way.
If and when someone we know talks about experiencing sexual violence, we must believe them, support them, and give them the hope that they will survive and heal from their experience.