April is sexual assault awareness month. Sexual assault is a massive epidemic in the United States: 1 in 4 women will survive an attempted sexual assault over the course of her lifetime, and 1 in 3 women will be the victim of violence by an intimate partner or a stranger. This means that survivors are all around us, and the odds are that someone you know will be a survivor of sexual or intimate partner violence over the course of his or her life. The first time a friend disclosed to me that they had been assaulted, I didn’t know how to respond-~-this is unsurprising, because it’s a difficult subject, and it can be hard to know exactly what to do. This is what originally inspired me to become a rape crisis-counselor, and after working with survivors, I thought I would put together some advice for others who may eventually be in the position of supporting someone who has survived this kind of trauma.
1. Tell the person you believe them. One of the scariest things for survivors is the fear that people will not believe them when they disclose what has happened.
2. Don’t ask a lot of questions. There are two reasons for this: the first is that asking a lot of questions could come across as you not believing the survivor, like they need to prove to you that it really happened; and the second is that talking through the details of an assault can be triggering for a survivor, and he/she/ze may not be ready to talk about those details or relive what happened. Let the person tell you what they are ready to share, and be accepting of it. Definitely do NOT ask questions like “what were you wearing” or “were you drunk”.
3. Validate their experiences/emotions. Survivors may be struggling with any number of emotions: anger, resentment, etc. Recognize and acknowledge the validity of those feelings. Remind the person that it is okay to feel the way they are feeling. These emotions are normal, and people need time to process them.
4. Remind them that it is not their fault. We live in a society that often blames victims for the things that have happened to them. They may feel that they should have known better, should have walked away sooner, should have been able to fight back. This is not just something that happened to them, though: this is something another person did to them, and it is only the perpetrator’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault.
5. Ask them what they want or need. Everyone processes and handles things differently, and different people will need different things in order to cope with thient, fear, etc. Remind them that it is okay to feel what they are feeling, and tell them that you are there for them. s kind of trauma. Try to remember that an assault takes the power away from the person: one of the best things you can do is give the person as much control over their situation as possible. Ask them if they need to talk, if they need help exploring options, if they want to prosecute, if they need medical help. An assault can be a very difficult thing to process, and the person may not know what they need at first, but be supportive, and try to help them once they can articulate what it is they need. And remember, everyone needs someone in their corner.
6. Respect their decisions. Many survivors do not feel comfortable reporting their assaults or disclosing to other people. Respect these decisions: don’t try to shame the person into reporting or out of reporting, and don’t disclose on their behalf without their permission. Being assaulted is highly stigmatized and it is important that you not violate the person’s trust by violating their privacy. Even though they may choose a course of action you would not have selected in their shoes, always remember that trauma is a very personal experience, and that you cannot make these decisions for them.
7. Be mindful of potential triggers. The person may articulate to you that certain things trigger them-~-a specific song, a specific smell, a particular date that marks an anniversary-~-and those are things you can be aware of. Try to avoid introducing potential triggers when you can. It’s understandable that you may not know all of a person’s triggers, but try to reduce casual or especially joking references to rape or assault, try to encourage those around you to avoid making those kinds of references, and check in with the person if they seem shaken or are likely to have been exposed to a trigger. Triggers can impact people in different ways, but it’s important to let the person know that they are safe, and help them ground themselves if they have been triggered.
These are fairly general pieces of advice, but all important things to remember. Survivors face a lot of obstacles and a lot of stigma in confronting their trauma, and disclosing can in and of itself be a difficult experience. Try your best to make the person feel safe and to respect any boundaries they need to establish in coping with their trauma. It may not seem like much, but establishing a safe space for a survivor in the context of your relationship with them can make a big difference and create a potential lifeline if someone needs help.
In addition to the things I just covered, you can also offer support resources to individuals who may be in need of additional assistance. If you or someone you know has experienced a sexual trauma and needs support, please contact RAINN’s online anonymous chat hotline here. You can also call RAINN at 1-800-656-HOPE, or call the DC Rape Crisis Hotline, which provides to support to survivors not just in the DC area but across the country, at 202-333-7273.