by E.J. Smith, Guest Contributor
Sexual assault has been a recurrent headline topic this year. From Lady Gaga and Kesha, to Erin Andrews, ESPN and college football controversies, to Vice President Joe Biden — people are talking about sexual assault.
Anyone who watched the Oscars can tell you that the awards show ended up being an especially important night for survivors — even beyond Lady Gaga’s incredible performance.
This year, the academy nominated 3 films (“Room,” “The Hunting Ground” and “Spotlight”) addressing various themes of sexual assault, abuse and exploitation.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month and in years past, both in my role as an advocate and counselor, I’ve often felt like I’ve been preaching to the choir.
And while statistics vary, it’s generally accepted that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 males will experience sexual assault over the course of their lifetimes.
But what if you are one of the “4 of 5” females or of the “9 of 10” males who have not experienced sexual assault?
Why should you care about sexual assault?
If I wanted to list every reason I think people should care, I’d be here all day and possibly all week. So for now, I’ll pick one.
One of the main reasons why we all need to care about this issue is because now that it’s being discussed in the mainstream, survivors are speaking out. Survivors who have been silent for years, or even decades, are speaking out.
For example, this past Christmas at a fundraising event for our local rape crisis center, a woman who looked to be in her mid-to-late 70s approached our table. She thanked the volunteers for their work and spontaneously shared her story of being molested as a young child. At the end, she paused and said
I’ve never told anyone that. It just wasn’t something you talked about back then.
As an advocate and a counselor, and a survivor myself, I can assure you that when survivors speak out — when they make that first outcry— the way their story is received is important.
It can be a moment of profound healing and connection.
Or it can be a moment of intense shame and regret.
And the difference in reaction is often based on the response of the person the survivor chooses to tell — whether that’s a friend, an employer, a pastor or coworker.
So I’d like to offer you some tips for how to handle these disclosures. Because whether you’re aware of it or not, chances are that you know someone who has experienced this form of abuse. Now trust and believe, I understand that not everyone has advanced training in handling difficult subject matter.
That being said, as military spouses, I think our community is better equipped than most. Our families already experience on a regular basis things that most of the population only see in movies or on the news.
Here are 8 tips (5 do’s and 3 don’ts) for compassionate responses when you find yourself in a conversation with a sexual assault or sexual abuse survivor.
The 5 Do’s for Compassionate Conversations with Sexual Assault Survivors
DO believe the person. I wish this one went without saying. It costs nothing and the potential healing benefit to a survivor is priceless.
On the flip side, I’ve spent weeks and months with clients working to undo the profound damage of having not been believed. While I do understand false accusations of sexual assault exist, I think things like media coverage and cautionary tales passed down by higher-ups can lead us to grossly overestimate the frequency with which those false reports occur (between 2 and 8 percent).
DO recognize disclosure as an act of strength and of vulnerability and do your best to honor it. When a survivor tells me their story or even simply reveals that he or she is a survivor, I take a moment to appreciate that disclosure: “I can’t imagine what that was like for you – to go through or even to admit now. I’m grateful thought you could tell me.”
The exact words you say don’t matter as much as the message you send.
I actually think those first 2 do’s are among the easiest. Find your version of acknowledgement.
It’s like catching a ball. You have the ball and I think this is often where people panic.
They don’t want the ball.
They want to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible.
Or, they don’t mind the ball. But they don’t know what to do with it either.
Fear not, the next tips are for you.
For survivors who are managing well, that is to say they’re not in immediate need of assistance, DO offer appreciation for how well they’re coping and maybe even ask how they got through it.
It gives someone who’s worked through something horrible the chance to share their success and not just their trauma.
I’ve watched survivors proudly declare that they attended therapy, run marathons or even volunteer as advocates.
For survivors who are struggling, DO offer to help find resources. The Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN.org) operates a 24/7 crisis hotline 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) that can help you find local resources. While every survivor ultimately needs take on the healing journey themselves, sometimes having a friend assist you in some of the initial fact finding can be exceptionally healing. By the way, if someone is in immediate danger, call 911.
DO respect boundaries. The survivor’s and your own. At the heart of all abuse – especially sexual – is the loss of power and control. Allowing someone to establish personal boundaries is among the most important and healing elements that supportive friends can offer.
If someone starts to disclose and then decides they’re not ready, let it be OK. You can say something simple like, “Hey, it’s OK. I care that something horrible happened to you. I’m here to listen or help if you change your mind. But that gets to be entirely on your terms, and I respect you.”
The 3 Don’ts for Compassionate Conversations with Sexual Assault Survivors
DON’T launch an investigation or interrogation to see who was really to blame (spoiler alert: the rapist is to blame) or how the survivor may have “contributed” to the situation.
The truth is that rape is a crime that removes the survivor’s right to make choices about their body and behavior. It’s the role of law enforcement to investigate if the survivor so chooses; not yours.
DON’T tell the survivor what they need to do. It’s great to let people know what their options are. And yes, it’s very helpful if someone goes to the hospital to have a forensic exam completed and reports to law enforcement.
But not everyone does.
And healing isn’t necessarily contingent on reporting. Sometimes telling a friend is enough for that person.
Again, let the survivor make the choice.
DON’T take on more than you can handle. I mentioned before that it’s important to respect a survivor’s boundaries; it’s also important to respect your own.
If you don’t feel like you’re the right person to help, or listen – let the person know as nicely as you can and offer to get them in the hands of someone who can. There are professionally trained individuals who are able to handle these tough conversations. Sometimes the best service you can offer is a warm referral to someone else. Again, RAINN.org is a great place to start.
For more resources, consider checking out the following links. These are my go-to’s for my clients and their loved ones, so it’ll give you a solid place to start.
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- A Joyful Heart Foundation
- Men Can Stop Rape
Sometimes when I share these do’s and don’ts, people are surprised by just how simple they truly are. Sometimes, I think we make supporting each other more complicated by trying to do too much. Or by thinking that being helpful means that we need to be able to provide answers.
Caring about each other shouldn’t be difficult or complicated. And it doesn’t require any firm answers.
Saying, “I believe you,” may not seem like much to offer. But in a culture where rape jokes are still commonplace, offering those 3 words can make all the difference to someone who needs to hear them.
There is an old quote that says, “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” The advocate in me is extremely grateful. People are talking.
The culture is changing — even if its slower than we’d ultimately like — the change is noticeable.
That being said, when we start by believing and recognizing the strength of an individual, we put ourselves in the space where we can listen and meet people where they are in that moment.
E.J. is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) practicing in the State of Texas, and Marine wife. Her mission is to teach and inspire survivors of sexual and domestic violence to reclaim their power, find their purpose, and live a healthier, more fulfilling life. She’s the creator of the Sassy Advocate and has spoken on college campuses, in the media, at conferences, and has articles published in print & online. When she’s not working, E.J. enjoys being running, lifting weights, trying new recipes, and reading several books at once.