Guest post by: Cara Lynch, LMSW, Therapist, HAVEN
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published an enormous study called the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, which found that about 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the United States have been raped at some point in their lives. When the researchers looked at sexual victimization other than rape, those numbers jumped to 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men. What these numbers mean to me is that not only is sexual trauma still tragically commonplace in our society, but that even if it hasn’t happened to you, the chances of you knowing a survivor are great. It is with that reality in mind that I want to address ways you can support the sexual assault survivors in your life.
- Believe them. Full stop. It is not your job to investigate or to play devil’s advocate. “Innocent until proven guilty” applies (in theory) to our justice system, not us as friends, family members, and loved ones.
- Do not judge. There is no wrong or right way to respond to sexual assault and that is just as important for you as a loved one to know as it is for the survivor to know. However she or he reacted at the time and afterwards is OK. This includes common responses such as freezing during the assault, not fighting back or saying “No”, interacting with the assailant afterwards, keeping quiet about the assault, and not wanting to report it to police.
- Listen more than talk and avoid asking questions about what happened – they are often more about our own curiosity than about supporting survivors. Remember that the conversation, the experience, is not about you.
- Communicate empathy, not pity. Survivors are often very worried that people will treat them differently if they knew about what happened. Reassure the survivor that knowing about the assault does not change how you see or feel about her or him. For an excellent primer on empathy, take two and a half minutes of your day to watch this cartoon.
- It is ok if you don’t know what to say. In fact, saying that you don’t know what to say is OK. Some other good suggestions are “I’m sorry this happened to you” and “It’s not your fault” and “I’m so glad you told me.” Remember that you do not need to fix anything and you cannot make this better. Simply being there, listening without judgment is often more than enough.
- One question that is great to ask is this – “Is there anything I can do right now to help?” A variation on that could be, “Is there anything you need right now?” Questions like these help us avoid making assumptions about what survivors need or want from us. It also keeps us from inadvertently telling them what to do, which is almost never helpful.
- Be patient. I wrote in an earlier post about healing from sexual assault that there is no deadline, no timetable for healing. Try not to pressure them into “getting back to normal” and definitely avoid statements such as “It’s time to move on” and “It’s in the past, you should be over it already.” Along the way, survivors will have good days and bad days; just give them time.
- Take care of yourself. I said earlier to remember that this is not about you. However, it is perfectly normal to have your own feelings about what has happened to this person that you care about and love, particularly feelings of anger, hurt, and helplessness. Do not task the survivor with helping you through those feelings, but also try not to ignore or avoid them. Just as you are trying to support your loved one through this, seek support for yourself, too. HAVEN offers free counseling for both survivors AND their partners or family members.