A sexual assault is a devastating and life-changing negative experience for almost everyone it happens to. It is a huge violation of a person. One of the hardest things about a sexual assault is that once the assault itself is over, the majority of victims continue to be re-traumatized by the world around them. People may not believe that the assault occurred. There are often many statements or accusations that blame the victim for being unable to prevent the assault from occurring. In many cases, victims continue to feel helpless, unheard, and isolated. Their reports may not be taken seriously by the medical or justice systems either. Many victims feel that they have nowhere to turn for support or help.
We need to step up and help support victims and survivors. What we do can have a significant impact on someone’s life. It may be the difference that helps them heal or receive justice. So let’s take a moment to examine some simple things that every person can do to support someone they know who has experienced a sexual assault.
Listening may seem completely obvious but on the best days, it is something that we struggle to do in our normal lives. Most people want to find answers, particularly when someone we care about is hurting. We are quick to jump to action to make things better. For a number of reasons, this can be detrimental to the person trying to talk to you. They may have a hard time talking about something that is extremely traumatic. If they feel rushed through it, they may see your concern and solutions as a sign that you just want the conversation to be over. They also may not be looking for solutions right now, they are looking for emotional support.
Take time to slow down and listen without interrupting. Let them say what they need to say. Show them that they have your attention by putting away other distractions. When you’re listening, take cues from their body language. If they are avoiding your gaze, don’t insist on full eye contact. This is going to be a painful subject for them and they may need a sense of space to feel comfortable talking. Follow their lead.
If during the conversation, the person falls into silence don’t feel pressured to jump in with a question or suggestion. When we talk about things that are intense and painful, sometimes we need to take a short break to be ready to continue. Let the silence fill the space. They will continue when they feel they are ready. If the silence stretches on an extremely long time, you can ask them if they are ok or what they need in this moment.
Let them tell their story on their own terms. Even something so simple as listening with empathy can make a world of difference to someone. It shows them that their voice matters and that someone cares.
2. Don’t Tell Victims/Survivors How to Feel
Emotions after an intense experience can range all over the map. How someone feels about a particular event in their life is extremely personal and will be impacted by their life leading up to it. Even if you are also a survivor of a similar situation, this doesn’t mean that you know exactly how they feel. We are able to cope and heal better when we have a chance to express our emotions and work through them at our own pace. We all do this in different ways and at different times. There is no set timetable and telling people they just need to “move past it” or “get over it” often can negatively impact someone’s progress.
People will feel however they feel after an event like this. There is no such thing as a wrong reaction. Emotions are complicated and can take on many shades. It’s not up to you to tell someone how they should feel. Ask them how they feel about it. Encourage them to explore all the different emotions they have and why they may feel that way. Give them space to explore those emotions with you without criticizing them for how they feel. Sometimes the best way to help people heal is helping them remember that their feelings are valid and it’s ok to feel how they are.
Victims and survivors have the right to feel however they want about it even if you don’t understand it or you think it’s time they moved on. Everyone processes differently. If you’re concerned with how someone is acting and that it may be the wrong thing for them, you can still have that conversation in a supportive and open way. Sometimes they will not want your help. If they are not open to it, take a step back. Remind them that you care and you are there for them. Use your best judgment and if in doubt, seek advice and support from a qualified source.
It can be totally devastating to have the worst experience of your life and have no one believe you that it happened. This happens to the vast majority of sexual assault survivors. Some of the worst sexual predators have been able to continue abusing and hurting more people because victims were not believed or not seen as credible. People can act differently towards others in social situations than they do towards you. Just because you’ve never seen it does not mean that it never occurred. At the end of the day, if we practice more due diligence instead of dismissing victim reports, we still stop more predators.
The largest opposition to this is the concern over false reports. It is true that there have been some documented cases of false accusations. False accusations can be completely devastating to the person accused. It is also true that in the case of false accusations, a properly trained professional who conducts the appropriate investigation is able to tell fairly quickly that the accusation is false. Due to other problems in the criminal justice system and a large number of unreported assaults, research has been unable to conclusively determine the rate of false accusations. It is estimated that only around 2%-8% of reported assaults are false. This leaves a staggering 92%-98% of accurate reports.
Unless you have been trained to do these investigations, it is not your job to determine the truth. Do not immediately reject the report because you’ve always known the accused to be a great person. Everyone has facets. There are also a lot of grey areas of consent that many people struggle with. You can still support the victim/survivor. Supporting them does not mean joining a lynch mob to take out the accused abuser. All you need to do is to listen and be aware.
Education is Key in Ending Sexual Assault
Supporting victims and survivors of sexual assault is an important step in creating change. We can provide better support when we take the time to educate ourselves on the complex issues that surround sexual assault and consent. Educating ourselves will also lead to a greater awareness and conversations in the general population. These conversations are the real keys to starting the process of change that will bring us closer to ending sexual violence. Share and discuss this article with others. What are your favorite ways to support sexual assault survivors?
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