5 tips for supporting a loved one who has survived sexual assault
It’s important to know that all survivors do not react to sexual assault the same.
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By Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC
For centuries, rape has been a tactic of war, spurred by the idea that women were property meant to be used or owned in any way a man saw fit. These principles of sexual assault remain today. The lust is not just for sexual satisfaction, but for absolute power and control.
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In 2017, the #MeToo movement gained mainstream popularity. The term was resurrected from founder Tarana Burke’s statements in the mid-2000s citing our ongoing need for widespread conversations about the sexual harassment and abuse of women. The Harvey Weinstein scandal and Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony to Congress in 2018 represented watershed moments for the movement. We still struggle with the idea of sexual assault, harassment and consent, but our conversations around sexual assault are changing.
Many Black survivors received the message, after the Dr. Blasey Ford testimony, that if our government wouldn’t or couldn’t take action in support of a well educated white woman there was no hope for Black survivors of sexual violence.
Statistics show a bleak picture of sexual assault among women of color. 18.8% of Black women report sexual assault, 24.4% of mixed race women report it, while 34.1% of American Indian/Alaskan Native women report an experience of sexual assault, all higher rates than the 17.7% of white women (and these are only the women who report it).
Many more women of color are underreporting these crimes and coping with the consequences of sexual assault alone. And when Black survivors of sexual assault reach out for help, they experience a serious lack of resources, let alone culturally-competent resources, to help them sort through the traumatic experience.
In the face of this dearth of support, what can one do if faced with the reality that someone you know has experienced sexual abuse or assault? As 1 in 6 women have experienced this in their lifetimes, odds are that someone in your circle has experienced rape.
As a counselor who worked for many years in an organization dedicated to preventing sexual assault, here are some tips I’ve learned to consider in supporting a friend or loved one who has this experience:
This is, by far, is the most important intervention that you can offer someone who has experienced sexual assault or rape. Many survivors, due to our cultural stigma around this issue, think that they will not be believed. This keeps people suffering in silence. This kind of suffering can lead to debilitating mental health consequences such as depression and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Choosing to believe a survivor in the aftermath of an assault can give hope. In some cases you may have your doubts, but in the moments after someone opens up about their experience is not the time to voice those concerns.
Instead, find confidential outlets to discuss those concerns and focus on supporting the survivor in the moment in a way that feels honest to you. Offering your support and genuine belief in their story will help rid the survivor of the embarrassment and shame that most survivors feel in the aftermath of abuse.
Talk Less & Listen More
Having someone tell you that they’ve survived something like this isn’t easy to handle, and many of us don’t know what to say or do. The good news is that offering your genuine support and a listening ear can be powerful and healing. Because sexual assault carries such a powerful weight of guilt and shame, being able to tell their stories without judgment is a powerful tool for survivors.
Create silence and space for a survivor to tell their story in whatever way feels most helpful to them. Be a compassionate and intentional audience, ready to provide whatever support you can. This is a powerful time in the healing process that allows survivors to make conscious choices about how they want to use this space and express themselves. Having this kind of control and choice can help rebuild strength after a traumatizing event.
If someone begins to tell you their story of assault, you’re most likely going to be curious about how the experience came to be. Your shock and disbelief may lead you to seek to understand the story overall. The impulse to understand is natural, but it may not be all that helpful.
Seeking to understand might lead you to shooting a barrage of questions at your loved one which may leave them feeling on edge and under attack. Of course, this is the last dynamic that you want to recreate with someone who has experienced a traumatic event that likely left them similarly feeling attacked. Instead, take your time, try not to ask too many questions, and follow your loved one’s needs and desires for what happens next for them.
Along with making listening a strong focus, it’s also important to communicate a lack of judgement when faced with a disclosure. Due to the guilt and shame that often go with surviving abuse, many survivors turn inward and blame themselves for the abuse. If you insinuate that your loved one might have contributed to the assault because of their own choices, then you may exacerbate the negative mental health implications of being a survivor. Instead, try your best to communicate your non-judgment and belief in their story.
It’s important to know that all survivors do not react to sexual assault the same. Each person has their own way of responding to difficult circumstances, and sexual assault survivors are no different.
Some people immediately appear to bounce back and keep it moving. Others fall into depression and self-blame. Some might use humor to cope. The thing to remember is that there is no one right way to respond to trauma. The most important thing that you can do is offer you continual support in their process of healing.
Seek Out Resources
Facing the kind of pain and shame that sexual assault can bring is monumental. Many survivors scramble to keep their lives moving forward in the aftermath of abuse. Sometimes getting right back to work, school, etc. can create a sense of emotional safety needed in the immediate times following the assault. This may leave survivors unable to research and secure the necessary resources to heal.
Compiling resources for survivors can be an incredibly helpful task and is an important way to show that you care. Without pushing your loved one to seek help but by merely providing resources, you influence their power of choice and free will, something that is removed when rape or sexual assault occurs.
While many providers and resources are adept at providing support to survivors of sexual assault, Black survivors may experience different cultural circumstances and may not respond to a one-size fits all approach. With that being said, seeking out culturally competent resources and mental health providers can help remedy this.
Become an Advocate
One of the most powerful things that you can do after someone tells you about their sexual assault or abuse is to become an advocate yourself. This can be as formal as volunteering for an organization as a crisis line volunteer (such as RAINN.org) or it could mean speaking up for survivors in public forums, helping organize events celebrating survivors, etc. You can also become an advocate by battling rape culture in conversation with peers in your everyday life.
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Experiencing abuse is traumatic in and of itself. It’s something that no one should have to experience. But, if you do find that you or someone you care for is a survivor of sexual assault, hopefully these tips can help arm you with the tools necessary to have difficult conversations and offer support.
Jor-El Caraballo is a licensed therapist and Co-founder of Viva Wellness (link:www.vivawellnessblog.com