5 Ways to Support Survivors of Sexual Assault

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I knew this since April 1st, yet hesitated to create any content around this topic because it is triggering for me. As I proceed in writing this, I am being hyper aware that I should step away if it is too much. And, if this topic triggers you, know it’s okay to stop listening and self care at any time.

I want to start with that only way I’ve been sexually assaulted is that one time I was kissed against my will. I did not sustain long-term trauma from this, but because so many of my loved ones are survivors of sexual assault, the offenses of sexual assault of my community have still left me with trauma. I’ve learned this is called secondary PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), and this is what I mean by saying I get triggered from this topic. Sexual assault, like any trauma, doesn’t just affect the survivor, it affects the whole community.

A few years ago I was the caretaker for a sexual assault survivor, and it was the hardest year of my life. I learned so much about psychology, therapy methods, what flashbacks were, learning to identify and cope with triggers and much more. While a survivor of sexual assault may walk away with no physical injuries, the mental injuries can be so deep and profound that they literally change the person. And, in truth, it’s terrifying.

Like I said, I want to keep myself from being triggered so much, so I want to just convey what I think is incredibly important for everyone to know, which is how to support a survivor of sexual assault. This is from my own personal experiences; I’m not going to list anything I found online just in 10 minutes of searching, so this is REAL and I’m not sure if you’ll find this information in many other places.

Ways to Support Survivors of Sexual Assault

  1. Never victim blame.

Victim blaming is when someone says it’s the victim’s fault for the assault directly or indirectly. When it comes to sexual assault I’ve heard “well, you shouldn’t take drinks from strangers”, “you should have worn something less provocative”, or “what do you expect going to a bar alone?”. All of these are unhelpful at best and incredibly triggering, shaming, and unloving responses.

When someone experiences sexual assault, there is already a layer of shame and regret often involved. They question themself and how if they changed their actions the situation could have been avoided. However, they were never to blame. EVER. The person who assaulted is ALWAYS AT FAULT.

INSTEAD:

  • Validate the survivor’s experience and emphasize that they were not at fault.
  • Do not focus your conversation on what happened and how the person can make different decisions in the future, focus the conversation on what the survivor needs now to heal.
  • Do not ask questions about the incident in order to judge who was at fault, instead listen to what the survivor wants to share with empathy.
  • Don’t pressure the survivor to share everything; trust that they will share what they feel comfortable sharing with you when the time is right for them.

2. Never question whether it happened or whether it was sexual assault.

When a survivor experiences sexual assault, there is typically a period of shock that follows. They wonder if they just dreamed it happened, or even maybe if they did want it to happen. Especially when survivor does not have a clear memory of the event due to drinking, drugs, or a black-out from fear, the survivor could feel like they’re losing touch with reality if someone asks “are you SURE that happened to you?”. The survivor could be questioning if it even happened to them, and questioning why they feel so “crazy” or traumatized.

INSTEAD:

  • If the survivor asks if the incident actually happened, kindly let them know that their recollection of the events is valid, and that you believe them.
  • Always listen more than you speak when the survivor is discussing the incident. Let the survivor lead the conversation.
  • When you feel the urge to question whether an incident of sexual assault was actually consensual, DO NOT AT ALL question this. If the survivor says it was sexual assault, believe them the first time.

3. Offer resources to help them if they ask for some, but don’t be pushy.

There are many resources for sexual assault survivors out there. I won’t list them all here, but RAINN is an organization with many resources and a hotline to help. The important thing to remember when providing resources is that the survivor must be open to these resources. After sexual assault, a survivor can sometimes feel so much shame that even seeking help is out of reach (this is especially what I’ve observed male survivors of sexual assault). This feeling of shame is normal, unfortunately, and it’s important that the survivor know that the feeling is normal and valid, but that healing is possible; they won’t feel this way forever.

The healing journey for sexual assault survivors is very personal. Therefore, certain resources aren’t for everyone. While a group therapy session may be great for one person, for another that can have the opposite effect, for instance. Also, a survivor could need different resources at different points in their healing journey. At first they may need therapy, and then down the line join a support group. It all depends on the person. Listening to what the survivor wants is most important, and helping them work through bureaucracy to reach resources can be very helpful for them. Let them heal at their own pace.

4. Understand what a trigger is, what a flashback is, and how to encourage them to perform coping skills when necessary.

Triggers and flashbacks are wild. When I was caretaking for a sexual assault survivor, I witnessed first-hand someone learning what their triggers were, and it’s not a fun process at all. Picture this, the survivor has some mundane, everyday experience and as a result plunges into a state of panic and anxiety where they don’t even seem like they are in the same room as you even though they are right next to you. You try to communicate with them, ask them what’s wrong, and all they can respond with are cries, panicked sounds, and flailing gestures. Their face could go pale with fright, or they could just get supremely sad, or they could just get really angry and start cursing. It’s unpredictable, and can happen hourly, daily, weekly… you never know.

Flashbacks happen when the mind basically takes the person back to the original experience of trauma. The person can dissociate from the present reality and feel like they are back being assaulted. It’s terrifying. And triggers can cause a flashbacks. A trigger can be as simple as a phrase, smell, location, thought,.. anything really.

After sexual assault, a survivor has to go through the process of learning what their triggers are in order to heal from the incident. This is best done with a licensed therapist, so don’t take on this work. It takes time to learn what one’s triggers are, so being patient and supportive of the survivor is key. When they do have a flashback or panic attack, recognize that in that moment you may not be able to really help them. When the survivor is more conscious of the present, you can direct them in performing coping skills like grounding techniques and rhythmic breathing exercises as long as the survivor is open to it.

Overall, be empathetic toward someone who experiences these triggers, and know that they are not being overly sensitive. They don’t have control over this. This is normal for a trauma survivor. The best thing you can do is just be there to offer love and support, and reassure them that they are safe.

5. (Especially for partners of sexual assault survivors) Understand that your relationship with the survivor will change, and don’t forget to take care of yourself too.

When someone experiences sexual assault, they are injured mentally and perhaps even physically. Just like any injury, there needs to be healing before they can be “themselves” again. However, traumatic experiences have the ability to completely alter a person’s personality. Before the incident, they may have been a “go with the flow” type of person who loved large social events, but after they may develop agoraphobia and never want to leave the safety of their home. Fear may now rule their every decision, and there is no quick fix to get them to be who they were before the assault.

In the world of “parters of survivors with PTSD”, most of the resources are for military wives; I’m sure you can see why. PTSD is so commonly associated with the effects of war; however, people can get PTSD from any source of trauma, even workplace harassment and abuse! When your partner has experienced trauma and has PTSD, they may no longer be able to offer the same level of love and support as they did before the incident because they are in a state of survival and fear. They are the one who needs help. What can happen is the partner of the survivor either falls into a caretaking role; the relationship dynamic is altered.

When one is a caretaker, it can be emotionally draining, overwhelming, and traumatizing itself as you witness the unfolding of the symptoms of your partner, as well as deal with the grief and cognitive dissonance that your partner has changed and your relationship has changed. Online I found many resources that described symptoms military wives face: emotional outbursts like crying fits, extreme fatigue and exhaustion, as well as secondary PTSD or complex PTSD (c-PTSD). The same thing can happen to anyone close to a person with PTSD, including a sexual assault survivor.

While you may not be the survivor of sexual assault, know that you are also a victim in this and allowed to feel all the feels you may have by witnessing the resulting trauma. Seek your own supportive community and resources to help you in your caretaking role. Be sure to fill your own cup, feed your own soul, and take care of yourself, or else you may end up needing more help than the survivor.

Well, I made it through writing all that and I am proud that I was able to because I seriously hope this helps someone. While there are so many resources on sexual assault out there, there is so much lacking for support at the same time: the inability of law enforcement to catch criminals, the high cost of hiring lawyers, the lack of affordable and quality therapy, the limited resources and information for partners and loved ones of survivors, the absence of discussions of male rape which contributes toward shaming male survivors, the taboo nature of sexual assault in society in general, and much more.

I want to end with:

Believe survivors, and be aware that if you don’t know of a single person who has been sexually assaulted, you may need to be concerned as to why people don’t feel comfortable coming to you for love and support. You likely know at least one survivor of sexual assault, even if they have not shared that with you.

And to survivors:

You did not deserve what happened to you, and you are worthy of joy, healing, and love.