I believe most people want to help people in need or offer support to others in a difficult time. When it comes to helping people who have experienced sexual trauma, I believe most people’s intentions are good and I want to talk about how someone’s good intentions might actually be perpetuating the trauma that lives on from sexual violence. Throughout this article, I’m going to talk about a culmination of survivor/victim experiences from the lens of personal and volunteer experience and offer takeaways to better support survivors/victims of sexual violence.
In 2019, I spoke to an audience of medical professionals, lawyers, police officers and victim court advocates. The goal of this talk was to share from my personal and volunteer experiences so these professionals could be better allies toward victims of sexual violence:
I am a ‘Survivor’ of sexual abuse. And while that title has merit – being that I did in fact survive something horrific and I’m able to write and talk about it today, I also feel that it has a tone of finality to it. I’m here to tell you that trauma from sexual abuse lives on even after the crime takes place. It doesn’t have to consume us, (although sometimes it can) but it does live on.
One of the most unjust things in life is being harmed sexually, often by someone you know, and having to spend years to repair your life while there is no accountability for the one that sexually harmed you.
I volunteer with one of the nations largest rape crisis centers and have had extensive training around trauma, sexual violence education, and trauma-informed care. Some of my experience includes:
- Face-to-face advocacy – supporting victims in the ER while rape kits were being conducted on them.
- 24/7 hotline support – supporting sexual assault victims from all around the world on a live chat service being a listening ear and offering resources.
- Public speaking & public media – sharing lived experiences to lead change by example.
- Engaging policy makers – to advocate for policy change and funding to benefit victims of sexual violence.
I also belong to a women’s group of sex abuse survivors, am on the Board of a mental health and addiction agency and have the opportunity to interview sex offenders to understand causes behind their criminal behavior along with the effectiveness of their treatment programs.
Over the years, I’ve heard hundreds of sex abuse victim’s stories and supported them in their worst moments. I specifically remember one woman who was raped, pregnant and homeless in the Emergency Room. I was supporting her needs as she prepared to have a rape kit conducted on her by a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) nurse. A couple police came in to make a report and immediately started judging and lecturing this woman asking if she had been smoking marijuana. That was their first response to this woman: judgement. I had to pull the officers aside and tell them, “Now is not the time to lecture her.” I often wondered how they’d treat her if an advocate wasn’t there. It shocks me sometimes the shit people say despite there being another person witnessing their behavior.
While I did sexual assault 24/7 hotline work, numerous victims expressed being raped by police officers along with countless occurrences of police blaming the victim. Other rapes reported were done by bosses, an acquaintance, family members, boyfriends, priests, another college student, babysitters, husbands, women, etc., and occasionally, the “stranger rape”.
80% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. 93% of juvenile rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. – RAINN
An unjust justice system
As I interview registered sex offenders who had physical and/or online victims, I continually learn that they only get slaps on their wrists for their crimes and often never receive jail time.
If there were harsher sentencing for accountability along with funding for consent education and more rehabilitation options for sex crimes, there would be less victims.
The justice system is barely a justice system for victims at all when victims are liars until proven honest while sex offenders and predators are honest until proven guilty.
Victims are liars until proven honest while offenders are honest until proven guilty.
And this incorrect mentality is everywhere – even in systems that are supposedly built to help victims. Victims are often asked why they don’t report sooner. There are myriad reasons: fear that they won’t be believed coupled with the fear that there won’t be accountability from their abuser’s crime. We also see victims blamed for their assaults. And this creates the perfect cocktail to marginalize the victim, minimize the criminal act, and makes people less likely to come forward and report what has happened to them. This question has been asked and answered on numerous occasions, so perhaps we should consider what the barriers are for victims to safely report their assault(s) and abuse.
We see what happens in the comment sections on social media. Too often, the victim is blamed or called a liar and a perpetrator is protected and believed.
There is heavy blaming for what a victim wears, does or doesn’t do. It’s easier to blame a victim than hold someone and a crime they committed more accountable. And that’s the real shame.
People tend to want to hold on to the deep belief that the world is a good and just place. When bad things happen to someone who seems a lot like us, this threatens our belief that the world is a just place.
We think: If that person could fall victim to rape or assault, perhaps I could, too. So, to comfort ourselves in the face of this troubling realization while maintaining our rosy worldview, we psychologically separate ourselves from the victim. Society wonders if he or she had done something to invite the tragedy. These are thinking errors that harm victims.
Trauma is important to understand, and I’m often asked what trauma looks like for a sexual assault victim. It can look like this:
- Someone becoming very promiscuous to not wanting to be touched at all, and everything in between.
- Someone talking about their abuse right away to carrying that abuse to their grave with them never telling a soul, and everything in between.
- A very type-A person who needs to have a sense of knowing and control to someone becoming very care-free, withdrawn and ambivalent to life, and everything in between.
- A successful CEO burying themselves in work to someone using drugs or alcohol to cope, and everything in between.
- Trauma can look like someone unable to regulate their emotions to someone being completely numb of emotion, and everything in between.
- Trauma can come about in nightmares, flashbacks, having fear, anxiety and depression, difficulty trusting people, and having triggers whether it be from sound, a smell, a specific object, or anything that might correlate to one’s specific trauma.
My point here is that trauma affects everyone differently, so it’s important not to put how a victim responds to an assault and compare it to another victim. Don’t put victims in boxes. How victims and survivors respond to trauma is not going to change. So how all of us respond to trauma has to be what changes.
How victims and survivors respond to trauma is not going to change. So how all of us respond to trauma has to be what changes.
What to do if someone discloses their abuse to you
If someone comes to you and tells you they were assaulted, know this: Know that they chose you of all people and they felt safe enough to share something with you knowing you might be their safe haven.
And all you have to do is these 2 simple things:
- Believe them.
It’s a normal human response to want to ask questions to try and understand something that doesn’t make sense in the moment, or crack some code as to why an assault happened, but questioning, especially at a time of disclosing sex abuse can cross that fine line of caring, to feeling attacked or blamed.
And to those who do have to ask questions when a crime is committed (i.e. medical professional, police officer, etc.), know that there is a tactful way to ask questions without coming off as blameful. But it all has to start with listening to and believing the victim.
How you respond, is going to have a huge impact on the trajectory of a victim’s life. You have that power. And you can either choose to help someone or harm someone further depending on how you respond.
Takeaways for supporting survivors of sexual violence
If you want to be a better ally for victims of sexual violence, remember this:
- Victims deserve to have a voice and be heard.
- Everyone responds to trauma differently.
- Victims deserve to be viewed as honest.
- Victims deserve to be believed.
- And victims deserve justice when a crime is committed.
If you or a loved one have experience sexual violence
If you or a loved one has experienced sexual violence, know that there is help available.