How to Support a Rape Survivor
*Trigger warning: This post mentions rape, sexual assault and trauma.*
April is coming to an end, and with it so is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Raising awareness about sexual assault is so important because it’s such a ubiquitous issue, and disproportionately affects women (although anyone can be a victim). This conversation shouldn’t be relegated to one month out of the year. The media and our culture have been focusing on this topic more as men and women have found their voices again after being victimized. Powerful, venerable men who have lived lives of comfort and praise are finally being held accountable for their actions and the #MeToo and Times Up movement have largely made this possible.
This is such a large, interconnected, and nuanced topic that needs to be understood and I want to write more about sexual assault, trauma, and intimate partner violence in the coming months. Today I would like to address how to support someone who has been through a sexual assault. It’s important to know how to support someone going through this because it’s such an invasive, traumatizing thing to have happen.
And unfortunately, when victims speak out and try to ask for help, they’re often stigmatized, disbelieved, and are themselves blamed for the horrific actions done to them. This can re-traumatize victims, make them question themselves and what happened, and creates a culture of shame and silence. This is why it is so important to know how to be there for someone if they are brave enough to disclose that they’ve been assaulted. I’m going to go through a few of the biggest things you can do to support someone who’s been sexually assaulted and will likely elaborate on these points in future blogs.
Also a quick note
Statistically speaking, women are more likely to be victims than men. And men are more likely to be perpetrators than women. 91% of victims of sexual assault are women and 90% of perpetrators of sexual violence against women are men. Anyone can be a victim or a perpetrator, and that’s important to know, but it’s important to acknowledge that the overwhelming trend is women being assaulted by men. I may use gendered language just for ease of understanding, but it is important to understand anyone can be assaulted. Your story is valid no matter your gender identity, sexuality, etc.
1. Believe Victims
I think this, first and foremost, is the easiest and perhaps most important way to support someone who’s been assaulted. Victims are often met with disbelief and skepticism when they reach out, and this is extremely harmful. If someone is coming to you in this vulnerable place and revealing that they were assaulted, realizing the gravity and bravery of speaking out is so important. If you express disbelief in a victim, you may be shutting them off from speaking about it again. If someone has the courage to speak out about being assaulted, they should be listened to, really listened to, and believed. Don’t speak over a victim. Don’t ask irrelevant questions (we’ll get to that soon). Don’t force a victim back into their shell of silence and shame after reaching out.
Example of a beneficial reaction to a sexual assault victim:
“Wow, I’m so sorry that happened to you. Thank you for trusting me enough to open up about that. That must have been really hard and I’m proud of you. What do you need right now? What can I do to best support you through this?”
Example of a detrimental reaction to a sexual assault victim:
“Are you really sure about what happened? That doesn’t seem like him at all; he’s always been a nice guy. I just can’t believe he would do that. Maybe you were just too drunk or something, and you were wearing that dress. He probably didn’t know you didn’t want it and now you regret it.”
2. Establish Safety and Medical Attention
If someone tells you about an assault that happened recently, it is imperative to make sure first and foremost that the victim is safe and if they need medical attention. Checking with the victim's feelings and being there for them to talk to is super important, but physical safety should be established first before anything else.
Questions to ask:
Do you feel safe right now?
Are you in a safe space right now? (if you’re talking on the phone or texting)
Do you need medical attention?
What can I do to help you feel safe right now?
Are you hurt?
Despite common belief, most victims know their attacker. And their attackers are often people they love and trust, people they are close to. If this is the case, they may see their attacker. They could be a friend, a significant other, a classmate, someone who lives in your residence hall. In these cases, checking that the victim feels safe is extremely important.
When it comes to medical attention, victims may have been physically assaulted too. Intimate partner violence and sexual assault are different sides of the same coin. Victims may also want to get a SAFE (Sexual Assault Forensic Exam) Kit done or start PEP (HIV post-exposure prophylaxis) which are both time sensitive. So it’s important that victims know their options, whether they want to report or not, and let them make their own decision. Victims may also need to get a pregnancy test or get tested for STIs, and being there for victims during this can be extremely helpful.
3. Don’t Defend the Perpetrator’s Actions
Rapists often don’t look like scary old men hiding in white vans or behind bushes. Rapists are often smiling young men who appear on the surface to be great people. It can be hard to reconcile how a person appears and the horrible actions people are capable of. Understand that people are multifaceted and that people who may appear the most well put together might have the most hidden under the surface. In many sexual assault cases, the perpetrator is sympathized with. Rapists are college students, athletes, sons, daughters. It’s easy to look at assaulters and shake your head in shame and feel sorry for them and their families.
Rapists get kicked out of colleges, lose scholarships, can no longer play sports or find a job and people think that’s a shame. People say things like, “What a waste. He was so talented. He had his whole life in front of him.” Maybe he should have thought about it before he violated a human being who also has had her life irrevocably changed. People don’t sympathize with sadistic murderers, so why do violent rapists get a pass? Why do we feel sorry for them and not the victim?
4. Don’t Victim Blame
Victim blaming puts the onus of the assault on the victim's shoulders. Instead of blaming the assaulter for raping someone, it is the victim's fault. Maybe she was drunk, maybe she was wearing revealing clothing, maybe she was being flirty, maybe they’re in a relationship and he felt entitled to sex. I’m not saying that women and men shouldn’t take preventative measures to protect themselves. In a perfect world, I would be able to walk around at night by myself without a rape whistle on me and feel perfectly fine. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world and as a woman, I feel the fear of being assaulted. Women should know the risks and protect themselves as best they can, but that’s not to say that it’s ever a woman’s fault for being assaulted.
If someone walks around driving a Tesla and wearing Rolex watches, we wouldn’t blame that person if they were robbed. So why are women responsible for someone else's horrible actions based on the way they’re dressed? The only person responsible for invading someone else’s space and hurting them is the assaulter. Blaming the victim only serves to damage the victim after they were already violated.
Victims of sexual assault deserve better than how they’ve historically been treated. So many brave and amazing men and women are reclaiming their stories and their voices and are speaking out about their experiences. We shouldn’t overlook this. We can all do better, and that includes me. I’m not perfect and I’m still learning. Having someone disclose a sexual assault is a heavy thing, and in supporting someone else, it’s also important to look out for yourself and your own mental health too. You should not be solely responsible for someone in crisis and please, please reach out for help if you need it. And if you’re a survivor, know that your story is valued and that you did not deserve what happened to you in any way.
Image credit: safe.unc.edu