By: Pearl Gonzalez, LPC-Associate- HCWC Sexual Assault Counselor
April is both Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Awareness month. The following article is the second article of a four-week series focusing on raising awareness about sexual assault and child abuse. 2 in 5 women and 1 in 5 men will experience a form of sexual abuse/assault in their lifetime and 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. Last year HCWC provided services to 693 victims of sexual assault and responded to area hospitals 1l2 times for Hospital Emergency Advocate Response Team calls.
It can feel overwhelming when someone tells you that they have been sexually assaulted. You want to respond appropriately and show your support. Finding the right words may seem impossible and like nothing is enough. This is a normal feeling. This shows that you care. The response to someone who has disclosed their trauma is critical in their healing process. The most important thing is that they can feel supported with your better understanding of what is an appropriate and healthy response.
Listen and Believe: Without Judgment
Someone that has experienced sexual assault often fears not being believed. Do not assume that they know you believe them, vocalize it. Tell them, “I believe you”. Questioning them or digging for answers only pushes them to feel more shame and guilt.
You may feel the need to reassure them by saying “everything will be okay”. It is best to avoid making promises. Instead try saying, “I’m sorry this happened to you” or “How can I be helpful?”.
Victim Blaming Invalidates Trauma
A sexual assault cannot be justified. Reminding them that they are not to blame for the sexual assault is important. Survivors typically face shame and guilt. What they need is support as they try to process their own experience.
Avoid ‘why’ questions. Reassure them that it was not their fault. It does not matter if they were drinking, what they were wearing, or if they did not fight back. No one deserves to be raped.
Anyone Can Experience Sexual Assault
Sexual assault can happen to a college woman, but it can also happen to a college man, adult woman, adult man, a person who is transgender, an elder, etc. Sexual assault does not discriminate. There is not just one type of person who is vulnerable to sexual assault.
Give Support Not Advice
The most important part of a person’s healing is feeling supported. Allow them to make decisions for themselves. Remind them that any decision they make is supported. This can give them a sense of control.
Be an open listener when they want to talk. If they decide not to talk, let them know you are there to listen when they are ready to talk. Do not question them about what happened. Let them tell you what they are comfortable sharing. When they decide to speak, do not assume they are looking for advice. Sometimes people just need to be heard and supported.
Let the person disclosing their assault set the pace. Avoid bringing up the traumatic experience yourself. Do not assume they are willing to talk about their trauma because they have disclosed parts of it. It is important not to pressure them into a discussion. Though people often show support by giving physical contact it is important to give them the space they need.
People who have experienced sexual assault feel that their ability to have control of their lives has been violated. They feel a loss of control. Give power back to them by letting them know they are safe. An important part of the healing process involves them feeling empowered to make their own decisions.
Take Care of Yourself
Hearing that a loved one has been sexually assaulted can be emotionally overwhelming. While creating a safe space for them you might find yourself being triggered by their experience. It is normal to feel that you are unable to emotionally support someone. You may find that your own personal experience is resurfacing. Sexual assault is a traumatic experience for not only the victim but loved ones who want to keep them safe. Simply telling them, “I believe you”, “you have my support”, “it is not your fault”. Is more than enough.
Throughout the month of April, in addition to this article series, HCWC will be sharing content across all our social media platforms as well as hosting online events. We encourage our allies to participate and share our message with their friends and relatives to LISTEN without judgment, BELIEVE without prejudice, and SUPPORT our neighbors that have suffered abuse. Please keep Thursday, April 22nd on your calendar as we release a new video highlighting our hospital response program. HEARTeam Advocates respond to the hospital in cases of family violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and child abuse in addition to providing support and information to the victim, advocates are also there to support the victim’s family.