One in five women will experience a completed rape in her lifetime; over three quarters of these assaults occur when the victim/survivor is 25 or younger. One in two women will experience a non-rape sexual assault. That makes sexual violence a silent commonality among adult women.
But despite the fact that most of us already know survivors of sexual violence–or are survivors ourselves–it can be hard to know how best to respond when someone discloses an incident of violation. This is partly because these violations occur in a realm that is so deeply personal. It can feel like we are intruding on the survivor’s privacy. It can feel shameful to imagine—or remember–ourselves in a similarly vulnerable or exposed condition. We want to look away.
It is partly because learning of the cruelty people do to one another strains our comprehension. We feel powerless in the face of such evil. And it is partly because our victim-blaming culture provides us few public examples of how to bear witness to survivors.
A growing body of evidence indicates that the way survivors of many types of trauma are received—in the immediate aftermath of an overwhelming event, or in the course of recovery—can have tremendous impact on their resilience and healing. This means that even if we are unable to stop the evil of sexual assault from happening in every case, we can mitigate its effects.
Moreover, every time we talk about violence—every water cooler conversation we have about Ray Rice, Bill Cosby, Steubenville, Penn State—survivors are listening. How we respond impacts people we know and care about. And it impacts our culture’s capacity to honor and support survivors.
It’s important to understand some concrete ways you can help a survivor. If you are helping a survivor in the immediate aftermath of an assault, take steps to calm, normalize, witness and restore:
Calm: Secure a calm environment away from too much attention or exposure. Help the survivor interrupt the physiological responses to trauma, such as hyper-arousal or dissociation. Use a calm, steady voice and call the person by name.
Normalize: When a person experiences any kind of trauma—like a natural disaster, car accident, or assault—it is helpful to hear that their responses are predictable, human reactions to overwhelming stress. You might say, “That would be upsetting to anyone,” or “You are trembling because that’s one way people react when they feel frightened.”
Witness: Jonathan Shay, VA psychiatrist has said, “The human brain codes social recognition, support and attachment as physical safety.” Indicate your belief and affirm that something bad has happened, free of anything that might be construed as blame. You might say:
- I’m sorry that happened.
- That wasn’t your fault.
- You didn’t deserve that.
- You’re safe now.
Restore: Sexual violence is an affront to a person’s agency and dignity. An essential component of healing is restoring a survivor’s sense of control, power and self-efficacy. Practically, this means that she is in the driver’s seat. You can provide information, but let the survivor make her own decisions. Honor her choices.
For more information about how to support survivors, check out the resources at Know Your IX, a survivor-run, student-driven movement to end campus sexual assault.
If you are hearing a disclosure any time:
Know that it’s never too late. There are many reasons why a survivor might wait to disclose a violation. It is never too late to tell the truth of what happened, and it is never too late to hear healing words like “I believe you,” “I’m sorry that happened to you,” and “That was not your fault.”
Know the difference between a friend and a cop. Maybe it’s because we’ve all watched too many cop shows, but sometimes we confuse whether a story is true with whether it can be proven in court. If a survivor decides to pursue justice through the criminal justice system, it will assess evidence, maintain impartiality and determine if the case can be proven. When someone does you the honor of trusting you with her story, you don’t have to go through all this. You can simply believe her and respond with kindness.
If you are hearing about incidents of violence in your community or in the news:
Put blame where it belongs. Statements like, “I can’t believe she stayed!” can have an “othering” effect on victims and survivors. The perpetration of violence, whatever the circumstances, lies outside the norms of our society. Avoid using language or thought that puts the victim outside the norm; consider statements like, “no one deserves to be abused,” or “I can’t believe someone could be so cruel.”
Set an example. When you hear about allegations of sexual violence, set an example of bearing witness to survivors. You could say something like:
- That should not have happened.
- No one deserves to be treated like that.
- It is really brave to speak up about something like this.
- I am so sorry that happened.
- That must have been so hard and scary.
You can do your part to end sexual violence by contributing to a culture that believes survivors and in which it is safe to disclose violation and pursue both justice and healing.
It may seem like you don’t know what to do, or how to help, but you can show up for survivors of sexual violence in a powerful way. Trauma expert Judith Herman has said that–even more than justice– survivors need to know that there is “restorative love” in the world. With courage and some skills, we can be that restorative love for one another.