The recovery process experienced by a survivor of sexual assault is significantly impacted by the reaction that he or she gets when disclosing what occurred, potentially advancing or delaying essential rehabilitative steps depending on the response received. It is definitely not without good reason that so many survivors keep the abuse that they suffered a closely held secret. Sadly, accompanying the shame associated with sexual abuse is a deep fear of the public reaction to disclosure, especially regarding angry victim blaming, ridicule, doubt or outright denial of the accusations.
We are aware that it is incredibly difficult to truly listen to a survivor’s experience of abuse, especially when the person sharing is someone that we care about. Oftentimes the story is surprising, frightening, frustrating or even annoying. It can give rise to feelings of helplessness or alternatively a deep desire to help the survivor in any way possible.
Years of experience in this field has taught us that there are effective methods that we can employ to help support the women and men who have suffered this heinous form of abuse. The fundamental principles for aiding survivors of sexual assault are: validating the experience, recognizing the harm that has occurred, clarifying needs, restoring control, maintaining a judgment-free approach, providing relevant information and making sources of support available.
While each case is different, we have found that it is essential to offer assistance and support not only to the survivor, but also to help those who are connected with the survivor, such as family members or friends, as well.
Principles of Assistance During the Disclosure Process
Advisable Actions to Take/Things to Do:
- Active listening- Open yourself up to really listening and concentrating on what the survivor tells you. Try to minimize questions that interrupt the flow of her/his story and allow silence to occur naturally rather than trying to fill quiet moments.
- Demonstrate empathy and build trust- Make it clear to the survivor that you believe what she/he has said and that you are very sorry to hear about what happened to her/him.
- Validation- Often sexual assault brings up feelings of self-doubt and confusion for survivors regarding their experience. If the survivor begins to doubt her/his interpretation of severity of the situation, or attempts to minimize it, it is important to note that what happened was indeed serious and unacceptable- she/he was not exaggerating or imagining.
- Normalization- Oftentimes survivors feel a strong sense of guilt about how they reacted at the time of the assault. It is therefore crucial to ensure that she/he understands that all responses are legitimate in such a situation. She/he is not abnormal, but rather she/he was acting normally within the context of an abnormal state (This is especially critical to note when the survivor reacted by ‘freezing’- a very common response to trauma, which often causes feelings of self-blame). Emphasize that one can never be prepared or know how to react in under such circumstances and that there is every reason to assume that the survivor did everything within her/his power to do at the time.
- Understand the situation and gather missing information: If the survivor did not share the following details it is important to try and determine if the abuse is ongoing. Are we discussing abuse that is currently happening or recently occurred? Alternatively, is it a past event that has not reoccurred? Is the perpetrator someone that the survivor knows or part of her/his daily life? Is there a need for medical treatment following the assault?
- Needs assessment: It is crucial that you understand the needs of the applicant- such as why she/he chose to tell her/his story and what aid she/he feels will aid the situation. Make sure to customize the crisis assistance to the stated needs rather than trying to guess at or determine independently what will best help her/him.
- Provide information: Supply the survivor with information based on the needs expressed in the crisis assistance conversation (for example: legal rights, treatment options, etc.). If you are unsure about any information that has been requested make sure to turn to well-informed resources that can give the necessary information rather than guessing at or inaccurately sharing as it could cause damage to the survivor at a delicate time when she/he is seeking support.
- Restore a sense of control: Remember that sexual assault entails a total and destructive loss of control. For this reason it is vital that the crisis assistance process gives the survivor as strong a sense of control as possible. Achieve this by presenting the variety of options available and then leaving the decision making to the survivor. Whatever steps are taken in the crisis assistance process, it is essential that the survivor be constantly involved and updated- no steps should ever be taken on her/his behalf without clear consultation and consent. Additionally, it is critical that the survivor know what you will do with the story you have heard- that confidentiality will always be maintained and that she/he is safe to share in whatever manner is best for her/him.
- Reinforce and bolster: The moment when one discloses the assault is particularly frightening. Make it clear to the survivor that you are aware that sharing her/his story is unimaginably hard. Note how incredibly strong she/he is for turning to crisis support and opening up about her experience.
- Clarify support resources: Find out who the survivor is turning to or can turn to for support. Who will be present to aid her/him during the immediate crisis period as well as during the longer term healing process? Discover in detail who exactly these resources are so that they can receive the necessary support along with the survivor.
- Review, confirm and prepare: Toward the end of the conversation, make sure that the survivor fully understands what is going to happen next and double-check that the steps that she/he agreed to take earlier in the conversation are indeed still in accordance with her/his wishes.
- Leave an opening for future conversations: Clearly state to the survivor that you and your fellow volunteers and/or professionals are there for her/him whenever she/he wishes to turn to you.
Inadvisable Actions to Take/Things Best to Avoid:
- Avoid judgment and blame: Regardless of the circumstances and no matter how angry the story causes you to be, it is critical that you refrain from blaming the survivor for what happened. Please withhold any judgement regarding her/his response to the assault.
- Avoid retroactive advice or questioning regarding what occurred: Questions such as “Why didn’t you do X?" - statements such as "You should have done X…”- or well-intentioned questions such as "Why didn’t you come to me sooner?” increase the sense of guilt and shame instead of being constructive or supportive for survivors.
- Avoid underestimating the severity of the case: Do not minimize or try to undo what happened. Even if you personally believe that it is better not to "make an issue out of it”, please realize that an “issue” already exists and that such a response will only lead to more harm than good.
- Avoid exerting pressure: Even if you do not agree with the wishes of the survivor, try to avoid any form of pressure as much as possible. In cases where there is no choice (for example, in a situation where mandatory reporting is involved such as with a minor), always clarify your exact obligation and try your hardest to act in a way that is in accordance with the survivor’s wishes as much as you can.
- Avoid taking action on behalf of the survivor: Coping with and healing from sexual violence can be a long process. Do not assume that because things are not moving at the pace that you believe it should that you should therefore take action. It is crucial that you not violate her/his trust by going behind her/his back to push the case forward. Rather, always leave control in the survivor’s hands.
- Avoid preaching and teaching: The disclosure process is a stressful enough. There is no reason to add to that stress by encouraging the survivor to “learn” from what happened. Such attempts at “education” will only amplify feelings of guilt rather than bring about any positive change in the future. Even if there is actually a means of gaining some constructive insight that could be useful for the survivor in the future this is not the time to discuss it. Please wait to share until a later stage wherein the assault has already been better processed through treatment and a strong bond of trust between you has already been established.
Long-Term Accompaniment and Assistance
Coping with sexual violence in any of its forms is a lengthy process that includes many ups and downs. While disclosing the assault is a decisive step forward in dealing with the abuse it does not erase the pain or fallout connected with the assault. Sometimes it will even lead to the development of new difficulties.
Below are some key things you should be aware of regarding continuing longer term accompaniment and support of sexual violence survivors:
- Sexual assault is a traumatic event that leaves marks both visible and invisible. Unfortunately, there is no magic solution that lifts away the pain and difficulty associated with coping with sexual trauma.
- Being involved with accompanying and supporting survivors can be frustrating, overwhelming and anger inducing. It can mean costs to your own mental health and wellbeing. For this reason it is imperative to ensure that you are receiving support from qualified and experienced entities rather than attempting to dealing with the situation alone.
- Remember that every survivor differs in her/his pace and manner of coping. Moreover, realize that such factors are rarely within our control. An effective support person is patient, attentive to the unique needs of the survivor, does not push or give up in the face of setbacks/frustration.
- Be aware of your limits. Help as much as possible, while being cognizant of your own level of emotional burnout. Take breathing room when you feel drained in order to preserve your own emotional wellbeing- someone else will stand in for you. Do not take on responsibility beyond what you feel is healthy and within your capability. Turn to the Crisis Center network as necessary for support.
- Constantly readjust the forms and manners in which you are helping a survivor according to her/his needs. Keep in mind that over time needs can change and therefore your assistance needs to change accordingly.
- Maintain a non-judgmental approach at all times, even during periods of crisis and frustrating situations. Remind yourself that the survivor doesn’t enjoy suffering and that she/he is trying as best she/he can to cope with the distress and pain caused by the assault.
- Recall that the person who caused this situation is the perpetrator. He is the one who is to blame for the situation- not the victim and not you.
- If necessary, encourage the survivor to seek appropriate and professional mental health counseling through which the trauma can be processed and her/his mental state and functioning level can improve. Untreated trauma does not simply disappear. Rather, when sublimated it impacts the survivor’s life in other unhealthy manners. It is therefore vital to receive counseling rather than presuming that it will eventually just go away.