By: Magnolia Creek Staff
Maybe she says, “I didn’t want it.” Maybe she doesn’t say anything at all. Maybe she explains that she feels like she had sex last night, but she can’t remember. Maybe he twiddles his thumbs and looks at the floor when he sees you. You can see there is something he wants to tell you, but he is struggling to express the words. Maybe she giggles as she describes what happened. Maybe he states, “It wasn’t that big of a deal.” Maybe she blames herself and attempts to explain it away by saying, “If I hadn’t been drinking…” or “I didn’t actually say no.” Maybe she tells you that he is her husband and he loves her. Maybe she is consciously unaware that being coerced until she gave in and said okay is still sexual assault. Her behavior confirms this, however, as since that interaction, she has engaged in repeated numbing or high risk behaviors, as she has to do something to get away from the increased shame, depression, and anxiety she is experiencing. Just like any other traumatic incident, there are countless reactions sexual violence can generate in survivors. Your response to any of these reactions could drastically influence the rest of a survivor’s healing journey.
Sexual violence is an epidemic in the United States. With 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men statistically becoming victims of sexual violence throughout their lifetimes 1, as a helping professional, family member, and friend you will likely be in a position to make a difference in the recovery of a survivor of sexual violence. The moments, days, months, and years following sexual violence can feel like chaos for survivors and their loved ones. To assist you and your loved ones in navigating some of this chaos, it is important to understand how crucial empowering responses are in the aftermath of sexual violence to support survivors in regaining their feelings of safety and control. Here are some approaches to consider when caring for survivors:
1.Validate their feelings about the experience.
Minimization is common among survivors. When someone else can identify that what happened to a survivor was not okay, it helps reaffirm feelings and thoughts they may otherwise try to discredit or feel shame for experiencing. It can be as simple as, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” Validating confusion also normalizes the drastic variation in emotions survivors may feel simultaneously. A survivor may experience anger, shame, sadness, fear, regret, protectiveness over the perpetrator, and numb sensations all at the same.
“It’s not your fault” may be the four most powerful words you can express to a survivor, as self-blame is a common response in the aftermath of sexual violence. Dr. Brene Brown is a researcher at University of Houston who has written multiple powerful books on navigating shame and the power of vulnerability. You can learn more about her work by watching her TEDx talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability. Dr. Brown explains that blame is defined in the research “as a way of discharging pain and discomfort.” When something hurtful happens, particularly when we don’t have a rational explanation for what happened, we are wired to figure out why this happened so we can try to ensure it doesn’t happen again. When we can’t find a rational reason for why something hurtful happened or when the answer means that we didn’t have control in a situation, we are prone to turn the blame on ourselves. Often, it feels safer to blame ourselves than to acknowledge that something horrible happened to us, or worse, that we did not have control in a situation. Go outside of sexual violence for a second and think about normal responses in the aftermath of losing someone you love. How many of us have blamed ourselves for our loved ones’ deaths, no matter how irrational that may have been? But it was a way to try to gain control in a situation that left us feeling very helpless.
The United States’ society affirms victim blame by asking questions like “What were you wearing?” or “How much did you have to drink?” or “Why did you go home with him?” On top of the self-blame she has already asserted, a survivor’s responsibility in the assault may be questioned by her social circle, her family, the legal system, law enforcement, etc. In all reality, there is nothing anyone can do to deserve to be violated or to “ask for it.” If you can emphasize that in your interactions with your loved one or your client, your voice may reinforce the survivor’s ability to challenge victim blaming thoughts and comments from others while empowering the survivor to continue reaching out for support.
When working with survivors, you are supporting people who have had a significant amount of their power stripped by another person, including the ability to control what happens to their own bodies. Providing survivors with options instead of directing them on what they “should” do empowers survivors to start taking some of their control back. Understanding community support, reporting, and health-related options can be very important in these situations. For example, knowing that a survivor can complete a Sexual Assault Nurse Examination at the hospital within 3-5 days of a sexual assault where they can be screened for injuries, contracted infections, and pregnancy while evidence is collected without needing to file a police report can be helpful in offering a survivor options that can help maintain physical health without needing to initiate legal involvement if that is not something the survivor is interested in at this time.* And ALWAYS ask before you physically touch a survivor: “Would it be okay if I gave you a hug?” or “Would it be helpful if I held your hand through this exam?”
4.Respect a survivor’s decision.
I understand people’s good intentions in wanting to make sure a survivor is physically safe by getting an exam at the hospital or pursuing legal justice; however, your job as a caretaker is simply to provide options and support survivors in pursuing whatever options they decide may be a good fit for them at this time, even if you do not agree. In order for the survivor to regain their feelings of safety, power, and control, they need to be able to make their own decisions about what is best for them.
As an event that can challenge someone’s deepest beliefs about their personal worthiness and lovability, sexual violence has the potential to drastically change how a person lives, loves, and interacts with the world. As a helping professional or a person who loves a survivor, you have the ability to challenge the development of some of these destructive beliefs by empowering survivors to regain their power, develop hope, and recover feelings of safety. Despite the shame, shock, and self-blame survivors experience, you have the capability to help survivors understand that this was never their fault, they have nothing to be ashamed of, and they never have to navigate the aftermath of sexual violence alone.
If you or someone you love has experienced sexual violence and is needing additional support to assist you in reclaiming your freedom, please reach out to our team at Magnolia Creek. We would be honored to walk with you towards the healing you deserve. For questions or support needs, please email Kristin at firstname.lastname@example.org, call our admissions office at 866-318-2329 or complete our contact form.
*If the survivor is under the age of 18 or is part of vulnerable populations included in mandatory reporting requirements for abuse in your state, the option to not report to law enforcement is removed to ensure safety to protect the most vulnerable populations in our communities.*
** If a survivor is going be examined at the hospital, refraining from eating, drinking, brushing teeth, showering, or changing clothes is recommended as they will have the option for evidence to be collected. It does not mean that if survivors do any of those things, the hospital cannot collect evidence, it just may jeopardize some of the evidence that may have existed otherwise.**
1 Dube, S.R., Anda, R.F., Whitfield, C.L., et al. (2005). Long-term consequences of childhood sexual abuse by gender of victim. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 28, 430-438.
2 Brown, B. The Power of Vulnerability. (2010). https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability