As a part of the DC Sexual Assault Crisis Response Project team, one thing I see frequently is survivors’ experiences of disclosing their assault to someone for the first time. I have seen some wonderful and beautiful reactions from friends and family of survivors that have been a positive and transformative experience for survivors, but unfortunately more often than not, this is not the case. These initial reactions from loved ones are incredibly important and can have a huge impact on survivors’ healing processes. Our opinions of ourselves and our interpretation of events are greatly shaped by the words and actions of people we love. So when someone is going through traumatic and life changing events, these initial reactions can be game changing.
I can understand how emotional and upsetting it can be to hear that someone you loved has been hurt. I can understand the impulse to rationalize or explain to the survivor how to prevent future assaults, tell them what their next steps should be, or get to the bottom of what happened. But these reactions can be incredibly harmful and have long-lasting effects. It’s important to remember that ultimately the survivor comes first...as hard as this can be for a loved one, it is significantly more painful and traumatic for the survivor. I truly believe that survivors’ friends, family, and partners are coming with the best of intentions and are coming from a place of love and pain that someone they love has been hurt, so I wanted to create some basic steps and suggestions for loved ones of survivors on what to do after a disclosure. I broke it down into three main pieces of advice:
Believe them. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it is actually the most common mistake I see loved ones make. None of us wants to think that someone we love will ever be sexually assaulted. So sometimes, to protect ourselves from that fear and pain, we may try to rationalize what happened. This can lead us to try and explain to the survivor how they may be misremembering things, misinterpreting things, or overreacting. This reaction can be incredibly damaging and painful to the survivor. Coming forward after a sexual assault and talking about it is a huge step for survivors especially when we live in a society that places blame and responsibility on the victim rather than the perpetrator. Going anywhere near the territory of blaming them or questioning their judgement can feed into that cultural belief and cause the survivor to blame themselves even more. You can make it clear to them that you believe them and appreciate that they are telling you about it in the first place by saying something like, “Thank you for telling me about this, I can imagine this was a really hard thing to talk to me about and I’m so glad you did.”
Empower them to make their own decisions. Another common reaction, especially common for parents of survivors, is to create a plan of action for the survivor. This can entail telling them that they need to report, go the hospital, go to therapy, tell their partner/parent/other loved one, or leave their job or school. While this may come from a place of wanting what’s best for a loved one, it in effect robs them of their agency and choice. Because sexual assault is a crime where a perpetrator took away someone’s power and control over their body and choice, it’s critical for survivors’ to have power and control in how they heal and move forward. You can certainly do research on what options are out there for them and offer to give them more information, but don’t force them or pressure them into pursuing those options. You can say something to the effect of “Do you want to talk about any next steps with me?” or “I know a really great resource that I’ve heard can be helpful for people who have been through something similar, do you want me to tell you about it?”
Let them decide what they do or don’t want to talk about with you. It’s common to show care and compassion by asking lots of questions to better understand a loved one’s experience. However, asking lots of questions about someone’s traumatic experience can be re-traumatizing and/or come across as victim blaming. Sometimes describing a sexual assault can cause a survivor to emotionally relive it, sometimes it’s embarrassing or overwhelming to talk about, sometimes it’s emotionally draining to go through it, and sometimes they are happy to be able to talk about it with someone. You don’t know what the case may be, so it’s best to leave that up to the survivor and ask an open ended question like, “Do you want to talk about what happened at all? There’s no pressure but I’m here for you if you do”.
If you are struggling with how to support a loved one in your life who has been sexually assaulted, know that you are not alone and there is help out there for you. Resources like the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network and DC Rape Crisis Center have trained hotline specialists who can talk out the situation with you and help you brainstorm some possible next steps. Remember that person trusts you enough to tell you about something really big and painful in their lives. The fact that they see you as that source of support means that you have the potential to help rebuild trust, safety, and support in their lives after someone took that away from them. The most important thing you can do is believe them, show compassion, and offer support in whatever ways you can, and that in itself can be powerful.