A collaborative effort by Kristine Irwin and Nikki Wolvert-Feller.
Regardless of how advanced our society has become, rape hasn’t become a subject that is easily discussed in public. And while sexual assault is often used for its broader definition and to lessen triggers, media outlets have often times substituted sexual assault when rape was clearly what occurred. Others will refuse to spell it out, instead writing it the way foul language is often expressed ( r**e ) and letting the reader fill in the rest. Now imagine being a victim of the one crime that the media deems so atrocious it refuses to even name it. How does one find the path from victim to survivor when it is littered with articles that have been prettied up to prevent society from being uncomfortable?
The path starts with the friends and loved ones willing to walk it with us. It can be difficult to know what exactly to say or not to say. Know that if they are talking to you, they trust you and feel safe with you and that is their first step. To help, we’re offering these guidelines to help you navigate the bumpy road ahead:
- Never ask ‘why’.
Why were you there? Why did you choose that outfit? Why did you go out with him? Why did you drink so much?
While you may just be trying to get the context of what happened, these imply there was something that the survivor could have done to prevent it and, in turn, puts the blame on them. The only one that could have prevented it is the one that perpetrated it. The victim of rape, sexual assault, or sexual abuse is NEVER to blame.
- Never question their decision to report or not report.
While I would encourage a victim to go the hospital and to report, understand that this is their choice and their’s alone. You may not understand it, but you do not get to try and convince them or guilt them into doing this. If they have chosen to talk to law enforcement, ask if they would like you to go with them. Respect their decision to go alone (or not go at all) if that is what they want.
- Never force them talk.
If they stop talking about it, let them know that you will listen if that’s what they need or want to do. If they choose silence, be willing to sit and be silent with them. For some, your presence may be more healing than your words.
- Never minimize their trauma.
After hearing their story, avoid pointing out how much worse it could have been or telling them about others you may know who have experienced worse. And NEVER tell them they should be “over it” by a certain time. Trauma is trauma. There are no rules. Each person is different and must find their own way to survive (and hopefully thrive).
- Never tell them God let it happen for a reason.
Don’t console a survivor by telling them that God allowed this to happen or that there was a reason for it to have happened. The only person responsible is the one who did it. The only reason it happened is because the one who did it chose to do it.
(This is not to say that some don’t later feel as if their assault, rape, and/or abuse acted as a catalyst in shaping their personality, life style, or passions. In fact, four of Still Standing’s team members feel this way. However, sometimes life just happens to be a kid with a magnifying glass.)
- Say “I believe you.”
While there isn’t one “perfect” thing to say, this may be one of the most important. It can be terrifying for victims to come forward. The shame they may feel and the fear of being blamed can be crippling. As their confidant, it is critical they know they are believed. Repeat it often. A hint of doubt could cause them to pull away and retreat into themselves. This could have devastating results.
- Say “It’s not your fault.”
Unlike victims of other crimes, sexual assault survivors often feel like they could have prevented what happened, especially if the perpetrator was someone they know. Mainstream media, the criminal justice system, other commentators, and today’s society reinforce that idea. We MUST change the conversation. Reassure your friend or loved one that they have no blame. Again, repeat this often.
- Say “I’m here for you – always.”
Healing isn’t a straight line and it isn’t measured in time (in fact, it looks more like an endless asymmetrical spiral). Understand that recovery is a process and comes with good and bad days. Don’t see the bad days as steps backwards, they are merely part of the process. Encourage your friend or loved one not to shame themselves for not being “healed by now”.
- Take care of yourself.
Finding out someone you love has been violated in the most egregious way can be devastating. There can be feelings of anger that it happened, fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, guilt because you couldn’t protect them, and even guilt because you struggle with hearing the details. These are all natural reactions. Make sure you are taking time for yourself to regroup. (We also recommend doing some research on vicarious trauma.)
- Love them!
This is as important as believing your friend or loved one. Loving them through their journey to healing is imperative. Know that for most survivors, their lives as they knew them may be over (not inherently ruined, but definitely altered). Trauma changes people and some side effects can last a lifetime – panic attacks, fear of being in crowded places, and periods of time when they don’t want to socialize, among others. Understand that finding their new “normal” is all part of their journey and let them know that you will embrace it with them.
What do you think of our list? Do you have anything to add? Let us know in the comments!