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O'TOOLE: How to support sexual assault survivors

• Apr 3, 2018 at 4:00 PM

Here we are in April 2018, the first National Sexual Assault Awareness Month since #MeToo spread nationally and internationally last fall. On New Year’s Day, Hollywood celebrities started Time’s Up, an initiative to provide resources and legal help for women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted in the workplace. It advocates for equal pay for women, too.

#MeToo did some marvelous things. First of all, it empowered many sexual assault survivors to speak up. I know from experience that talking about a sexual assault is scary. You’re gruesomely violated. You feel dirty and ugly, and you’re positive no one will believe you, or you’re afraid they’ll be devastated. When is the right time to sit someone down and have that conversation? It’s terrifying.

Seeing so many others tell their stories made it feel a little less scary and a little more safe to speak up.

Second, it made it a little harder for sexual assault to occur. Until now, survivors have mostly remained silent. Now they’re getting the courage to speak up. There’s a better chance than ever before that they’ll be believed. So, perpetrators can no longer expect that their deeds will go ignored and unpunished. They are shaking in their boots.

Some man whined that it’s really hard to be a man right now because of all the sexual harassment allegations. Only if you’re a predator. If you behave yourself, you have nothing to worry about. But if you insist on having sex with other people without their consent, then yes, it might be hard for you to be a man right now, especially if you are a man who doesn’t like prison.

What’s missing from the conversation is how to help a sexual assault survivor when she comes forward. I say “she” because most survivors are women. It happens to men, too, however, and I have known a few who have told me their stories. So, I do not wish to exclude anyone with my pronoun choice, but I’m a woman and I’ve known far more women than men who have experienced sexual violation.

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) advises being as supportive and non-judgmental as you can. Avoid asking “why” questions — “Why did you go there?” or “Why didn’t you scream?” — because they will make the victim feel you are blaming her. The two most important things you can tell her is that you believe her and that she is not at fault for what happened to her. Tell her these things more than once.

Here are some specific phrases RAINN suggests using when someone tells you she was sexually assaulted: “I believe you.” “It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.” “It’s not your fault.” “You didn’t do anything to deserve this.” “You are not alone.” “I’m here to listen or help in any way I can.” “I’m really sorry this happened.” “This shouldn’t have happened to you.” “This must be really tough for you.”

Showing compassion is extremely important. You may feel violated yourself. You may feel hurt, angry, confused and frustrated. Your empathy and support is far more helpful to the survivor than your anger. Get support for yourself if you need it.

The University of Michigan Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center offers this advice: “You can provide information and options for the survivor, but let the survivor make their own decisions. Many survivors feel a deep sense of disempowerment as a result of being violated. Therefore, it is important to help the survivor feel empowered. Instead of taking charge, ask how you can help. Offer to accompany the survivor to seek medical attention or to the police if they so choose. Support the decisions the survivor makes, even if you might not agree with them.”

If a woman chooses to disclose her sexual abuse survival story to you, be respectful of her privacy and confidentiality. She has chosen to tell you because she trusts you. Don’t betray that trust. It would increase the sense of violation she feels from the sexual abuse. It will certainly cause a trust issue in your relationship, as well.

Many survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) much like veterans do. They may have recurring flashbacks and/or upsetting memories. They may feel detached from people and activities that once brought them joy and fulfillment.

Recovery from sexual violence is a process. Each survivor’s process is as unique as she is. There is no timetable, either. No one should expect that, just because a month or six months have gone by, the survivor should be “over it.” She may never be completely “over it,” no matter what. Recovery is possible, but no one should impose time limits or healing strategies on a survivor. She needs to make her own way on the path of recovery.

You can, however, provide a survivor with the phone number for the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800-656-4673; or the URL for the online hotline, which is https://hotline.rainn.org.

Most helpful of all is to speak out against the myths in our culture that women are somehow responsible when they are sexually attacked. Remind everyone you know that consent is like a cup of tea. There’s a wonderful video, “Tea and Consent,” on YouTube to help: https://youtu.be/pZwvrxVavnQ.

— By Kelly O’Toole, Tribune community columnist

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