How to Support Survivors of Sexual Assault

October 4, 2018

The impact on sexual assault victims in the wake of the testimony of Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has been vast. As a therapist specializing in the treatment of trauma, I was concerned and prepared to see men and women negatively impacted by this story that is so front and center in the nation's psyche. Instead I witnessed a sense of community empowerment, with many courageously coming forward to tell their stories of abuse on social media, to friends and loved ones. These stories can be difficult for us to hear, but the cycle of violence, particularly against women in Alaska, grows in silence. Giving these stories a voice is crucial in holding perpetrators accountable and allowing victims to heal.


With that in mind, how should we respond to a friend, family or community member when they share with us an abusive experience?


1) Believe Them. It takes deep courage to discuss an assault, and survivors are often fearful they won't be believed. This fear has at times been validated by the media, both in politically controversial cases and otherwise. However, false reporting is rare, and sexual assault in Alaska is three times the national average. Just believe them, tell them you believe them; and let the legal chips fall where they may. 


2) Avoid Judgement. Be careful with the language you choose. Do not ask about details, why they responded in a specific manner, or how they could have prevented the attack. Victims will often feel shame and guilt regarding an assault. It is NEVER a survivor's fault. Instead, express how much you care for them: work to understand the victim's feelings, allow for periods of silence, and let them know you are there for them. 


3) Provide Information. Help the survivor gather information regarding reporting the assault to law enforcement, seeking medical attention, and counseling services. However, respect their decision regarding how they want to respond. It is their decision to make. 


4) Correct Others Misconceptions. Some of the responses to sexual assault disclosures I have witnessed on social media have been less than ideal. Blaming victims' clothing, questioning why they did not report sooner, or making fun of victims through memes are just a few mistakes that do not help anyone. 


Today we have an excellent opportunity to advocate for survivors and be a part of their health and safety. We share more than we realize, including the responsibility to support survivors in this journey. Let's do so by responding to their courage in a healthy and productive way, and gently challenge our community to do the same.


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