No one expects to have to navigate the path of survivorship. No one expects to have to navigate alongside a survivor, either. I know I certainly didn’t, but 2 years and 8 months ago, I had to relearn how to navigate life, to restructure my worldviews and narratives to incorporate a story that never should have happened to me. It’s a story that never should happen to anyone, but there are amazingly, tragically high numbers of survivors, especially among certain demographics. I’ve written extensively in prose and poetry/creative writing pieces about my experience as a survivor who went through the legal system and didn’t receive justice through it, but has found other ways to a (slain, but still standing) sense of peace.
But this isn’t about my story today. It’s about people you love. They need you. How can you be there for them when they’re in the midst of searing pain? I have some ideas for you. My biggest theme? Follow their lead, no matter where it goes or how hard it may be. Showing up and maybe saying or doing the wrong thing is far better than not showing up at all.
Things that are up to survivors, this month and every month:
- Whether or not to disclose their story to you. If they tell you that they were assaulted and/or disclose any details of their story to you, they trust you deeply. They also trust you not to tell anyone unless they explicitly ask you to.
- Whether to use the term “victim” or “survivor” when describing themselves. “Victim” tends to be a legal term, whereas “survivor” tends to be a term that people move toward throughout their healing processes. I personally prefer the word “survivor”, so I will be using it throughout this post, but that does not mean that people who prefer the term “victim” have less valid narratives.
- Whether or not to report to the police. We live in a society that shames people for not reporting, but oftentimes, rape culture is alive and well within the legal system itself. Police officers often do not have appropriate training for the sensitive issue of sexual assault, and can have a bias against survivors, even though the rate of false reports is only 2% – the same as any other crime. In addition, reporting is not always the safest option, especially for domestic violence victims. It has to be up to the survivor.
- Whether or not to get a rape kit done. Similar reasons to above. Some survivors just want to heal with the help of a therapist or trusted friend/family members and not ever get involved with the reporting process in any shape or form.
- What their healing path will look like. Everyone is unique. In the same sense, so will be their healing path. There is no set timeline and no point at which a survivor’s feelings no longer matter because “it was so long ago.” PTSD is common, occurring in nearly one-third of survivors. There are certain best practices for healing, including therapy, but again, everyone is unique. There is no wrong way to react to being assaulted.
Things that are not up to others:
- Whether the assault could have been prevented. No one ever “asks for it.” Period. End of story. Sexual assault doesn’t discriminate. People of all different gender expressions, races, ages, sexual orientations, physical ability, religions, and appearances are assaulted every day. Also, being drunk or high at the time of the assault doesn’t make it their fault. Once you’re intoxicated, you legally cannot give consent.
[Image description: a close-up of a poster held by a person whose face is concealed by it. Her hands hold the gold sparkly poster, which says in handwritten print, “When you said I was TOO DRUNK, you were RIGHT!” The background of the photo is a dorm at Vanderbilt University. This is a poster of my story.]
- Whether the survivor should forgive the assailant. Forgiveness of the assailant is not ever required, though it has over 100 benefits to physical, emotional, and spiritual health. No one can or should ever pressure someone to forgive. That can damage the process, if the survivor wanted to do it anyway. Every time we make decisions for survivors, we disempower them.
- Whether the survivor’s assault was “serious” enough to merit the hard feelings they experience after. Not all assaults fit the narrative we expect. In fact, most of them don’t.
Things to do/say if someone discloses to you that they were assaulted:
- “I’m deeply sorry that this happened to you. I know that my words can’t take your pain away, but I want you to know that I care about you and will be here to support you.”
- “Your story is safe with me.”
- “You didn’t deserve that. No one does.” Survivors often blame themselves for what happened because our rape culture society teaches people that if you wear outfits that aren’t revealing, protect yourself well enough with common sense and martial arts, and stay away from people who seem dangerous, you won’t be assaulted. These are rape myths that we have been conditioned to believe, and we have to unlearn them. Support your friend through that difficult process.
- “Please let me know how I can support you best during this hard time.”
- Understand that their relationship with physical touch has been altered. Ask before hugging or kissing them or anything else, even if you are their significant other.
- Do not ask for any more details than they are willing to give. They will tell you what they need to tell you.
- Do not ask who the person was. If they do happen to tell you, do not say anything like, “Really? John/Jane Doe seems like such a lovely person!” Assaulters masquerade as completely typical people who you can trust and be open with. It’s an act. Do not fall for it and discount what the survivor says happened to them.
- Love them unconditionally and know that they may be or act inherently different from who they were before. That doesn’t mean that they’re broken. It does mean that they need your support now more than ever.
How to show up for survivors on a societal level:
- Humanize women. Don’t just stand up for survivors because they’re “someone’s daughter, sister, or mother.” They’re people in their own right. Talk about them like that.
- Avoid victim-blaming or slut-shaming talk. Learn about things you should never ask a survivor.
- Learn about consent and how to be an active participant rather than a bystander in dangerous moments.
- Learn about rape culture, an aspect of an unjust society as well as a particular form of bullying, and fight it.
- Stop people who are making rape jokes.
- Don’t spread false notions of accusers being liars. It does not have a higher percentage of false reporting than that seen with any other crime.
- Learn why someone might choose not to report sexual assault.
- Believe survivors unequivocally and tell them you do.
- Share resources such as self-care after rape masterposts
- Volunteer, donate, and protest. Loudly. Some good organizations include:
- Your location domestic violence shelter or rape crisis center
- The Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)
- Futures Without Violence
- Polaris Project
- Children’s Defense Fund
- Distributing Dignity
- Just Detention International (JDI)
- The Network for Victim Recovery of DC (NVRDC), which helped me personally and I owe them everything.
Thank you for reading and wanting to be there for others. May their stories and friendships bless you, and yours, them. Happy Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Trauma leaves its marks heavily and seemingly incorrigibly at first,
making us wonder if anything will ever be the same as it was before.
The answer is no; it won’t be the same.
But I challenge you in your process of healing to think if your life could be even better than it was before.
It is possible,
perhaps even probable.
It seems unlikely at best,
ridiculous or even impossible at worst.
But healing from trauma happens every day.
Not at an even pace, or anything remotely fitting a straight line going ever forward
without stops or bumps in the road,
in the form of tears and triggers and retraumatization and whatever else strikes your poor brain’s fancy,
but have hope and a whole lot of patience with yourself.
You already survived. That was the hardest part. You can survive the recovery, too.
– Encouragement from a trauma survivor, e.f.a.