9 Realistic Expectations About Sexual Assault You Need to Know to Support a Survivor
Updated: Apr 1, 2020
There’s a common saying among folks who are experienced in supporting sexual assault survivors:
“If you don’t know someone who has experienced sexual assault it’s because no one trusts you enough to tell you.”
While this isn’t an absolute rule (there are plenty of reasons people don’t talk about their sexual assaults), when we look at the statistics there’s little doubt that you’ve interacted with dozens or even hundreds of assault survivors in your lifetime.
When and if you find yourself supporting a survivor of sexual assault there are a couple realistic expectations that you should have about the process, a couple of things you should definitely do, and a couple of things you definitely shouldn’t do.
1) Healing from sexual violence is a process that happens over time. There are no quick fixes.
2) Healing can be a huge undertaking that often involves taking some steps forward and then a few steps back.
3) Moving through the healing process is the responsibility of the survivor.
Assault is something that is done to us. Healing is something we have to do for ourselves.
4) Clearing the healing path of roadblocks whenever possible is the responsibility of supporters.
You can provide transportation, help financially with therapy or doctor appointments, offer meals, childcare, advocate and speak out against those that victim blame, just hang out if they need someone trusted in the room, etc...
Working with a skilled trauma therapist can also be invaluable for a survivor.
And, sometimes supporters benefit from therapy to work through the impact their loved one's assault has had on them. Secondary Trauma is very real.
5) Supporters can’t do the healing work for their loved one, but they can help connect to resources, build community, offer safety, and be someone who continues to believe in a survivor’s ability to heal, even when they don’t believe it themselves.
6) The healing process can often make things seem worse before they get better (this can be especially true for folks working to heal from an assault long ago).
7) No part of life is immune from the impacts of sexual assault. Survivors can potentially struggle with self-care, household chores, school, work, childcare, connecting to family, being with friends, regulating their emotions, sleeping, eating, having sex (even with a trusted partner), feeling self-worth and confidence, etc..
8) Reporting the assault to the police can often be re-traumatizing. Police departments nationwide are getting more training on how to respond to sexual assaults, but there’s still miles to go.
Police are trained to make inquiries in to peoples’ stories. To look for holes in the story and get to the truth. This can and often does look and feel like victim blaming.
Police are not immune from harmful social narratives that center survivors as the cause of sexual assaults (think… “what were you wearing, why were you talking to him, etc…)
9) Sexual Assault Nursing Examinations (often called SANE exams, and popularly referred to as “rape kits”) occur if someone goes to seek medical attention following an assault. SANE exams are performed by highly trained and compassionate SANE Nurses. And, the exam is also a very thorough process.
It requires getting a full detailed account of what happened,
a full physical exam,
taking pictures of any injuries,
and, attempting to retrieve DNA evidence from anywhere on or within the body.
What to do
If you’re supporting someone in their process of healing from sexual assault, it’s incredibly important and valuable that you hold realistic expectations about the process.
It’s important that you believe your loved one.
It’s important that you support them when you can while always remembering that you need to take care of yourself first.
It’s important that you let them know how much you loved them, how much your opinion of them hasn’t changed, and how willing you are to be there for them.
What not to do
If you’re supporting a loved one, it’s incredibly important that you avoid blaming or insinuating that the assault was their fault.
It’s important that you keep checking in with them even if everything seems back to normal (it isn’t).
It’s important that you don’t pressure them in to doing any particular healing practice. Your loved one needs to regain the agency stolen from them during their assault. Being pressured by you only strips away more agency.
If you or a loved one is working to move through a process of healing from sexual assault I strongly encourage you to find more support. It can be through a survivor group, a therapist, a spiritual community, or even an activist organization, but connecting with others is so very important. Isolation breeds shame, and shame breeds dis-ease.
Today is the perfect day to begin reaching out for support.
Always remember two things: Healing Is Possible, And It’s When We’re In Connection With Others That We Thrive.
Hudson Wilkins, MA, LPCC, EMDR, IFS. Hudson is a nature and mindfulness based trauma therapist inFort Collins, CO. He operates a private practice with a specialty in supporting folks who have experienced sexual violence first hand, and those that love them to heal and rebalance their lives.