Oftentimes articles speak to the survivor of sexual assault – providing lists and resources of how to move on from the trauma. But to only focus on the survivor leaves a gap in the support system that can hold back someone’s ability to process their trauma.
This is why it is important to put the time and energy into providing everyone with the resources of how to respectfully support a friend or loved one who is a survivor of sexual assault. These people need to know that they will be heard when they speak and that they won’t be forced to make choices.
How to Be A Good Ally to A Sexual Assault Survivor
- Respect Their Choices
Whether this person is your friend, your family, or a sexual/romantic partner, a major objective of being a good support system for them is not to take over their experiences for your own goals. If a survivor comes to you with their story and discloses something that you feel is “wrong” – perhaps they did not report to the police or are not pressing charges, or they have decided to terminate a pregnancy – remember that the choice is theirs and you are in no place to override their wishes.
- Don’t Interrogate
To be human is to be curious, it’s understandable to want the facts of the situation. But there is a time for all the “deets” (when your friend tells you they were asked out on a date) and when your badgering for minutiae sounds like accusations. You aren’t there to take an official statement, you’re there for your friend/loved one. Respect that they may not want to talk to you (just yet or ever) and work on not implying what happened was due to their own actions. It doesn’t really matter who drank what or if someone was on a date – someone ignored your loved one’s refusal to consent.
Listening does not mean hearing the noise from their mouth and just regurgitating empty platitudes every time there’s a gap in the conversation. It may not be easy to hear them talk about what happened because you care for them, that’s understandable. But do not derail to make this about your pain – you are entitled to be upset but you should not guilt your loved one into being ashamed they’ve upset you with their pain. Should the conversation trigger any previous traumas, communicate with your friend but avoid the implications that they should never open up for fear of upsetting people.
- Take Some Time for Self-Care
It is impossible to be completely switched on to “superhero” mode. No matter how much you love your friend/family/partner, it is possible to emotionally burn out from making yourself so available to them while they’re processing their assault. This is why self-care is important (even for the supporters of a survivor) and it can come in many different forms. Some people find the emotional release of crying or screaming diffuses the build up of emotions about what happened. Others turn to physical activities – runners who let their mind wander as their feet hit the pavement and boxers who turn their emotions into energetic punches and kicks. People often make art from their emotions – paintings, sculptures, and poems that symbolize their feelings. Depending on your relationship, you could even share some of these techniques with the survivor – though be aware that what works for one doesn’t not work for all.
- Sexual Assault Is Different to Everyone
Some survivors may want to reach out to authorities or seek professional therapy to deal with their emotions, while others do not. Sexual assault does not affect everyone the same way and so people wanting to support their loved ones need to remember to never try to speak over the survivor or claim to know what’s best for them. Provide them with resources and remind them that you are there for whatever they might need, but do not take away their autonomy and try to control how they deal with this. Think about how your loved one’s circumstances may be affecting how they’re coping and respect that – don’t downplay someone mourning that their first sexual contact was violent or a person’s fear of being pregnant.
Speaking to supporters and loved ones of survivors (and anyone who may find themselves in that role in the future) is important because it plays a part in changing society. The more people who take it upon themselves to respect and advocate for survivors, the better.
It’s all about more people being on the side of the survivor and calling it what it is – a rape, not “a mistake” or “some fun that got out of hand”.