8 ways to help survivors of sexual assault

Stephanie Keith/Getty ImagesBeing there for a survivor is important.
  • April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month (SAAPM), a period dedicated to highlighting the prevalence of sexual assault and educating people on how they can prevent it.
  • INSIDER reached out to representatives from anti-sexual violence organisations to better understand how people can provide support to survivors of sexual assault.
  • We spoke with Erinn Robinson, press secretary for The Rape, Abuse, Incest, National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organisation, and Laura Palumbo, Communications Director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC).
  • Visit INSIDER.com for more stories.

Every 92 seconds, someone in the US is sexually assaulted, according to The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). Research shows that one out of every three women, and one out of every six men will experience this kind of violence in their lifetime. With those facts in mind, it’s very likely that someone you know is a survivor.

Sexual assault is defined as any form of contact where one or more parties does not issue clear, freely given consent. According to RAINN, sexual assault takes many forms and the term itself can refer to unwanted groping, touching, and rape.When a person becomes a victim of these actions, it can significantly impact their mental health, income, education, and relationships. In turn, this can affect families and communities, often for years after the assault occurs. “Whether or not someone you know has disclosed to you if they are a survivor of sexual assault, all of us know someone who has been impacted by this issue,” said Laura Palumbo, communications director at National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC.)

INSIDER spoke with representatives from RAINN and the NSVRC to better understand how people can respond productively when learning about sexual assault, especially if someone you know is a survivor.

Listen without judgment

“Most often, listening in a non-judgmental way without asking questions is the best way to support a survivor,” said Erinn Robinson, press secretary for RAINN, one of the leading anti-sexual violence organisations in the US. It takes a lot of courage for a person to open up about an assault. When someone comes to you with their story, it’s important to remain empathetic in order to validate their experiences.Sometimes, this means remaining silent and allowing survivors to speak freely about their experience without interruption. Robinson explained that asking questions or prying for specific details can make it seem like you’re casting doubt on the victim’s story. In order to be an effective and supportive listener, it’s crucial to give the survivor control of the conversation.She told INSIDER: “Disclosure doesn’t have to mean sharing every detail – it’s the survivor’s decision to tell as little or as much as they’re comfortable with.”If you’re still uncertain about how to react when someone discloses an assault, it’s often a good idea to approach the situation with a less-is-more philosophy. “Simple messages can convey so much support,” added Laura Palumbo, communications director at the NSVRC. “Saying ‘I believe you,’ or, ‘thank you for telling me your story’ can be helpful, along with reaffirming ‘It’s not your fault, you did nothing wrong.’ These [phrases] all show the survivor that you’re there for them, and that’s what they need most.”

Encourage the survivor to check out resources, but avoid pressuring them to take action

It’s important to understand the survivor may not be ready or want to take immediate action in the aftermath of an assault. This can be challenging for some allies, because learning that someone they care about has been hurt can ignite some pretty intense feelings, like anger. However, Robinson says you can still provide the survivor with resources without pressuring them to take any particular action.

For instance, Robinson notes that it can be beneficial for allies to know the contact number for the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline because they can connect survivors with their local rape crisis center.

You can reach them at 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online.rainn.org. It’s important to remember these resources aren’t just for survivors themselves, but people who are affected by the assault.

Another resource you should know is the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-TALK). On that note, it can be beneficial for allies and fellow survivors to learn the warning signs for suicide so that you can reach out for help if you or a survivor in your life is at risk.

Check in with the survivor after learning about the assault

While it may feel cathartic for some survivors to share their story, it is often not the end of their healing process.

“The event may have happened a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean the pain is gone,” Robinson said. “Check in with the survivor to remind them you still care about their well-being and believe their story.”

Robinson also told INSIDER that showing continued support can mean being present for medical appointments or legal reporting if a survivor decides to pursue them. She added that showing up is sometimes enough to signal your solidarity with a victim.

Of course, every survivor’s experience is unique, which means there is no set time length that determines when a person will heal.

It’s important to take care of yourself too

“Good self-care enables you to better care for others, especially if there is someone in your life who has survived sexual violence,” says Robinson. Talking about sexual assault can be an emotionally draining experience for both survivors and advocates. And it turns out it’s possible for a person to experience vicarious trauma when working as an advocate for sexual assault victims. This can take a physical toll on the body by disrupting sleep, appetite, and even causing anxiety.As a result, sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back for a moment and care for yourself so you can be the best supporter for those who need you to be strong.Robinson noted that encouraging survivors to engage in self-care can help them better cope with their sexual assault. According to RAINN, it can help survivors feel comfortable for years after the assault occurs.

Be mindful of your own language – and the language of those around you – when talking about sexual assault

When people make light of sexual assault or question victims’ experiences, it perpetuates the idea that victims have a hand in their assault, rather than the perpetrators. This can cause victims to feel ashamed or believe there’s something wrong with them for not “getting over it” when it comes to their assault, said Robinson.

One huge way people can advocate for survivors is through promoting a culture where sexual assault is always taken seriously, said Palumbo. Some people may defend their off-handed comments about sexual assault as innocent jokes. But when survivors hear their experiences (or experiences similar to their own) being belittled, it can cause them to feel unsupported and unsafe. On top of that, these jokes can normalize acts like rape, which in turn perpetuates a culture that is complacent with sexual assault.Palumbo told INSIDER: “It’s important to keep using our voices to challenge victim-blaming comments, whether it’s something you hear in person, such as an inappropriate comment or a rape joke, or even if it’s something that you see online.”

Although it can be uncomfortable to confront people, Palumbo said that speaking up is necessary in order to help people understand how these behaviours negatively affect victims. She added: “It can be valuable to respond in a way that [shifts] accountability away from the victim and places the responsibility on people who commit sexual assault … Sometimes it’s as simple as saying ‘That’s not OK,’ or telling someone ‘I don’t think that joke is funny.’ Or even saying ‘sexual assault is never a survivor’s fault.’

On the other hand, using supportive language promotes a culture that believes victims, which is critical for promoting a respectful dialogue about sexual assault.Robinson added: “When survivors feel supported in disclosing their own stories, they may become empowered to help others come forward and begin the healing process. The more mindful and empathetic the language, the more survivors may feel comfortable continuing to share their stores with others, which can be an important step toward healing.”

And always be inclusive when sharing information

“It’s important that we’re not always using the pronouns she and her when we talk about assault, because assault also affects men and the LGBTQ community,” said Palumbo. “Since much of the focus has been on for victims who are [cis-gender], heterosexual women and men, the experiences of these other groups can become erased.”Although sexual assault disproportionately affects young women and girls, a focus is often shown on women in opposite-sex partnerships or who identify as heterosexual. But, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women said they have experienced some form of sexual violence.

Men and boys of all sexual identities are also affected. However, due to certain social stigmas, many male survivors do not come forward.

Additionally, people in the transgender community are disproportionately affected by sexual violence. In fact, 47% of transgender people said they have experienced sexual violence, and that number is even higher for trans people of colour, according to the 2015 US transgender survey. “We all can play a role in challenging the misconception that men (and LGBTQ members) can’t be victims,” said Palumbo. “They see so many additional barriers to coming forward.”

Check out the links below for more information on how to advocate for cis-male and LGBTQ survivors:

Give your time to organisations that are committed to helping sexual assault survivors

“In nearly every community, there is a local service provider or rape crisis center that provides support to survivors of sexual assault, and victims of all ages,” said Palumbo.She continued: “They’re often looking for volunteers who can play the role of being trained to take crisis calls from survivors, all the way to [volunteers who can] help them with events and fundraising opportunities.” In addition, you can volunteer at national organisations like The National Sexual Assault Hotline or RAINN.

If you are unable to give your time to activist work or community events, you can still show support for sexual assault victims by giving money to organisations that raise awareness of these issues. Palumbo told INSIDER “Many of these [anti-sexual violence] organisations rely solely on the donations to exist. They are also often times understaffed and underfunded.”

Confront sexual violence when you see it happening

Showing support for survivors can come in the form of protecting people from sexual violence if you see it. While this is often easier said than done, Robinson told INSIDER that using RAINN’s “CARE” method can empower allies and fellow survivors to protect people in situations where an assault may occur.Each letter in the acronym “CARE” stands for a specific action you can take to safely confront sexual assault that happens right before your eyes:

“C – Create a distraction. Do what you can to interrupt the situation. A distraction can give the person at risk a chance to get to a safe place.

A – Ask directly. Talk directly to the person who might be in trouble. Ask questions like, ‘Who did you come here with?’ or ‘Would you like me to stay with you?’

R – Refer to an authority. Sometimes the safest way to intervene is to refer to a neutral party with the authority to change the situation, like a [Resident Assistant] or security guard. Talk to a security guard, bartender, or another employee about your concerns. It’s in their best interest to ensure that their patrons are safe, and they will usually be willing to step in. Don’t hesitate to call 911 if you are concerned for someone else’s safety.

E – Enlist others. It can be intimidating to approach a situation alone. Enlist another person to support you. Ask someone to come with you to approach the person at risk. When it comes to expressing concern, sometimes there is power in numbers. Ask someone to intervene in your place. For example, you could ask someone who knows the person at risk to escort them to the bathroom. Enlist the friend of the person you’re concerned about. ‘Your friend looks like they have had a lot to drink. Can you check on them?'”Remember, everyone can play a role in preventing sexual assault. Always use your own discretion when in these situations, but know that intervening as a bystander can make a huge difference.For more information on how to intervene and protect people from assault, check out RAINN.

If you are a victim of sexual assault, you can visit RAINN or call its hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member.

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