Supporting Victims of Sexual Assault
- The Basics in Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault
- Essentials for Helping
- Barriers to getting help
Sexual assault deeply affects survivors, their family, friends, partners, and anyone who cares for them. As a supporter, you have a profound impact on a survivor’s recovery. They are best able to help when they have accurate and non-blaming information on sexual assault and can support the survivor’s choices in her/his healing.
Sexual assault is an act of aggression expressed through force, threats and /or intimidation in which a person is made to engage in sexual activity without their consent. Sexual assault is a general term that is gender neutral, to include many different crimes involving any forced or unwanted sexual conduct. Not only is sexual assault a traumatic event for the survivor, but it is also a serious violation of the university’s student judicial code and Virginia law. Other incidents related to sexual assault, such as stalking or relationship violence, often have the same effects on survivors; these are also crimes under both state law and university policy.
Sexual assault is a traumatic event for the survivor, and it also has a tremendous impact on those offering support to that survivor.
Mason Sexual Assault Services is here to provide confidential crisis intervention and guidance for you and/or the survivor. Many survivors of sexual assault never disclose their experiences for fear of disappointing or upsetting someone. Instead, many survivors struggle through a traumatic experience without asking for help. If someone discloses a sexual assault, it demonstrates a tremendous amount of trust in you. It is essential that you honor that trust and support this person in any way you feel comfortable. Reassure her/him that your love and support are absolute and that you will be there throughout the recovery process.
Following a sexual assault, a survivor faces decisions regarding:
- Seeking medical care
- Reporting the assault to authorities (campus judicial affairs, housing, and/or law enforcement)
- Obtaining emotional and psychological support through formal or informal counseling
- Disclosing the assault to family and friends
These decisions belong to the survivor. That individual must assess his or her own circumstances and preferences to determine what choices are the most appropriate. No one else can or should make these choices for a survivor of sexual assault.
Many victims of sexual assault never disclose their experiences for fear of disappointing or upsetting a parent. Instead, many students struggle through a traumatic experience without asking for help. Your student’s disclosure of sexual assault has demonstrated a tremendous amount of trust in you. Reassure her/him that your love and support are absolute and that you will be there throughout the recovery process.
In some cases, you are not the first person the survivor has told about the assault, or you have not been told until long after the assault. There are many different reasons why the survivor may not have told you right away. For example, a survivor may not tell a best friend because the perpetrator is a friend of his or hers. A survivor may not tell a partner because she/he does not want to be seen as “damaged,” she/he wants to pretend everything is “normal” or she/he may be afraid the partner will accuse her/him of “cheating.” A parent may not be told due to feelings of shame or self-blame, or fear the parents will retaliate against the perpetrator or force the survivor to report to the police.
Helping a sexual assault survivor can be an overwhelming experience. There are several things you can do to provide support during this person’s time of need.
- Listen: Let survivors talk about their feelings and experience, without advising or asking too many questions—especially “why” questions.
- Believe: Assure survivors that you believe them. Many survivors are afraid to seek help for fear they will not be believed.
- Support: Do not make decisions for survivors. Allow them to decide what course of action to take next and support their decisions.
- Identify Resources: Help survivors identify any campus or community sources of support and information.
- Acknowledge your limitations: Realistically identify your abilities to assist survivors. Seek assistance when you know you have reached your limits for helping.
- Take care of yourself: Assisting someone in need can be stressful. Set aside time for yourself and your daily responsibilities so that you don't feel overwhelmed by his or her problems. Get help if you need it - you don’t have to know everything or “do it all. For more information on taking care of yourself, please click here.
(from the University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre)
- The survivor is in no way responsible for the assault or for the decisions she/he made leading up to the assault. Regardless of the clothes she/he was wearing, where she/he was, whether she/he was drinking, knew the perpetrator or not, or fought back or did not, the survivor is never to blame for the assault.
- It is very common for people in terrifying situations to "freeze up" or become too frightened to fight back. There are many ways to say “no” or to show resistance that are often overlooked by supporters.
- Sexual assault is a frightening experience that takes time to recover from. It is a normal part of the recovery process for someone to still be affected by some part of their sexual assault experience years after the assault or abuse.
- Sexual assault is an act of violence. Sexual assault is not consensual sexual activity, and is not “cheating” on one’s partner.
- It is more common for survivors to choose not to report to police than it is for them to report to the police. Some reasons survivors may choose not to report are fear of retaliation, fear of people finding out, fear of not being believed, not wanting to hurt the perpetrator (if known to her/him), or length of the court process.*
*Adapted from If She is Raped. McEvoy, Alan and Brookings, Jeff. Learning Publications Inc. Holmes Beach, Florida. 1991, 1984.
Why Trust is So Important
The vast majority of sexual assaults that take place among college students occur between two people who know each other. This type of sexual assault is often referred to as acquaintance (non-stranger) rape. A sexual assault between individuals who know each another is a violation of the trust a survivor had placed in another person. Whether the assailant was a dating partner, classmate or friend, often, the survivor would never have suspected a friend or acquaintance was capable of such an offense. Because of this, it is often difficult for survivors to trust others or their own judgment.
- Talking about the incident with a professional may prove to be immensely helpful for your student. There are, however, several barriers that often prevent victims from seeking help. It is a good idea to become aware of and understand some of the barriers so that you do not isolate your student with pressure and to seek assistance. Some of the barriers facing your student include:
- Confusion and denial about what happened before and during the assault
- Shame and self-blame—a belief s/he was somehow to blame for the assault, or could have prevented it
- Stigma or discrimination that may occur if s/he reveals the assault
- Anxiety about losing control over anonymity, privacy and personal identity
- Lack of knowledge about his/her legal and civil rights or options
- Fear of retaliation for disclosing the identity of, or taking action against, an assailant
Sexual assault is NEVER the victim’s fault. As a helper, you play an integral role in a victim's recovery, but you cannot “solve” the situation, and no one expects you will. Being patient, supportive and non-judgmental is the greatest help you can provide.