People often ask about the long term impact of child sexual abuse, adolescent and adult sexual assault. Many who ask already have an expectation of the answer that they will receive – that betrayal causes trauma, victim self-blame has long lasting effect, and that fear and terror leave a life-long imprint. One of the answers that seems to come as a surprise, however, is the incredible trauma and pain that can be caused by the people who love and care for the survivor most.
In our support groups, much time is spent processing the pain caused by people that the survivor went to for support. These are parents, relations, partners, lovers, siblings, friends and caseworkers. Relating the distress felt when their pain is invalidated (“it’s not like he had a weapon or anything”); ignored (“this happened seven months ago, why are you still dwelling on it?”); blamed, (“why didn’t you have your door locked?”) and shamed (“you must have done something to cause this, or there must be something about you that attracted this rapist.”)
There are two crucial issues about how you as friends and loved ones react and relate to survivors of child, adolescent or adult sexual assault. The first issue is your response to the assault, this has a tremendous impact — positive or negative, on survivors.
You will add to survivor’s pain and trauma if you:
- make statements that question their experience
- invalidate their pain and suffering
- get impatient if they don’t immediately “recover”
- hold them responsible for both their actions and the actions of the rapist/molester and/or
- blame/shame them for having been targeted for sexual abuse or assault in the first place
To support survivors of sexual assault:
- Believe what they tell you, and let them know that you believe them.
- Never blame the survivor for the assault.
- Listen when they talk and make them feel comfortable when expressing feelings.
- Validate their feelings. Reassure them that what they did to survive was right for them.
- Let them know the importance of getting medical attention. Support them in this.
- Do not be judgmental. Counteract self-blaming statements.
- Don’t interrogate them—you are not investigators.
- Validate their experience and their feelings.
- Let them talk about it when they want to, and not when they don’t.
- Support the decisions they make around reporting or not reporting.
- Recognize their right to talk about the sexual assault whenever needed.
- Get support for yourself when you need it from a sexual assault or rape crisis hotline.
- Don’t do it all yourself. Help the survivor build a strong support network.
The second issue is that friends/families/loved ones often lose sight of who was responsible for the abuse or assault. Remember, there is no such thing as a “rape-able offense.” There is no behavior on this planet that has as a natural consequence of someone molesting or abusing you. Rape and sexual abuse are behaviors that occur without consent.
Let me share a reframing technique we use in support groups for survivors. When survivors get stuck in the idea that somehow, something they did caused the rape or molestation, we do a flip-flop exercise. For example, if a hitchhiker is raped, a common response by the victim and others alike is, “well, what do you expect?” as if somehow rape is an acceptable consequence for hitchhiking. Put yourself in the place of the driver—do you believe that because this person wanted a ride from you, that raping them (using force, coercion or threats to compel sexual contact or gratification) is a response you would have? No? Why not? Because you are not a rapist.
For a rape or molestation to occur there must be a sex offender or a rapist.
If you were socializing with friends and acquaintances and found yourself upstairs alone with one of them, would you think to yourself, “oh, wow, this person is vulnerable, let me force myself on him/her?” No. Because it takes a rapist to make a rape.
Is there a situation in which you would force or coerce someone into having sexual contact with you? You quickly realize that no matter what someone wore, what they said to you, whether they were drunk, hitchhiking or belonged to a nudist colony, you would not find rape or any type of sexual assault a reasonable response to someone else’s behavior, whatever it may be.
Therefore, understanding that we are responsible for our own actions—but not those of other people—is crucial to the understanding of sexual assault. We can add to the support of survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault by validating their experience and their pain, not by second guessing choices they have made.
How Are You Feeling?
Sexual assault is a traumatic experience that effects the survivor as well as friends, family and partners. Family members and close friends often share feelings of the trauma, guilt, and powerlessness felt by the survivor. It is important to understand and cope with your own emotions while supporting the survivor.
You must recognize and accept your feelings before you can be of support to the survivor. You may be feeling anger, pain, shame, guilt and confusion. Some common reactions are to want to smother the survivor with affection, to be over protective, or to want to do everything for her or him. In trying to help you may be taking away his or her power to make decisions for him/herself. After the assault survivors may not want to be touched or held, respect their boundaries and realize that they may need time by themselves. Remember that you can not always protect them and you cannot make them safe by locking them up. Survivors need to know that you are there to support them in any way they need.
It is common to feel rage towards the offender, you may even want revenge. You may also be carrying feelings of guilt for not being able to protect them. It is important to find support for yourself without burdening the survivor. If all of your energy is spent plotting revenge, or pacing in anger, there will be nothing left to give to the survivor.
It is important that the survivor realizes that.
No One Deserves to Be Sexually Assaulted
People may make decisions that leave them more vulnerable for sexual assault, but they are never responsible for the actions of another person. A rapist makes a conscious decision to sexually assault and he/she must be held responsible for his/her actions.