Sexual Assault Survivors’ Advice to Service Providers

by Anne P. DePrince, Ph.D.

Sexual assault remains one of the most under-reported crimes, with women tending not to disclose their experiences to formal supports, such as police, doctors, and counselors. As #MeToo broke into public awareness last year, requests for sexual assault services increased. That more survivors are seeking services is good news, particularly given the medical, psychological, legal, and economic burdens women face in the days, months, and years after an assault.

As demand for services increases, it is critically important that we work to ensure services are inclusive of and responsive to diverse survivors. This means listening to what survivors tell us they need, whether they are seeking assistance from counseling and medical offices or law enforcement agencies.

In a new paper led by graduate student researchers from the TSS Group, we integrated advice from 224 women who disclosed a recent sexual assault to a service provider, such as a police officer, doctor, nurse, or counselor (Gagnon, Wright, Srinivas, & DePrince, 2018). This diverse group of women ranged in age from 18 to 60 and came from different social classes and ethnic backgrounds. When asked open-ended questions about advice for service providers, their responses converged on six central issues.

Nearly one in five women recommended that female service providers be available, including female officers. The majority of sexual assault is perpetrated by men, making gender a salient factor as women face the sometimes overwhelming task of describing the intimate ways in which they were violated.

One in five women advised better training for service providers on how to work with survivors, including education about diverse responses to sexual assault. For example, women can vary greatly in whether and how they express emotional distress following an assault. Some women might appear visibly upset and others emotionally shut down. Without knowledge about the range of emotional responses possible, providers may erroneously assume that all victims will be visibly upset and question the accounts of those whose emotions are blunted.

Nearly two-thirds of women advised that providers convey compassion and awareness of trauma consequences. For example, women encouraged providers to be compassionate about the range of emotions that can follow an assault – from shame, guilt, and self-blame to anger, fear, and betrayal. These emotions can be further complicated by the cognitive consequences of trauma, such as memory and attention difficulties. Women encouraged providers to meet these challenges with patience and kindness, and to give women as much control as possible over how interactions proceed.

Almost 40% of women encouraged providers to connect survivors with information and resources. In the aftermath of sexual assault, survivors can have difficulty remembering information and may need to be reminded about resources. Further, survivors’ needs can change over time, which means the resources that are important a few days out from the assault may differ from those that are needed months later. When facing waitlists for services, women need to know their options for other avenues to access information and support.

Forty percent of women urged providers to improve communication with survivors. Clear communication begins with helping survivors understand what services an agency does (and does not) provide. Communication has to continue long beyond that first interaction. Women urged providers to be consistent and persistent in offering updates about the status of their cases, returning their phone calls, and checking in with them. What may seem a short period of time in the life of a provider can feel like an eternity to survivors waiting for news about their cases or services.

More than half of women urged providers to believe and not judge survivors. This simple-sounding advice is complicated by the subtle ways that providers may convey disbelief or judgment – even when they do not intend to do so. One woman told us, “You know, if a woman tells a guy no, then it’s no. And there should be no reason––don’t blame it on the alcohol, don’t blame it on the drugs, don’t blame it on any of that.” Asking about drug and alcohol use, or about a woman’s life circumstances, without explaining why that information is being collected can sound like excusing the assault. Providers who need to ask about the assault context or women’s life circumstances have an incredibly important opportunity to explain their approach as well as to communicate that there is never any excuse for sexual assault.

In the aftermath of sexual assault, we must embrace survivors’ advice in order to deliver the best possible services. They ask that we build staff teams that receive training about sexual assault, make female providers available, communicate effectively, and provide information and resources. Further, they advise that we do this work in a way that conveys compassion and awareness of trauma consequences as well as belief. Evolving victim services in response to this advice is within our reach.

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Kerry Gagnon shares our research findings.

This research was funded by the National Institute of Justice [Grant #2012-W9-BX-0049]. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views or the official position of the National Institute of Justice or any other organization.

Thank you to our community partners who made this research possible, particularly Denver’s Sexual Assault Interagency Council.