Sexual assault is dreadfully common – so common that many of us are likely to hear disclosures from people we know. Indeed, when survivors do disclose, it’s often to friends, family, or other informal support people.
How we respond to sexual assault disclosure matters – sometimes for the worse. Unfortunately, there are many unhelpful and even hurtful ways to respond to disclosures. For example, survivors describe people taking away their control, minimizing what happened, treating them differently, and even blaming them for the assault. These kinds of negative reactions to disclosures are linked with worse psychological outcomes over time, according to dozens of research studies.
The good news is that we can learn new ways to respond to disclosures to be more helpful to survivors. Here are three steps you can take to be ready to respond to sexual assault disclosures, guided by research.
1. Listen with an understanding about trauma.
Sexual assault is a traumatic stressor, and people have many different kinds of responses to trauma. For example, some survivors might be visibly upset while others may seem emotionally numb or dissociative. Survivors might describe intrusive, unrelenting thoughts about the assault even as others have gaps or a lack of confidence in their memories of what happened. Some survivors might want to report what happened to authorities and others might want to keep what happened private. Some survivors might continue their relationship with the person who assaulted them and others might not.
Witnessing someone describe the trauma or its impact can evoke many kinds of feelings and reactions in listeners as well. Some might have preconceived ideas about how a survivor should act and may react judgmentally to survivors who don’t fit that image. Other listeners may have the urge to do something – to take action right away. Yet, the assault took control away from the survivor, making it especially important that the survivor is the one who decides what happens next.
Instead of acting from notions of what a survivor might need or feel, be ready to listen carefully and without judgment. Focus on responding calmly and with compassion to the survivor’s unique story and reactions. You can show through what you say and how you say it that you’re committed to their well-being and decision-making.
Of course, there may be instances when you cannot keep a survivor’s disclosure confidential, even if that’s what they want. For example, some professionals are mandated reporters for child abuse and neglect or required by their college and university Title IX processes to report sexual harassment and assault. If that’s the case, be clear with survivors about what you’re required to report and what happens when a report is filed.
2. Offer practical help.
After sexual assault, survivors might want or need a range of different kinds of resources. For example, they may want academic help if they’re in school. Or they may want psychological support, medical services, or information about what it’s like to file a police report.
You can make a difference by sharing resources so that survivors can make informed choices about services and options. This means you might have some homework to do now to identify resources in your community so that you’re ready when someone discloses sexual assault to you. For example, does your community have a sexual assault response organization? What support services does your school or workplace offer? Once you’ve offered information, remember that survivors should be in the driver’s seat when it comes to whether or when they pursue different actions, such as talking to a counselor or making a report to the police.
3. Be in it for the long term – for survivors and social change.
In the aftermath of a sexual assault, posttraumatic stress disorder and depression symptoms are common. Other health problems may emerge and persist over time, from chronic pain and sleep problems to suicidality. Survivors who report their assaults to the police, schools, or workplaces may be involved in investigations that unfold over weeks and months.
Healing, then, is not a moment; it’s a process, and often a long one. Over time, there are lots of ways that your ongoing support can play an important role. For example, checking in can convey that you’re thinking of survivors and understand that healing takes time. You can continue your own learning about sexual assault and supporting survivors. For example, you can make use of online resources to build your skills and seek out support groups for loved ones of survivors.
Over the long term, you’re also needed in the work to end sexual violence in our communities. There are lots of ways to take action. You might volunteer with agencies addressing sexual assault in your community; encourage your workplace to develop trauma-informed policies for support survivors; or contact your legislator to urge them to support trauma-informed legislation.
Along the way, you’ll likely discover that sexual assault and other forms of violence against women diminish all of us through impacts on individuals and communities. That lesson is at the heart of Every 90 Seconds: Our Common Cause Ending Violence against Women, as is the recognition that we share an interest in working together to end sexual assault and support healing for survivors and communities.
Interested in more about working together for change? Check out Every 90 Seconds: Our Common Cause Ending Violence against Women, available now (Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, Amazon, Grass Roots).
Note: This piece was published also published on the Psychology Today blog.