It takes a lot of courage for someone to share their story. When a loved one comes to you, make sure you're ready to listen.
When a loved one comes to you and discloses an assault, you must understand the amount of trust it takes for them to share their story. Although your first reaction may be emotion-based, this is not the time to share how you feel or any similar experience you’ve had. This is the time to listen, not prod for additional information. Throughout the conversation, use language that gives power back to the survivor by reflecting the terminology they use. Be familiar with your local resources and how trauma can affect someone’s mind and behavior. Healing after an assault has no concrete timeline. Stay with the survivor throughout this journey and check in on them regularly. Invite them to get food or for a walk if you notice they’re having trouble caring for themselves regularly. Let them lean on you. It is pertinent that survivors have a genuine, dedicated support group to heal.
When it comes to supporting a loved one who has experienced sexual assault, it is important to remember that to be a good support system for them, you have to take care of yourself as well. Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue are very real issues that many folks deal with. If you find yourself struggling with sharing a loved one’s story and burden with them, know that you are not alone. You are allowed to struggle and suffer, too. For more information on vicarious trauma, follow the link below. Don’t forget to check in with yourself and engage in self-care when you have the time.
As a survivor shares their story, make sure you are being supportive and listening. While the following phrases aren’t all you should say, they are good phrases to fall back on if you find yourself at a loss. Above all, be empathetic, patient, and kind.
- “I believe you.”
- “It wasn’t your fault.”
- “You are not alone.”
- “What can I do to best help you?”
Survivor vs. Victim
There can be a lot of confusion about what to call someone who has experienced sexual violence. Some people prefer survivor, while others use victim. In general, it’s always best to defer to what the person in question uses to identify themselves. For example, someone may call themselves a survivor because they have overcome the experience; on the other hand, though, someone may call themselves a victim because they feel victimized by what happened to them. It can be tricky. Most activists and organizations focus on survivor-based language, but not everyone feels the same way. Be mindful of that difference as you talk to loved ones and have conversations with others.
Kate Harding has a great article on her own experience with assault and the language choice of survivor vs. victim. To read it, click the link below!
What is victim blaming?
Victim blaming is when the person who was assaulted (the survivor) is held responsible for the assault and made to feel as if they did something wrong. Victim blaming is prevalent in conversations and attitudes about sexual violence; many people can often play into victim blaming without knowing it. The survivor, as well as their loved ones, should know that it is never their fault. The blame for violence always belongs to the perpetrator.
How can I avoid victim blaming?
Here are some tips when talking to survivors:
- First and foremost, listen. Be attentive and responsive. Give them as much time as they need to tell their story, and let them tell it however they need to.
- Don’t ask “why” questions. This suggests that the assault was the survivor’s fault or that they could have done something to prevent it.
- Examples: “What were you wearing?” “Were you drinking? How much?” “Did you try to fight them off?” “Did you lead them on?”
- Assure them that it wasn’t their fault. If you hear the survivor start to blame themselves, remind them that it wasn’t their fault. Sometimes, it helps to hear it from someone else.