Although sexual assault or abuse is common, it can still shock us when we hear someone has been through this undesired experience. We might want to deny such a thing can actually happen, we might want to fix what we perceive to be the problem, we might want to change the way the person feels, or we might lose our words in the moment. To help and inspire hope, I am listing 5 things you can communicate when these stories show up.
First, let’s start with what is meant by sexual assault or abuse.
Sexual assault: this is most often a legal term and is defined differently depending on local or State laws. Briefly, it refers to a variety of situations where one person acts sexually towards another person without their knowing or permission.
Sexual Abuse: is a purposeful action that is meant to gain power and control over another person. Sometimes sexual violation is used as a means to intimidate, frighten, and control others. This might include touching someone inappropriately, showing sexual content without consent or permission, or saying sexual things without consent or permission.
Healthy sexual interactions include:
Consent: is a sure and enthusiastic “Yes!!!” when someone asks to share a sexual experience. This means the person was not pressured or coerced into saying yes. This also means the person did not say yes for fear of what would happen if they said no.
The ability to consent: Each state has different laws on who can give consent. The laws might take into consideration a person’s age, the person’s mental or physical functioning, and the person’s amount of power in the relationship.
Now, here are 5 things to communicate when someone shares their story.
- Thank you for telling me. I believe you: People need a safe place to begin to unpack unwanted sexual experiences. Most often people will begin with closest family or friends. Unless it is your job title, they do not need an investigator or a devil’s advocate. They need you to believe them. And some of the stories can be difficult to believe. Unfortunately, that is the case with sexual assault.
But what about the times when people lie? Here is one philosophy: when someone tells you they have been sexually violated and you believe them, that says something about you. If they have fabricated a story, that says something about them. You can only control your part. You can be the type of person who is safe to come to and help when others are in need.
- 2. It is not your fault: When a person’s physical, emotional, sexual, or psychological boundaries have been violated, they might also experience some confusion, shame, or blame. They might wonder if they are making a big deal about the matter, if they could have prevented the experience altogether, and other not-so-black-and-white ideas. You can help others navigate the murky waters by reminding them they are not responsible for someone else’s actions and decisions. They did not choose or ask to be violated. This is something that a person decided to do to them, not something they constructed and conspired against themselves. Remember, sexual assault or abuse is a violation where a person willfully made a choice to be sexual with someone before obtaining appropriate consent (see definition above).
- I’m glad you are here: Sometimes people freeze or become quiet, fight back, flee or run away, and some people have other responses when traumatic events or violation is happening. However they responded is ok! Their body responded in a natural way that helped them survive the moment. Celebrate that they are still here!
- I support you whatever you want to do: As our society continues to be aware of this issue, more options become available to victims or survivors. It can be helpful to call the local or national sexual assault crisis hotline (RAINN 1-800-656-4673) to find options to present to the victim or survivor. When presenting an option, it might be helpful to ask, “Have you thought about…filing a report? Talking to Human Resources department? staying with a friend until you feel safe.” The key is to present ideas, not prescribe ideas. Victims or survivors can be trusted to determine whether or not any action is best for them, even if it differs from your desired response. Let them sign up for what they are capable.
NOTE*** When children are the victims of assault or abuse, gathering as much information as possible and reporting to protective services is imperative. Children are at more at risk of repeated violation from the perpetrator and people who sexually violate children might violate other children. It might be possible to have the child identify a non-abusing adult they trust and involve them in the safety and healing of the child.
- I cannot promise you any outcome: The first piece of advice people want to give is to go to the police so they can arrest the perpetrator and the judge will clearly see they are guilty and they will go to jail. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. No one can make promises that everything will be ok, but rather that they are important and worthy and do not have to be alone.
Responding to stories of sexual assault and abuse comes with many challenges. Hopefully this list provides some help. These are only a few of many possible ways to communicate the victim or survivor is not alone. And you don’t have to be alone in supporting them.
Feel free to consult your local laws, local sexual assault or domestic violence agency, or RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or at rainn.org