Four Things Sexual Assault Survivors Want You To Know

Posted on February 13, 2018 by Laura E. Laughlin

There’s been a lot in the news lately about people who have been sexually assaulted coming out and telling their story.  Accusations of sexual assault or harassment have been made against producer Harvey Weinstein, actors Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman, NPR editor Michael Oreskes, movie director James Toback, and Matt Lauer, just to name a few.  The media focus right now may be on Hollywood, but survivors of sexual assault don’t fit into one specific category.  They are female, male, rich, poor, young, old and the list goes on.

When sexual assault is placed into public view, it encourages others to come forward and tell someone about what has happened to them.  We’ve seen this in recent months with the #MeToo campaign, which encourages people to show support for and encourage other survivors by letting them know they’re not alone.

When someone discloses to you, the way you react can have a big impact on the survivor.  For purposes of this article, I will refer to the survivor as a “her”, but understand that sexual assault can happen to anyone.  If someone discloses to you, here are the four things you should do:

1. Listen

For a survivor, disclosing she was abused can be scary.  Since abuse oftentimes happens behind closed doors, it’s easy for it to be kept there.  However, for a lot of people to begin to heal, that tightly locked door needs to be opened and the secret let out.

If you’re the person someone feels safe enough to disclose to, the first thing you should do is listen.  Don’t batter her with questions, don’t judge her, don’t cut her off…just listen.  Let her say what she has likely been wanting to say for a while.  Whether it’s been a day, a month or years since the abuse, it takes a lot of courage to tell someone so the best you can do is just hear her out.  If you cut her off, it can have a detrimental effect and potentially cause her to close off and not share anything more.  It was scary enough deciding to tell someone so please just let her talk.

2. Believe Them

One of the primary reasons people don’t disclose is the fear of what someone will think.  Will I be believed?  Will I be judged?  Will knowing what happened to me cause you to look at me differently?  All of these things run through a survivor’s mind prior to and during the disclosure.

After listening to her, you should believe her.  Inevitably, there are always people who want to play devil’s advocate and say that some people make false allegations.  However, the number of people who make false allegations is actually very small.  Even though research varies slightly, the studies have ranged from concluding that between 2 to 10 percent of sexual assault allegations are false,which leaves the other 90-98% of accusers telling the truth.  These numbers also need to be considered with the fact that the majority of sexual assaults go unreported.  Specifically, the National Institute of Justice has found that only 36% of rapes, 34% of attempted rapes and 26% of sexual assaults were reported to authorities. This same study found that one-third of the women included in the study have not disclosed their abuse to anyone.

The large majority of people who disclose are telling the truth.  Having someone doubt, question, or judge her will only cause her to shut down.  When she makes the decision to tell you, the most supportive thing you can do is to believe her.

3. Support Them

Survivors may want different things when disclosing.  They may want counseling.  They may want to report it to the police and try to prosecute the assailant.  They may just want to tell someone to have that weight lifted off their chest.  Whatever her reason is for telling you, make sure you support her.

While I’d encourage survivors to tell the police, I can also understand why doing so can be intimidating.  Be there for her to offer support in whatever way she needs it.  Whether it’s just to let her cry it out, help search for a therapist or support group, or something as small as just giving her a hug.  To a survivor, letting her know you love her and that despite knowing what happened, it doesn’t change your view of her, it can really make a huge difference.

4. Be the Change

When I was at the National Center for Victims of Crime conference last year (a nationwide conference for professionals who work with victims and survivors of crime), a rape survivor spoke at one of the sessions.  She travels around the country to colleges to speak out about campus rape and against schools who sweep sexual assault allegations under the rug.  She said in her experience, people, mostly men, will say, “I don’t rape/sexually assault/harass women, so I’m not part of the problem.”  Her response was, “I know, you’re the solution.”  That statement was so powerful.

Here’s what it means.  We know that there are a lot of people out there who aren’t the predators.  These people can scroll past an article or change the channel on a news story thinking, not me, I respect women, I would never sexually assault someone.  However, everyone has an obligation to take part in the conversation and be part of the solution.  As former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign has said, “It’s On Us.

Men-  if you’re out with your guy friends and one of your friends smacks someone on the butt, call your friend out and tell him that’s unacceptable.  If someone else is bragging about having sex with a girl when she was drunk, let him know that’s not ok.

Women-  this goes for you too.  If you’re listening to gossip about a girl who claimed to be assaulted and someone says, “yea, but did you see what she was wearing?”  Put your friend in check.  Tell them that way of thinking is not ok and it doesn’t matter what someone is wearing, she still doesn’t deserve to be assaulted.

Here’s the bottom line:  People disclose at different times and some people aren’t ready to try to come to terms with what happened until many years later.  This doesn’t mean that it did not happen or had any less physical or psychological impact on the survivor.  The way people view sexual assault needs to change and rape culture needs to end.  The only way things will change is if we police each other.  If you aren’t the problem, you’re part of the solution…so be the solution.