by Hannah Stohler
It had been a few months since we’d seen each other. My friend and I sat in the kitchen laughing and catching up over a glass of wine. Suddenly, the tone shifted, and she began to tell me. As she described her sexual assault at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, I filled with rage and my eyes welled with tears. I wanted to scream. How could he? How did I not know about this? How long has she been sitting with this pain on her own?
As a state-certified sexual assault crisis counselor, I have been trained to respond appropriately, effectively, and compassionately to this exact situation. However, while caught off guard and with a loved-one, I felt unable to control my emotions and was overwhelmed by guilt that I had not been there for her in the wake of her trauma. Most of us aren’t prepared to be a supportive responder to a survivor of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), especially when the survivor is a friend or family member. While intending to be supportive, we often react in ways that do not feel helpful to the survivor: we doubt, let our own emotions get in the way, or try and rationalize that “it could have been worse.” Responses of denial, avoidance and minimization interfere with the survivor’s healing process and further victimize the survivor.
So what do you say when someone shares their traumatic experience with you? How do you react? Here are some basics on how to be a supportive responder if a survivor decides to share their trauma with you:
1. LISTEN. LISTEN. LISTEN.
It takes a lot of trust to disclose a traumatic experience. Do not interrupt, or overact with your feelings. Be open to hearing anything they wish to share, and willing to enter difficult spaces with them, but do not probe for more information. Ask how you can be helpful in their healing process, and honor their answer.
2. Believe them.
It seems so simple, yet it needs to be said. When we are shocked, our natural reaction is often denial. However, refusing to believe their trauma can be extremely damaging. Even if they express self-doubt, if their memories are vague, or if the incident seems extreme, believe them. Don’t try and make the survivor prove their trauma by asking more questions. Say “I believe you.”
Make sure that the focus is centered on the survivor and their experience. Sometimes, we are inclined to share our own experiences to relate and help others feel more comfortable. However, if you have not experienced similar trauma, an attempt to compare the trauma to your own life may come off as minimizing. Instead, let them know you are there for them and are with them.
4. Connect them with resources.
While you are not there to give advice, make sure the survivor knows that there are trauma professionals trained to advocate for them in any way they would find helpful. Without putting pressure on the survivor, offer to help them find resources in their local area, or connect them to online resources like WeWillSpeakOut.US, RAINN or Darkness to Light.
5. Tell them it is not their fault.
We are unfortunately immersed in a culture of victim blaming, where it is somehow deemed appropriate to ask questions like “were you drinking?” or ”what were you wearing?” This implies that the survivor is to blame for what has happened to them. Dispel any notion that the survivor is responsible for their trauma. Tell them “It is not your fault.”
The bleak statistics indicate that approximately 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime, meaning that there are likely survivors amidst your loved ones. Luckily, when my friend recounted her sexual assault to me, I was able to regain my composure and be a responsible, supportive responder for her. It is crucial that we are activists speaking out to end SGBV, but we must also remember to be present allies to the survivors in our families and communities by taking the time to listen.