Time's Up! Responding to Sexual Assault: Three Common Mistakes and What To Do Instead
Sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes in Canada; for every person who may sit across from you and tell you what they experienced, there are countless others who have not yet been able to speak of how they were victimized. So, when someone tells you that they have been the victims of a sexual assault, remember how much they are risking by reaching out. Speaking out often comes with the potential for guilt, shame and stigma for those who have been victimized. The risk of not being believed or of being dismissed is fear that keeps many individuals silenced. And what often makes things worse is the response they receive from those whom they tell.
Thankfully, with the emergence of the powerful #metoo movement, the likelihood of women (and men) sharing their stories is increasing. Imagine if someone you know came to you and told you that they had been sexually assaulted. Would you know what to say and do? You may feel helpless and unsure of how to respond. You may feel very angry or shocked. This is totally understandable, however be sure that whatever is going on for you does not get in the way of being supportive and available.
There are a few common mistakes that are often made in these situations, not maliciously but rather from a lack of education and resources on the topic. The following are a few common pitfalls to avoid and alternatives to help you be more supportive.
Here are 3 common mistakes and some helpful alternatives
1) DON'T INTERROGATE
Understandably, it is not your intention to interrogate, but be sure not to unknowingly protect the alleged abuser with detailed fact checking. Asking for many details may increase the shame the victim is feeling about the assault and contribute to their further silence on the issue. Due to the brains automatic trauma response, remembering specific details about the event can be very difficult. This may even mean that over the course of a few conversations some details may change, or the victim may remember “new” things. Trauma affects the brain significantly, especially in the victim’s ability to remember the timing or sequence of events, and there may even be portions of the event that they don't remember at all.
Instead: BE CURIOUS.
Take a stance of not knowing and allow the event to unfold in the telling. Give the gift of presence and listening without agenda or hurry. Only ask questions when absolutely necessary. If you must ask, do so tentatively and be prepared to accept the answer of “I don't know”. Do not ask out of discomfort or fear, rather remember to breathe and listen.
2) DON'T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS
Don't make assumptions about the victim, their behavior or choices. Don't ask them why they didn't behave differently or indicate that they should have done something differently. The truth is, the victim has asked him/herself that question countless times, and gone over the event asking themselves many questions wishing desperately that there could have been a different outcome. The unspoken implication of the question is: “if you had done something different this might not have happened”. Do not allow your response to validate the alleged abusers behavior. This is entirely unacceptable; there is NO way that the victim’s is responsible for the choices and actions of another person. Not ever. I’m asking you: Make a commitment to yourself right now as you read this blog to never say to anyone: “If you had only…..” or “why didn't you….”.
Making assumptions about the actions or intentions of the alleged abuser is also damaging. First of all, there is no way for anyone to know his/her intentions, and secondly any “positive” interpretation of the alleged abusive behavior always protects the abuser. I can recall many situations where I heard phrases like: “Maybe he just doesn't know how to show you he really likes you” or “I think she was just trying to….” Or “were you giving him signs that you are interested?”. Stop saying these things. It does not help. All it accomplishes is adding more shame and guilt to the victim.
Instead: GET EDUCATED.
Take some time to get familiar with the resources that are available for the victim (and for you). Know the laws in your province about sexual assault (for both minors and adults). Understand the process of how to report and the steps that will be followed. Have the name of a therapist you trust ready to offer if asked. You can be a great resource to the victim, by having access to this information for them.
Additionally get educated about Consent, a concept that seems to still have confusion surrounding it. Consent must have BOTH a verbal and a physical yes.
- Verbally saying yes, but with closed and uninviting body language= NO
- Verbally saying NO, but with open and inviting body language = NO
- Verbally saying YES, AND with open and inviting body language= YES
Consent can be withdrawn at ANY TIME, and for ANY REASON. Please, teach this to your children, to your peers, to anyone who will listen. This is SUCH an important part of this conversation. If consent is not present, it is assault. Don’t make excuses for force over choice: No one is entitled to take up space on or in someone’s body that is not there own. Every person deserves to have a choice about with who, how, where and when their body is touched or interacted with.
3) Don't PROBLEM SOLVE
When someone discloses that they have been sexually assaulted, be sure not to talk over them or use the occasion to teach/lecture or give pointers of what they should do. There is a time and a place for this type of conversations, but when someone is disclosing abuse to you it NOT the time. Please don't come up with solutions for what they could do if they are ever in a similar situation again. This is not your time to talk. You may have may questions and ideas of what they could have done differently or what they should do going forward, but keep them to yourself.
Be clear to the victim that you believe them and that you are supportive of them. Validate the behavior (freezing, or not walking away), validate the emotion (fear, confusion, panic), and remind them that they did the best thing they knew how to do in that moment. When we are validated, we soothe our limbic system and it helps us to regulate reduce trauma symptoms.
Above all, BE SUPPORTIVE, Don't disappear after the victim disclosed the event to you. Be available to check in and walk with the victim as they learn to heal and rebuild trust with themselves and others. Don’t be afraid to check in with them. Don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing, saying anything is better than saying nothing. Don’t assume they are fine because they are not bringing it up. Those who have experience sexual assault are all to familiar with being told not to say anything. Err on the side or creating space for them to talk about how they are processing this experience and how they are feeling. Disclosing abuse is an incredibly vulnerable and scary thing to do. The victim often feels riddled with shame and confusion, and it’s in these times that we need a community more than ever. There is no timeline for healing, but there must be a timeline for learning how to respond, your time is now. Time’s Up!
- Loraine Klassen MAMFT, RCC