Listening to Survivors of Sexual Violence

Source: Trauma and Dissociation

Most of you reading this blog post know someone who has been raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, stalked, and/or physically harmed by an intimate partner — unfortunately, it might even be yourself. But, I would venture to guess that most of you who know a survivor of sexual violence do not actually know the survivor status of these partners, relatives, friends, coworkers, students, neighbors, etc.

In large part, this potential ignorance is the result of rape culture: the silencing of survivors; the blaming of victims for the violence perpetuated against them; the downplaying of predators’ actions; the willful ignorance regarding the pervasiveness of sexual violence and how society actually facilitates and celebrates it. When victims are not believed, are blamed, are shamed, and never see justice when they report the violence that they have experienced, it is perhaps a matter of protecting oneself from further harm and violence to choose silence.

But, your potential ignorance regarding who around you has survived sexual violence may also be your own doing. Your political leanings say a lot about you, no matter how central they are to your life. Those who are presumed to or actually believe that women do not have a choice over whether to terminate an unintended or unwanted pregnancy, that women should remain chaste until marriage, that a woman’s place is in the home, that a rapist with no political experience beat a seasoned woman in an election for the most important political office in the nation — these are people least likely to be sought out to disclose that one has been sexually assaulted. People who make rape jokes, excuse rapists’ behaviors, blame rape victims, or narrowly view rape as a private matter between a victim and a perpetrator are perhaps least likely to be entrusted with a friend’s story of being raped when she was a college freshman.

From my experience over the past few years, I would surmise that survivors of sexual violence disclose their experiences of violence with those who have earned their trust. But, I do not just mean that you can keep a secret or will not pass judgment. I mean that you have proven yourself to be a trustworthy ally to or — better yet — an advocate for survivors.

The more that I have committed to advocating for survivors, to stopping sexual violence, and to eliminating rape culture, the more relatives, friends, colleagues, students, and even strangers who are survivors have shared their stories with me. The more I speak out about sexual violence in the classroom, in my public writing, at conferences, and in private conversations, the more I have received the gift of survivors’ trust. For example, more than a dozen colleagues (most who were previously strangers to me) disclosed that they had been assaulted or harassed at past sociology conferences after I wrote a blog post about sexual violence at last year’s American Sociological Association meeting. It feels as though I created some sort of safe space around me by even naming sexual violence, and a handful of survivors have taken me up on my offer to listen to them, to believe them, to fight with them.

I would like to share a few tips for supporting survivors of sexual violence, namely earning their trust as a genuine advocate (or ally, if you prefer). These come from my experience, at best described as trial-and-error — by no means an expert opinion.

Cherish disclosure as a rare gift. Recognize how hard it is for a survivor of sexual violence to share their experiences with another person. Recognize the high risk of them not being believed, being blamed, being dismissed — of being revictimized just by telling their story. Survivors have every reason to keep you in the dark, so you should appreciate and affirm their willingness to allow you into this aspect of their lives.

…but, do not only think of them as a victim. If a survivor has asked you to do something specific to support them, do it if you can. Otherwise, I would discourage you from altering your behavior toward them or in their presence. You do not need to constantly ask them about being assaulted or harassed. You also should not avoid the topic unless they have asked you to. Survivors are so much more than victims of past sexual violence. If anything, they need you to treat them as normal human beings, as this would help counter the slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and hostility they experience from others.

Do not share their stories with others without permission. You should assume, unless otherwise stated, that you — and you alone — were given this gift of disclosure. You should not reveal their stories to other people, even in the abstract or with identifying details left out (just to be safe). Of course, if you are legally obligated to report disclosed sexual violence — for example, because of Title IX policies in higher education — you should immediately inform a survivor that you will have to report the incidence. Let them know as soon as you suspect that they are about to disclose to you; do not wait until after they have done so. Yet, do so in a way that is still inviting, rather than posed as a warning, as this may prevent them from disclosing to you (or anyone else who may be required to report sexual violence).

Emphasize that you believe them, and ask how you can support them. I have learned from experience that survivors do not disclose to others for any reason other than sharing their stories, having their voices heard, and being believed — perhaps to request others’ support or assistance, though not necessarily. Counter to the myths that they are seeking attention (perhaps even to the extent of fabricating their stories), it is perhaps helpful to share the burden of violence with others. And, maybe it is just to let you know, as it may be relevant to the conversation at hand or an important aspect of their lives. If and when a survivor opens up to you, let them know that you believe them, thank them for opening up to you, and ask what, if anything, you can do to support them.

Be an advocate at all times. Even if survivors in your life have not disclosed to you, you should consistently be an advocate for all survivors of sexual violence. I have learned that even in absence of personal experience or expertise on the subject, you have power in your ability to ask questions. It could be as simple as “what about the issue of sexual violence?” or “how are we supporting rape survivors?”  In doing so, you are putting the issue on the table and making space for survivors to speak up. Survivors may never open up to you no matter your advocacy, but that is okay as the goal is to support them, not to rack up stories shared with you. In general, look into bystander intervention advocacy to learn about ways that you can challenge sexual violence and rape culture and support victims at all times.

I am learning as I go, so I do not present these as the best ways to support survivors, or even an exhaustive list. So, I invite you to share other tips in the comments section below. I would especially like to hear from survivors (who are willing to open up) about which behaviors of potential allies and advocates has been most effective in supporting them.

2 thoughts on “Listening to Survivors of Sexual Violence

  1. Pingback: Series: Sexual Violence In Academia – Conditionally Accepted

  2. A lot of folks worry about “knowing what to say” when someone discloses, but that’s not what matters. What matters is being present in the moment, and affirming what the other person is saying and feeling. There’s no fixing sexual assault, and it would be a fool’s errand to try. But it means much to survivors to know that people will hear our stories, sit with the pain they cause, and embrace us as complete people shaped by both these and other experiences.

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