Every woman I know has at least one story of either their own experience of sexual harassment or an experience they know of someone close to them. I write this not to minimize the experience of men who are equally as deserving of validation for their own stories of sexual harassment, but to acknowledge the prevalence of this harsh reality for women. As we continue raising awareness to sexual violence even as Sexual Assault Awareness Month ends, it’s important to recognize groups who are most vulnerable. Female students are 4x more likely to be a victim of rape or sexual assault than males. The rate of sexual assault becomes even higher for women of color and for those who identify as LGBTQIA+. Aside from motivating the movement to end sexual violence, these statistics suggest that a survivor of sexual assault may be the person who sits next to you in class, one of your coworkers, a close friend or a potential new partner. Since there is likely a survivor of sexual assault in one of your circles, it’s important to be mindful of your words and understand some ways you can be an ally for survivors. Throughout this article I will discuss some ways to be a strong ally to survivors of sexual assault, whether it is a friend, family member or someone you’ve recently met; and whether you are a survivor yourself.
It is an unfortunate truth that we live in a society that normalizes the sexual objectification of women. Girls grow up with the lesson to be wary of the prevailed narrative of a stranger posing a threat to our innocent bodies on a dark street late at night. However, the reality of sexual assault is embedded deeply within the culture of the patriarchal society we live in. We are taught to take cautions like not walking alone at night, to carry pepper spray, not to walk with both earphones in, etc., but we are not taught what to do if someone we consider a friend, or someone we presumably love is the one who violates us. These experiences are often the ones survivors are least likely to report, sometimes because survivors do not recognize these experiences as assault. Perhaps it is also because we live in a society that only outlawed the rape of women by their husbands in all 50 states in 1993. Considering how difficult it can be for survivors to process their experiences and speak about them, it’s incredibly important as an ally to listen when they choose to do so. When a survivor trusts you enough to share their story, you should listen in a way that offers a non-judgmental atmosphere for them to speak. You can do this by paying attention to your body language, face them as they are speaking to you. Try not to interrupt and don’t pressure them to answer any questions they may not be ready to answer. It can be good to thank them for trusting you with their story and let them know that they don’t need to share specific details with you unless they feel comfortable. By saying this you will be validating their feelings and experiences, and showing them, without having to directly say it, that you believe them.
As you lend your ear to a survivor, you can maintain trust with that person by respecting confidentiality and showing them you are a reliable person for them to confide in. You should also be careful when wanting to share stories of sexual assault you may know of or have personally experienced, in case the survivor is not yet in a place where they can hear them. Sometimes it can be traumatizing for a survivor to hear about similar accounts of sexual assault before they have begun to heal or process their own experiences. It can also minimize the experiences of the survivor, and take away from their story.
Due to the culture that our society has perpetrated around sexual assault, many women are faced with feelings of shame and self-blame in the aftermath of their assault. This is why when listening to someone’s story, it is best not to place any judgement about the situation that happened to them. While you may not be explicitly stating that the survivor is at fault, there are ways you could be making that suggestion through questions you might ask or observations you may share without realizing their implications. It can be helpful for a survivor who may be experiencing feelings of self-blame or anger towards themselves to say aloud for them to hear: what happened to you is not your fault.
Remember that each individual who experiences sexual assault will have a different response and their own unique needs. There is no specific road map or timeline for healing after sexual assault. If you want to act as a source of support for a survivor, one of the most important things you can do is to be patient with them. Know that if a survivor shares their story with you, it does not automatically mean they are ready to seek support or the resources you may wish to provide. An individual who is coping with a trauma like sexual assault might need to regain a sense of agency in their lives. If you pressure them to take certain steps before they are ready to, it could cause them to relive the loss of control they felt during their assault. What you can do, is make sure to educate yourself and become familiar with a wide variety of resources and options you can share with them when they are ready to take those steps.
As the creator of the #MeToo Movement, Tarana Burke, has stated, “as a community, we create a lot of space for fighting and pushing back, but not enough for connecting and healing.” You can help create more spaces for healing by being a strong ally who listens to survivors judgement free, believes their stories, respects their privacy and understands their need for you to be patient with them as they embark on the difficult journey of self-discovery after trauma.
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