By: Carly Lanning
In my perfect world, people would respect one another, asking for consent would be as practiced as stopping at a red stop light and relationships would all be built upon love, trust and open communication. In my perfect world survivors of sexual violence would be provided the support and assurance they need to heal instead of feeling any societal pressures of blame and guilt.
In the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault(CSA) Study, it was found that one out of every five undergraduate women experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault during their college years and almost 1 in 4 of ALL rape victims, including both men and women, are between the ages of 18- 24 years of age. When it comes to intimate partner violence, more than 1 in 3 women and more than 1 in 4 men in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/ or stalking by an intimate partner. Sexual violence, like an uncontrolled epidemic, will continue to have a strong presence on all campuses as long as we continue to turn a blind eye and sweep survivor testimonies under the rug.
Hearing about these numbers, it becomes an impulse to distance ourselves from these statistics, creating a mindset that “this happens to other people but not me.” As a society we tend to place blame on the victim, considering them responsible for their assault because of their choice of clothing or placing themselves in a situation. This natural impulse to blame these survivors for their assault comes from our fear of randomness. We cling to the hope that if we discover the perfect formula then we will forever be exempt from this statistic. But instead of wasting time blaming survivors, we must come to understand that not matter what someone wears, or how much someone drinks, or who someone is with, or what someone is doing, sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault.
With the staggering numbers found in the CSA study, it is important that we all know the best ways to respond to our friends who may disclose with us that they have been assaulted. After being assaulted and feeling the loss of control in their own lives, it is common that survivors come to the safety of their friends first. The more we are all informed, the more support we can provide to our loved ones.
DO tell your friend that this incident is not their fault. This is the most important thing you can do. Whether your friend chooses to disclose to you that they were assaulted minutes after the incident or months later, it is important for you to reiterate that there was nothing they said, wore or drank that makes them responsible for this. If it has taken your friend some time to work up the courage to tell you, do not think they don’t trust you with this information or feel hurt that they did not tell you sooner. A survivor may not tell their friends because of guilt, fear of being blamed for this experience, or the perpetrator may be a mutual friend or acquaintance. By creating a nonjudgmental and supportive environment, your positive reinforcement will help them feel comfortable telling others about their assault and seeking resources.
DON’T blame or dig for all the details of the story. At first your friend may just provide you with an outline of the story, but after your supportive response, they may feel comfortable providing more details as time goes on. Let your friend know that you are here for them whenever they need to talk and thank them for sharing their experience with you. Although we sometimes have the best intentions, our desire to know every detail can make survivors feel blamed for this assault. Creating a space of comfort and respecting the boundaries of what they want to share about their story gives the survivor back a sense of control, something they were robbed of during their assault. While during an assault, a victim’s consent is ignored and violated. As a friend you can help to empower them by asking how they are feeling now and how you can provide them support during this time. Letting your friend know that you are there for them in the present moment as well as the future, relieves them of the pressure of dealing with this trauma during a certain time frame. This gives them the space to take their healing at their own pace and through their own means.
DO recommend resources available to your friend. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) is a national resource that is available for survivors and their family members 24 hours, 7 days a week. They provide support, advice and information about resources in a survivor’s community and can be reached by phone 800.656.HOPE or in an online chat at online.rainn.org. Though a survivor may be reluctant to explore these resources when you first mention it, their awareness of these will be of benefit to them. The choice to use these services is up to each survivor but your care and concern for them is not only appreciated but the beginning of their journey to heal.
In many ways, providing support after an assault shares many qualities of supporting your friend at any other time, with a few additions. It is up to each of us to take the first steps to changing the culture surrounding sexual violence by providing accurate support to those in our lives who have experienced sexual assault.
With your love and support towards survivor’s of sexual violence, this issue is no longer being brushed under the rug and ignored. Your belief in your friend’s story and your ability to provide them with the support that they most need will change their lives more than you know. And with each story we believe, each friend that we support and each time we make the choice to acknowledge and stand up against this violence, we are taking one step closer to eliminating this epidemic from the lives of those we care about.