How To Support Survivors of Sexual Assault-Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Instead of being admired, sexual assault survivors are all too frequently shunned

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and a time when our country honors the importance of addressing the many aspects of sexual assault throughout our society and culture. Here at The DATE SAFE Project, each day we are committed to helping create a culture of respect and consent.

This past year, it is almost impossible for anyone to miss all the news and social media coverage around sexual assault. As many of us know, the coverage can become “triggers” for survivors, which is why it is more important than ever that we not only support survivors but also know how to support survivors, the right way.

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In my work, I am constantly humbled and inspired by the strength and courage of sexual assault survivors. They are truly “voices of courage.” When survivors share their thoughts, emotions, pain, and triumphs, they gift each of us through their strength and courage. They remind us of the importance of being upstanders instead of bystanders.

Typically, when a person survives a tragedy, society is eager to talk about the perils the person overcame. One exception exists: sexual assault. Instead of being admired, sexual assault survivors are all too frequently shunned or even blamed for the perpetrator’s horrific actions. In those cases where the survivors are believed, they are often treated with pity, not respect. No admiration is given for all the pain and trauma they have endured and survived. Their voices are rarely given a chance to be heard.

Survivors are invited to talk only about “how” they were assaulted; they are rarely given a voice to discuss their recovery and how great their lives are today. In Voices of Courage (free eBook), survivors share their inspirational stories.

Let me share some of their inspirational words:

“That night, I called and listened to her as she cried and yelled and vented all of the anger that she had inside. I told her that she wasn’t alone and that she was strong for having the courage to tell someone, a complete stranger. I told her about RAINN [Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network] and that she could get help. Finally, I told her the truth—that being a survivor wasn’t easy, that the pain wouldn’t just go away one day. At the same time, I told her, being a survivor wasn’t a curse that doomed her to a horrible, messed up adult life.” — BEN
“Recovering from a rape is a long and often difficult process, but walk away knowing that it was NOT your fault. I did. I knew I had done nothing wrong. I knew that my attacker had problems, that someone wouldn’t ordinarily do this to another person. — CHERI

How Can You Support Survivors?

How have you reacted when you’ve heard about a sexual assault case? From the comments that you made, will a survivor think you are going to be supportive?

Starting today, say the right words.

Talk to everyone you care about and share the following message (referred to as “opening the door” for survivors):

“If anyone ever has or ever does sexually touch you against your will or without your consent, I am always here for you. Always.”

Avoid adding statements such as, “If anyone ever does anything to you, I’ll kill the person.” Comments of retaliation or violence will often scare the survivor and keep them from telling anyone what happened. Focus the conversation solely on supporting the survivor.

Why is it important to begin “opening the door” for everyone you can within the next few hours and days? You never know when someone has been or will be sexually assaulted. If a person hears you “opening the door” and is sexually assaulted months later, the survivor is likely to remember that you are a safe outlet. Or, if the person had been sexually assaulted in the past, they may see you as the one person who will be helpful and understanding.

Now that you have opened the door for a survivor, what do you say when someone tells you they were sexually assaulted? Many people mistakenly respond by saying, “I’m sorry,” which survivors frequently feel is a statement of pity. Instead, show respect and admiration for the survivor by saying:

“Thank you for sharing with me. Clearly, you are strong and courageous. What can I do to help?”

Let the survivor decide what to discuss. Listen closely. Share the many options available to survivors through crisis centers, websites, and hotlines. When “opening the door” for a survivor, you have the opportunity to make a positive impact on the life of another person.

You can find more information on this topic in the new book, “Can I Kiss You?” – A thought-provoking look at relationships, intimacy, and sexual assault.

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