SUPPORTING SURVIVORS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT

This resource was created by AORTA in April 2015. Feel free to be in touch to suggest changes or additions!

LANGUAGE

Everyone has different terminology they are comfortable using, and what’s important is the intent and meaning. However, the words we use can tell big stories about how we view a topic or situation.

Survivor: For many, the term survivor is much more empowering than the term victim. It puts emphasis on resilience and self-determination rather than the implication that who you are is defined by what was done to you. Victims are people who are no longer with us; survivors are those working towards healing from harm.

Person who caused harm: We are not the actions we commit. Person who caused harm doesn’t aim to minimize the harm committed, but it does use person-first language instead of terms like “abuser” or “perpetrator” which may feel labeling, debilitating, and damning. Instead, we should push people to take responsibility for their actions and stay committed to changing their behavior and supporting the healing of those they’ve harmed.

Sexual assault: Violence is perpetrated and experienced on a continuum, and it is up to the survivor to identify what behaviors feel like assault. Sexual assault could include actions such as unwanted touching, coercive or threatening sexual behavior, or withholding of resources in exchange for sexual contact. Many legal definitions don’t capture the wide range of individuals’ experience of sexual assault.

Consent: Consent, in this context, means active and positive agreement to all acts of sexual contact from touching and kissing to power play and sex. How consent happens can vary depending on the participants’ communication styles and preferences; what’s important is that positive agreement to sexual behavior is unambiguous and clear to all involved parties. Often, the use of alcohol and drugs can compromise involved participants’ understanding of and ability to give clear consent.

TIPS AND TOOLS FOR SUPPORTING SURVIVORS

When someone discloses to you that they are a survivor of sexual assault or are in an ongoing relationship that includes sexual or domestic violence, it can be scary and overwhelming. Here are some basic tips that might help you respond in a supportive and helpful way. These tips are from Ubuntu’s “9 Principles of Survivor Support” from their zine Supporting a Survivor of Sexual Assault:

  • Health and Safety First: Make sure that the person is not currently in any serious danger. If they are, figure out how you can help them get physically safe. Remember that calling the police is not always the best way to ensure safety. Once they are in a safe place, find out if they have any physical needs that need to be attended to – make sure there are no imminent health concerns.
  • Restore Choice: Sexual assault is about taking choice away from the survivor. To be a healing agent in that person’s life, you must allow them to make choices for themselves. This is true for the small choices (would you like to sit, or stand while we talk? Do you want soda, water, coffee, juice? Would you rather talk at your house, my house, the park?) and for the big choices (do you want to go to the hospital? Do you want to call the police?*). *while these choices are up to the survivor, often times hospital visits and filing police reports can be as traumatizing as parts of the assault. This may be true especially for people of color, trans and gender non-conforming folks, undocumented people, and queer folks.
  • Believe: Being believed is reportedly the #1 factor in a healthy recovery for a survivor of sexual assault. In a strong majority of cases, the rapist will not believe the survivor, the hospital won’t believe them, the police won’t believe them, and their friends and family won’t believe them. You have to. Avoid asking questions that aim to clarify the details of the survivor’s story – those things usually don’t matter and may send a strong message that you are doubting them.
  • Shut Up and Follow the Lead: It is possible (and maybe even likely) that you won’t understand a lot of what the person is sharing. And often the last thing a survivor (especially someone who has just survived assault or is in a violent relationship) needs is advice, suggestions, your opinions. By offering silence you are making room for a survivor to share what they want, when they want. This is important for them to share their story. It is also an important aspect of restoring voice – surviving rape and sexual assault is a deeply silencing act.
  • Stay Committed, Stay Flexible: Recovery from sexual assault won’t happen in a day and every person’s process of recovery is unique. Even if it looks like someone is not healing or moving quickly, don’t give up. Stick around and be available to adjust the kind of support or the style of support based on their needs.

FURTHER RESOURCES

The Revolution Starts at Home
Ed. by Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Surviving Domestic Violence: Voices of Women Who Broke Free
by Elaine Weiss

The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse
by Ellen Bass

Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love is a Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse
by Laura Davis

Choices: Sexual Assault Prevention Workbook for Persons with Disabilities
by Ellen Shamen

No is Not Enough: Helping Teenagers Avoid Sexual Assault
by Carol Adams, Jennifers Faye and Jan Loreen-Martin