Being There For Survivors
(CW: Rape culture, sexual assault)
This is written with friends and family of survivors in mind, and as such refers to survivors collectively and in the third person. Everyone is different and recovers in their own way, and I do not mean to speak over people who have differing needs.
(If you have advice to give, please write in!)
It doesn't matter who you are, where you are from, or what you think you know; you have met a survivor. You have likely met many. You probably know and love survivors, and will continue to do so throughout your life. You may be a vital part of the recovery process right now, whether you are aware of it or not. According to statistics from RapeCrisis.org, in England and Wales one in five women have survived sexual violence of some kind; half a million adults are sexually assaulted a year. Whatever your beliefs, whether you are aware of it or not, you are a part of the recovery process of someone living in the aftermath of sexual assault, and you will be there for someone again in the future, until rape culture has finally been eliminated. You cannot think of this as someone else's problem.
1. Believe the survivors you know: believe the survivors you don't know too. This may seem obvious, however, we live in a rape culture, where abusive behavior is often not seen as wrong, where phrases such as ‘blurred lines’ and ‘grey areas’ are used - and there are never grey areas. Perpetrators of sexual violence take advantage of this, and survivors are never to blame for anything such perpetrators do. Therefore, you must immediately remove any thoughts in your mind that may question a survivor's actions. Never cast doubt, because a survivor may be doubting themselves and their own actions every day. In the moment of learning of an assault of any kind, it is most important to listen. As liberating and important as the current #metoo movement is in highlighting the plight of survivors, it is also a deeply triggering time, where people are defending abusers and many rape myths are being perpetuated. Now more than ever it is important to be aware of these harmful beliefs, question our patriarchy tinged ideas, stop playing devil's advocate and actually believe the people that have the least amount of power.
2. You are not owed a survivor's story, never push for details, question what they did or didn’t do. Going through the details of a sexual assault is a painful experience, and to prompt this when a survivor isn't ready to talk about it with you can be very hurtful. This ties back in with believing too - even if that isn't the intention, the question of ‘was it really that bad’ begins to loom. Curiosity, intrigue, inquisitiveness - while these feelings may be genuine, they also unfortunately come across as an inquisition to find the truth, or may even seem voyeuristic. So no, you do not have a right to know what happened. If a survivor needs you to know something - triggering sayings, places, people, they will tell you when the time is right. Otherwise, a survivor will tell you when they are ready, which may be never, and that is completely ok.
It is also important to note that one should be mindful of letting the survivor talking of their experience finish their story fully before you decide you also want to share your own (perhaps similar) trauma. Interrupting a survivor who is coming to you for support can minimise their experience, even if you are trying to connect and say you understand. Although this is very much welcomed and a vital part of recovery for everyone involved, it is damaging to literally interrupt a survivor mid-way through their telling of their story - as they might not be able to fully disclose in the future through fear of being interrupted.
3. Do not take control of the situation. I have seen many men learn of an assault and threaten to take matters into their own hands, an act that removes any agency of the survivor. It is what is shown in film and TV, and comes from a patriarchal desire to protect your feminine people in our lives. While it may be well intentioned, this attitude takes power from the survivor - robs them of their own emotions and feelings, and creates even more things to worry about. A key part of listening is to allow someone their own emotions; do not tell a survivor how they should be feeling or what they should be doing about the situation.
More than anything, the advice I wish to give is that being there for someone in this situation is incredibly important, and that if you are lucky enough to be trusted as support you need to step up to the plate and assist in any way you can. It may be hard for you too, but you can and should also talk to others if you’re struggling with a loved one’s assault - just don’t rely on the survivor themselves to deal with your anxieties. Survivors are recovering constantly and cannot simply move on without their loved ones’ support. They need to know they are loved, believed and not alone. So, please, be there for the people you love.
art by @frizzkidart