Over the last few months, a huge wave of people have come forward to share their stories of sexual assault and harassment. Finding strength in numbers, the #MeToo movement has allowed many folks to truly understand the size and scope of the problem, but has also left us struggling with the question of how to respond.
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As more and more individuals come forward—both on the public stage and in our private lives—it’s important for us to learn how to respond to these stories the right way.
We recently spoke with Michele Paolella, LMSW, director of social services and training at Day One (a New York-based nonprofit organization focused on domestic violence and sexual assault among young people), about ways to support victims of sexual assault and trauma—and avoid re-traumatizing them.
Survivors of sexual assault and harassment are our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and family members, and despite our good intentions, there might be some things we’re doing that could inadvertently make their situations harder.
Greatist: The first question for friends and family members of survivors of sexual assault is often “now what?” What do we do next?
Michele Paolella: If your friend or a family member has just told you that they experienced a sexual assault, the first thing to do is take a deep breath and ground yourself so that you are able to deeply listen to what they are sharing with you. You don’t have to have all the answers at your fingertips; listen to really hear and not to respond.
Remember first and foremost that a survivor of sexual assault has been through an experience that took away their power and control, and the healing process can start as soon as they are able to regain some of the power and control that was taken from them. This means that no matter how tempted you may be to tell them what to do (“Call the police, get to the emergency room, etc.”), it’s better to support them in making their own decisions.
Remember that anyone (of any gender, sexuality, etc.) can be a survivor of sexual assault, and anyone can assault someone. People’s individual identities and situations will impact how they want to move forward.
It’s also important to keep in mind that most people who are sexually assaulted are assaulted by people known to them. If this is the case for your friend or family member, it means there might be a chance that you also know the person who assaulted them. In this case, I recommend that you reach out for additional support (in person or online) to think about how you will interact with, hold accountable, and work toward healing if someone you know and maybe even care deeply about has caused harm. These are very complicated and challenging things to navigate.
It might seem obvious to you, but it’s very important to communicate clearly to the survivor that you believe them and that what happened was not their fault. Many people who are assaulted don’t tell anyone, so recognize that just the fact they are trusting you with their story is a privilege and expression of their trust.
Questions like “What can I do to help?” may be welcomed, or they may be too broad. If they aren’t sure of what you can do, you can try more specific questions. For example, you can help them take care of their basic needs by asking them when they last ate and drank water, if they feel safe now, and what you can do to help them feel safer if they do not.
What are the best ways that friends and family members can help survivors of sexual assault find healing?
Understand that healing is a process that is never completely done and looks different for everyone. Something could trigger strong feelings long after the survivor expects them, and that’s OK.
I’ve heard many survivors say that they received unintentional messages from friends or family members that they “should” be healing in a different way, that it was taking “too long,” or that they’ve “regressed” in their healing when it’s not linear. Support them in making their own decisions and counter any victim-blaming language with reminders that they are not at fault.
What are the things we should avoid doing?
Avoid using any language that could be understood as victim-blaming. Try to think about it from their perspective, not your own. There are obvious questions to avoid (“What were you wearing?” “Why would you let your partner treat you that way?” “Were you flirting with them?”)
But also think about the more subtle ways that people hear victim-blaming messages (“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” “Why were you out by yourself that late?”). Friends and family members should also avoid telling survivors what to do, making decisions for them, and asking probing or detail-oriented questions.
Every situation and every survivor of trauma handles things differently. How should friends and family move forward with that in mind? We don’t want to be prescriptive and say, “In all cases, you should do X,” when—in reality—there are many nuances and extenuating circumstances.
This is key, and a huge part of this is working to deeply understand the boundaries and wishes of the survivor. If they were assaulted in the last seven days, there might be evidence of the assault on their body that can be collected by going to the emergency room. They don’t have to decide right away if they want to involve the police, but hospitals will store any gathered evidence (for what amount of time varies), and that can give them the option to seek prosecution in the future if they decide they want to do that.
If they were assaulted more than a week ago, you can offer to help them find resources if they want them. Ask them if they want you to sit with them while they make the phone call or go to whatever the resource is—it can be harder to do this alone. Always keep their emotional and physical safety in mind.
This may mean recognizing that some of the things you believe would be best for the survivor may not be what works for them, especially in cases where things like outing gender/sexual identity, immigration status, or trauma history would put them at increased risk of rejection by their family or community, result in unwanted state involvement (in the case of police or immigration), or other negative outcomes.
Also remember that caring for yourself is really important. This is hard and complicated and heartbreaking, and it might not always be clear how you can best support your friend. If you feel like you need some additional support, you can also reach out for resources.