The following content may be triggering to those affected by sexual violence.
A little over five years ago I was drugged and raped at a party in an upperclassman’s apartment by someone in my college graduating class.
After phases of shock, depression, anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, denial, numbness, embarrassment, confusion, insomnia, secrecy, flash backs, and self harm I have finally arrived at this current mental state. I am now able to speak about my experience without crying, hyperventilating, disassociating, or regressing. I am hurting but I am also still healing from this experience.
I was and am lucky enough to have caring friends, devoted therapists, and sympathetic family members; however, most of my support system has not experienced sexual assault themselves. While I do appreciate all of the love and guidance I’ve received from my network, it was a little difficult to talk to them about my rape because they didn’t fully understand what I went through.
Let me be clear: I do not wish sexual assault on anyone, but mending my relationship with myself was extremely difficult becuase I felt misunderstood.
I am writing this article in order to help those with people in their lives who have been through sexual assault of any kind, not just rape, and want to help them. Below is a step-by-step guide to how to be there for anyone who has been through this kind of violence.
1. Accept the idea that anyone on the gender spectrum can be sexually assaulted.
Modern society has taught us that only those who identify as women can be victims of sexual violence; however, this is not true. To be inclusive of all genders I use they/them pronouns during this piece.
2. Understand that every situation is contextual.
Everyone is fundamentally different, which means how one responds to trauma can be different from how you may respond to the same kind of trauma. While this is true there are also some hard guidelines for best aiding a friend or loved one who has experienced sexual violence.
3. Just listen.
Do not tell survivors what to do. Part of going through sexual assault means that your choice and will have been taken away; being attentive, aware, and emotionally intelligent is crucial. This is because giving them options about what to do next allows a sense of agency to return to your friend or loved one: doing this empowers them to move through this experience with their own authority.
4. Give advice only if they ask for it.
Again, you’ll want to make sure that you give that sense of agency back to them. Providing unsolicited advice can come off as controlling or bossy, which is the absolute last kind of perception that you want to deliver.
5. Don’t make it about you.
Give yourself up as an autonomous person and just be there for the person that’s opening up. This is important because such an incredibly violent, disruptive experience is so deeply personal; abandoning your personal beliefs and opinions can really help whoever has experienced sexual assault to feel understood and valued. Keep an extremely open mind.
6. Comprehend the idea that their experience, and subsequently their healing, is their own.
Remember: even if you have also been assaulted that does not mean that what they need in order to heal will be the same as what you needed to heal. They may not even want to heal in the first place! Again, every person and every experience is fundamentally different, which means that every solution can also be different.
7. Be willing to back off.
Recounting an experience can be traumatic in and of itself, give your friend or loved one permission to stop talking about it if they need a moment or want to end the conversation. Additionally, just because they opened up to you once does not mean that you are entitled to speaking to them about the experience whenever you want to. Their assault is their assault, and honoring that idea can be represented by giving them space when they ask for it.
8. Never make them feel guilty.
Remember that there are societal barriers that keep survivors from healing in the way that they need to. Rape culture is alive and prevalent in our community, meaning that existing as a surivor of sexual assault can be an incredibly difficult living experience day by day. Many victims of sexual violence are silenced or shamed; try your hardest to prevent them from feeling guilt or humiliation because of an atrocity committed against them.
9. Help them to establish a sense of security.
Do they feel safe speaking to you about their experience? Do they feel safe around you in general? Do you know the spaces, people, or situations that would make them feel uncomfortable or afraid? Make sure your answers to these questions is “yes.”
10. Take care of yourself.
Being there for someone who has experienced a potentially life-changing attack can really weigh on you; self care is crucial in order to best help others. Self care looks different for everyone, so do what is best for you in order to emotionally and mentally support yourself.
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This list was compiled from pieces of my own experience and words from other survivors. The golden rule is to treat someone like a human because they are and they deserve that kind of basic respect.
Rape and sexual assault are extremely dehumanizing experiences, and giving your friend or loved one that sense of control back can really help them begin to rebuild. I write this in order to best help those who have experienced sexual assault, but also to advise those with survivors in their life.
Take care of them and remember: they are hurting but they are also healing.
Photos (in order of appearance) by Delaney Shuler, Alyse Mazyck, and Dariana Portes.