How to respond if a loved one discloses to you they’ve been sexually assaulted
Picture someone you love. It could be anyone — a friend, a family member, a co-worker.
Now picture that person telling you that they’ve been sexually assaulted. How would you react?
You may think you have a very clear picture in your head of how you would react to a loved one disclosing to you that they’ve experienced sexual violence, but the truth is, no matter how much you may know yourself, you can’t really predict what you would do when emotions and instincts take over.
You also can’t predict what that person may need from you in that very moment. What you may find to be an ideal response could actually instigate more harm to a survivor.
According to recent reporting by The Globe and Mail, 90 per cent of survivors of sexual assault don’t report their assault to the police. But does that mean that those 90 per cent aren’t speaking about it at all?
We can assume that the answer is no. Many survivors confide in or seek advice from people close to them, people they can trust, people they love.
But for those people who are on the listening end, there is no textbook definition for how to help someone who has gone through a significant traumatic event.
And with every act of sexual violence being so different and circumstantial, there is no correct clear-cut answer for how to be there for someone, only mere suggestions.
Last year, the Assessment Working Group of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Gendered Violence Task Force conducted the 2016 Campus Safety Survey: perceptions and experiences with gendered and sexual violence to collect data about Laurier students and their experiences with sexual and gendered violence.
The survey reached 2,899 Laurier students from the Waterloo, Kitchener and Brantford campuses. Of those surveyed, 91 per cent were undergraduate students and 73 per cent were female.
Of the 2,899 students, 323 said they had experienced sexual violence and furthermore, 300 of those 323 provided more information about their experience with sexual violence. 66 per cent said they had told friends or peers, 19 per cent told romantic partners, 11 per cent told family members and 26 per cent told no one.
Only two per cent (seven students) reported the incident using the university procedures that were in place prior to the sexual violence policy and procedure that was implemented in December 2016.
The top five reasons for not reporting were: not thinking it was serious enough, it wasn’t clear whether or not the offender intended to harm, the survivor wanted to forget that it happened, the survivor felt that there was lack of proof that it happened or they felt ashamed or embarrassed.
According to the data, students are more likely to disclose sexual assault to someone close to them, rather than someone in an authoritative role. When someone discloses to you, they are trusting you and while support may seem like an easy and natural concept, there are approaches that you can take when offering support which may be more comforting or healing than others.
Listen and Validate
“How you respond to a survivor has an impact on how they feel about their experience and on their healing journey or path,” said Lynn Kane, manager of gendered violence prevention and support at Laurier.
“I think the most important thing to do when someone discloses [to you that they have experienced sexual violence] is to first and foremost listen. And then the second piece is then to validate, so tell them you believe them and to tell them that it’s not their fault.”
While it may feel natural to bombard your loved one with questions, try not to push them to tell more than they feel comfortable telling. Listen to the words they are saying, as opposed to asking or suggesting.
Your response should be that you believe them and that their trauma is valid.
“We know that one of the top reasons people don’t come forward is because they didn’t think it was serious enough or that they didn’t think there was proof, so I think part of that comes with a sense of shame and stigma. So, letting someone know that it wasn’t their fault, that they’re not to blame, is a really important way to counter that feeling,” Kane said.
“Why” questions can look like this: Why did you drink so much? Why were you alone with him? Why did you walk home by yourself?
“Why” questions can imply that they could have done something to stop the violence.
“And “why” questions might come from a place of reflecting on what you might have done in that experience so you might ask someone why they didn’t do what you think you would have done. But, in reality, the truth is no one knows what they would have done in this scenario and that regardless of the answer to any particular “why” question, it makes no difference because it’s not [the survivor’s] fault,” Kane said.
“No “why” question is going to make it clear why someone would assault someone else and all it’s going to do is imply that they could have done something that could have prevented that assault.”
Asking “why” questions can seem natural. You want to be able to place yourself in your friend’s shoes; you want to understand — so, in efforts to understand, we ask “why?” In these particular situations, these types of questions can be more harmful than supportive.
Putting yourself in their shoes
We’ve all heard these ones: “If I were raped, I’d fight back, I’d scream, I’d run.”
These hypothetical reactions uphold the idea of the “model survivor.” This person is someone who’s experienced sexual violence who fought their perpetrator. They put their perpetrator behind bars. They speak out against gendered violence. We put this kind of survivor on a pedestal for being brave.
But, in reality, a lot of people don’t respond this way. When faced with trauma, human beings respond with fight, flight or freeze. And freezing is a natural and common reaction.
“There’s a lot of assumptions, and I would call these assumptions myths, about how people would respond if they experienced sexual violence. And I think one of the most prominent myths is that someone would scream, shout, push someone off of them and say “no” really loudly,” Kane said.
“Your neurobiology takes over and that’s the first reaction. It can seem counterintuitive, but a lot of times a freeze reaction is a reaction that keeps people safe. It means that you’re not aggravating the person that’s assaulting you. It’s automatic and it’s adaptive and there should be no shame in not doing the things that people think they would do in that situation.”
It’s so important to realize that it’s okay to freeze. It’s okay for survivors to not want to be a spokesperson for gendered violence. It’s okay to not be the “model survivor.”
If someone you love discloses to you that they’ve experienced sexual violence, but did not fight back in the traditional sense, they are still surviving, they are still brave. Validate the fact that they froze, because until it happens to you, you have no idea if you would fight, flight or freeze.
Encouraging police reports
Since we were little, our parents have told us that if someone hurts you, you should tell a police officer. Even in school, we’re told we can trust the police and to have faith in the judicial system.
That’s why, when a loved one tells you that they’ve experienced sexual violence, the right thing to do seems to be to tell them to go to the police. You may offer your assistance. You may tell them to put their coat on right then and there, get into my car, we’re going today.
But, this can actually just add stress to the situation.
“Sexual violence is an experience where someone’s choice and power has been taken away from them and so in providing a supportive response, you want to make sure that you’re empowering people with choice again and making them in control of their own experience,” Kane said.
“Any kind of pushing someone toward a particular course of action further disempowers them and can leave them vulnerable.”
Kane explained that there are several reasons why someone wouldn’t go to the police. Maybe they’ve had past experiences with police that have been negative. Maybe they’ve reported sexual violence before and don’t want to do it again.
Also, the average person doesn’t know everything about the judicial system. You could be pushing your friend to report their assault without being aware of the process or the emotional consequences that may have. Pushing someone doesn’t acknowledge their agency or control — something they may feel like they don’t have a lot of.
The truth is, you can’t make that decision for someone else — but you can help them weigh their options.
When someone you love is hurting, it’s instinct to want to be a superhero for them. You want to make their pain go away and you want to be there for them.
But, as much as you can offer your support, you’re never going to be able to change what happened. You can be beside them during their healing process, but you can’t heal them yourself.
“You want to make it all better,” Kane said.
“So when you’re holding all that information and you’re not able to make it all better and you’re not able to even tell them that you’re able to make it all better, you’re carrying a heavy heavy weight and you need support for that too.”
That’s when the double-ended dagger comes in to play. You feel the initial pain of being told that something horrible happened to someone you care about and then you feel a second stab of guilt for feeling upset. You want to be a rock for your friend, but you’re only human, too. You’re not being selfish. You’re not making it all about you. You’re allowed to feel pain because someone you love is in pain. That’s called empathy.
If the double-ended dagger hits, you may need to seek support as a loved one. Resources for those who have experienced sexual violence aren’t reserved just for survivors. There are places you can go, both on campus and in the community, to seek support about how to help loved ones who have disclosed to you that they have experienced sexual violence.
“It’s important for people to know that receiving a disclosure and providing support can be really hard,” Kane said.
“You can have experiences of vicarious trauma when you hear someone disclose to you an experience of their violence and it doesn’t detract from any of those services when someone who’s providing that help needs help themselves.”
Laurier has a sexual violence support advocate on staff. Her name is Sarah Scanlon and her job is to create a space where survivors of sexual violence can be heard, believed and validated. All meetings with Scanlon are confidential.
“What it does say in our policy and some of the language that I’d like people to know is that no evidence is needed in order to receive supports or accommodations,” Kane said.
“It doesn’t matter whether or not you know or think the violence that you experienced was intentional and that there’s absolutely no time limit for seeking supports.”
Seeking support isn’t the same as reporting it to the police. And while talking to a stranger about your own traumatic experience can be difficult, people in positions like Scanlon are trained and experienced with talking to survivors about their experiences. They’re on your team; they’re there to help you.
We’re taught when we’re little what to do if someone hurts us, but we’re not taught how to help someone we love when someone hurts them. We’re told that the judicial system is there to protect us, but then we hear in the Globe and Mail that almost one in five sexual assault complaints are dismissed by police forces across Canada.
There is no textbook definition about how to react when someone you love tells you that they’ve experienced sexual violence, no script that you can read to make their pain go away.
Supporting someone isn’t always easy and it’s okay to not know what to say — because sometimes, your friend just needs you to listen.