What to Do When a Loved One Opens Up About Surviving Sexual Assault
As the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal and other Hollywood allegations continue to unfold, social media platforms — especially Twitter and Facebook — have transformed into spaces for sexual assault and harassment survivors to share their stories with the hashtag #MeToo. Some have critiqued the hashtag as redirecting the focus from the perpetrators, where it should be, to the survivors. But for many, this movement has emboldened them to speak their truths, producing some undeniably positive results — such as helping reduce the stigma surrounding sexual assault survivors, advancing discourse about the subject, and pushing real consequences for assault.
As more survivors feel empowered to come forward, it becomes ever more important to know how to respond appropriately if a friend or loved one opens up to you about an experience with sexual assault. We spoke with Tiffany Ashenfelter, a Dallas-based licensed professional counselor who works directly with survivors of sexual and physical violence, about how to most effectively help.
1. Believe. Oftentimes, survivors feel as though no one will believe their experience or experiences, and many are even told this by their abusers. A good starting point as the recipient of this information is to simply believe what they tell you in full. As simple as this is, “It can be a huge relief to them,” Ashenfelter says.
2. Listen. No one owes you their story. To be confided in is a privilege, so be an empathetic and attentive listener. “By being witness to their pain and their story, we empower their voice,” Ashenfelter explains. Allow them to share their story and react in the manner they choose by “giving them the space they need to grieve or be angry or laugh or cry without comment or judgment.” The more one-sided the conversation, the less room there is for interrogation or unwanted input. Each survivor will have a different conception of coping. Ashenfelter instructs that we should avoid saying things such as, “Why didn’t you go to the police?” or “You should report that to HR.” This increases shame and shuts down communication.
3. Support. Let the survivor move forward as they see fit. Many won’t want to go to authorities in law enforcement or their employer, and that is entirely up to them, because they are the best judge of whether they’re likely to be believed or just traumatized all over again. The best thing you can do is support them in their actions (or inaction). Encourage them to do what they feel is best for themself — and if requested, help provide them with options. Ashenfelter suggests survivors see therapists or join support groups if and when they feel ready, as these places can be sources of hope and healing. Ashenfelter reminds that it’s also important to keep in mind that as family members or friends of survivors we are not their therapists. Although the survivor’s needs should be prioritized, so must yours. It’s entirely acceptable — even encouraged — to engage in self-care in the wake of these heavy conversations.
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