How To Support Survivors of Sexual Assault
Help communicate God’s love and empathy through a lifelong healing process
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It is no surprise that sexual assault on college campuses is a pervasive problem.
Approximately 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men will be sexually assaulted while in college. These statistics are far more than just devastating numbers. Each represents someone made in the image of God, endowed with dignity and significance, who was objectified and abused — a grievous sin that God abhors.
These numbers indicate it is likely that you know someone who has experienced a sexual assault, and if you don’t, it is likely you will. Whether it happens to a teammate, friend or family member, it is difficult to know how to respond to and support someone who shares with you their story of sexual assault.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you prepare to support a survivor through the healing process:
For a survivor, disclosing their assault to someone they care about can be very painful. The insecurity and fear of judgement, or fear of not being believed often prevents survivors from sharing their experiences with others. Thank them for being courageous and trusting you with their story. It is a privilege and honor to be trusted this deeply, so your sincere gratitude will go a long way in the healing process of a survivor. Each time they are met with gratitude and grace as they share their story, it will become a little easier for them to invite others into their healing process.
In many cases, especially on college campuses, the perpetrator of a sexual assault is someone the survivor knew and trusted, meaning their assailant betrayed their trust in a horrendous way. Trust is something survivors often struggle with. If a survivor shares their sexual assault story with you, it shows that they trust you immensely. Show them that you can be trusted through your words and actions, promising them that you’ll keep their story confidential.
Try to determine if there are other people in their life that they trust and feel comfortable sharing with. If so, offer to join them as they share their story with others, and remind them there are trusted professionals and resources available to them as well.
HELP IS AVAILABLE
FOR FREE CONFIDENTIAL HELP CALL THE NATIONAL SEXUAL ASSAULT HOTLINE CALL 800.656.HOPE (4673)
FOR MORE RESOURCES, VISIT RAINN.ORG
In some cases, supporting a survivor of sexual assault may involve connecting them with resources such as the sexual assault hotline, connecting them with medical care, or being with them if they choose to report the assault to police. However, the most significant way you can support a survivor is by actively listening.
As a survivor shares their story with you, do your best to maintain eye contact: lean towards them to show they have your attention, avoid interrupting them or imposing solutions to their problems, and allow for silence as they process what they are sharing with you. While this is certainly painful for them to share, it can also be painful (and sometimes feel awkward) to hear, and that is totally okay.
The most valuable thing you can give to a survivor is belief. It is natural to feel uncomfortable with the circumstances of the assault, or to be curious about why or how it happened, but you are not a trained professional; leave specific questions of “why” to the detectives and experts. Your job when supporting a survivor is to love and believe them.
Regardless of alcohol consumption, attire or circumstances, someone else took advantage of them and is ultimately responsible for what happened; it is never the survivor’s fault. As their confidant, it’s important that you continually remind the survivor of this. They need to know they don’t deserve what happened to them and that you believe them.
It is important to consider what message you are communicating through your body posture, tone of voice and the questions you are asking. Are you communicating belief and trust, or judgement and shame? A survivor will be on high alert for any sign that you are unsafe, that you are judging them or that you don’t believe what they are sharing with you. When these alarms go off in their mind, they may withdraw and disengage from the essential steps in the healing process.
the most significant way you can support a survivor is by actively listening
LAMENT WITH THEM
You have probably heard someone say “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or “fake it ‘til you make it.” Phrases like these are not biblical and not helpful when supporting a survivor. They communicate “get yourself together” at a point in the person’s life where they are likely feeling helpless, hopeless and raw. Lamenting is the opposite of these unbiblical, self-reliant anecdotes.
Lamenting, or expressing grief before the Lord, is the spiritual discipline of crying out to God that we cannot do it on our own and that the brokenness, sin and suffering we are experiencing is more than we can handle. Lament removes the lies of self-reliance and invites Jesus, our perfect empathizer, into the messiness of the healing process.
Lamenting with a survivor is a compassionate way to express your empathy and to minister to their soul. It is a way to enter into their grief and show them there is a God who sees them and hears their cries.
KNOW YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO SURVIVORS AND THE RESOURCES AVAILABLE
If a survivor is a minor, it is your legal responsibility to report the assault to authorities right away, and there may be legal ramifications if you do not.
If you are a coach, or work for a university or campus organization, it is important to brush up on the policies in place that advocate for survivors. Some good questions to ask your employer include:
“Am I a mandatory reporter of sexual assault?”
“What counseling services are available to survivors of sexual assault?”
“What is my responsibility to a survivor of sexual assault?”
It is much easier to get information and to learn about policies and resources available to you and to survivors before someone discloses an assault to you. Be proactive and keep these policies and resources available.
The National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673) has highly trained staff members who are equipped to offer assistance in moments of crisis as well as resources for ongoing support related to sexual violence for you and survivors. If you are supporting a survivor of sexual assault, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is an incredibly valuable and typically under-utilized resource.
RAINN.org has many great resources as well as a search engine that can show you local resources and services that are available to survivors in your community. It may be helpful to bookmark this website to have its resources at your fingertips.
Most universities have a department dedicated to supporting survivors of sexual assault, and this can be extremely helpful to survivors navigating what’s next. Become familiar with this department and what resources are available.
Keep in mind, survivors had power taken away from them the moment someone took advantage of them. Remind them they have power and autonomy in their healing process. Don’t tell them what to do; rather, share what resources are available, empower them to make decisions and offer to stand with them when they do.
IT IS A PROCESS
The healing process for survivors of sexual assault looks different for each person. No two situations are the same. There is no magical formula — healing from sexual trauma is an ultramarathon, not a sprint. Be patient with the process. Practice boundaries and self-care as you offer support to a survivor. Give yourself grace when you say something wrong or need rest. Help the survivor expand their support base among trusted individuals, mentors and professionals.
Pray for them, and pray for the Spirit to lead you as you engage with this incredibly messy and difficult situation.