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4 Mistakes We're Making When Confronting Sexual Assault

It can be easy to talk when the media highlights a traumatic sexual assault case – it sends waves throughout our world. It pulls at our heart strings. Our emotions become amplified and we always have so much to say at a time when people around us are grieving, angry or confrontational. As soon as the topic moves elsewhere, however, the conversation usually stops. Why? Because it still isn’t a part of our day-to-day conversation. It is uncomfortable.

Many of the things that become filtrated after a sexual assault are crucial to a survivors recovery. We often miss subtle things we can do to help those who experience this trauma.

Here are some common mistakes I believe we are making when confronted with sexual assault (from a survivor’s perspective):

1. Teaching about sexual assault and violence the wrong way.

The person most likely to commit a sexual assault often isn’t someone who only comes out at night. It isn’t always the person who is violent with others. They don’t always have a criminal record.

Often, it’s the charming, charismatic person who invites you to social events. It’s the person who you might have liked at some point; a person that has a lot of trust in the palm of their hands. Someone who might feel like you.

If we are teaching to look out for only one type of predator – we are doing a disservice. Bad guys don’t always come with a mask. Often, they hide behind a smile and behind manipulation. Not seeing this from both angles can not only discourage survivors from speaking out, but can make them think it might have been their fault.

2. Not asking more when someone opens up about experiencing a sexual assault.

If someone confides in you one on one or mentions something in passing about a sexual assault – speak up. Ask questions. Don’t ignore the conversation because it is uncomfortable. When something as traumatic as sexual assault happens to someone, it is easy for them to begin to question their worth, their credibility, and if anyone truly cares. Simply saying, “You can keep going, I am listening to you,” can make a world of difference to someone. I think the more a survivor shares their story, the less power it holds over their head.

The worst thing we can do is respond dully or shy away from the conversation. We need to have room in conversation for these moments. It is OK to feel uncomfortable.

3. Not realizing victim shaming can be more damaging than the assault.

Victim shaming can come in different forms — some direct, some indirect, intentional or unintentional. When sexual assault occurs, it takes a large amount of strength and courage to form words into sentences. It doesn’t always happen for survivors, so what we do to make others feel safe is crucial.

Language is important. Please stop asking why I was drinking. Why I was out late. Why I smoked pot. Why I was in an unfamiliar place. We are asking the wrong questions. Instead, we should be asking: What is going on in the other persons mind to rationalize this behavior? How can we help the survivor and the perpetrator? Both lives are forever changed after this trauma.

Bullying after a sexual assault is very real. It is very raw. When you’re already on the ground and continue to be kicked — intervention needs to happen. Listen to what’s going on around you, what other people discuss in conversation. It takes only 10 seconds of bravery and confidence in yourself to challenge something hurtful that might be happening. What would you want someone to say to defend you?

4. Providing support – in a way that is comfortable.

Yes, support groups are wonderful. Sharing posts on Facebook does raise awareness. Accessibility to therapy and medication is important. We like to provide support in ways that are comfortable, that don’t make us anxious. However, the ugly parts of a sexual assault are the ones where someone will probably truly need your help. Be present while someone cries uncontrollably about having a flashback. Don’t become distant when someone mentions suicide. These moments may be uncomfortable to you, but it might be a small thing you can do in the process of a survivor’s recovery.

Opening the floor to discuss sexual assault has, without a doubt, improved over the past few years. However, I think we still need to push for conversation about sexual assault, and remain talking. While this is something that will probably never be discussed without a pounding in your chest or a lump in your throat, it is something that can help survivors of sexual assault immensely. Because when you have someone in your corner – you have one extra voice that can be louder than the demons you might be battling alone.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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Unsplash image via George Gvasalia