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6 Ways You Can Support Sexual Assault Survivors This Sexual Assault Awareness Month

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Sexual assault happens far too often, but unfortunately, it’s still heavily stigmatized in our society. Due to the stigma, many sexual assault survivors don’t receive the support they need or are disbelieved completely — but we can change the way we treat survivors. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so here are 6 ways to support survivors this month (and every month).

1. Allow survivors to share their stories when they’re ready.

Sexual assault can be painful and traumatic, not only in the moment but also for months or years afterward. Speaking about the experience of being assaulted can bring repressed memories to the surface and cause trauma responses, so even if you want to be a supportive listener, don’t push your loved one to speak extensively about their assault. Instead, wait for them to share details on their own time, and respect how much (or how little) they choose to share. Allowing your family member or friend to speak about their assault experiences when they’re ready can help them reclaim agency at a time when they may feel like their control has been stripped away.

2. Don’t diminish a sexual assault survivor’s experiences.

Although you may associate sexual assault with violence or rape, not every sexual assault is so overt — but every sexual assault story is valid. Sexual assault includes any unwanted physical contact with sexual overtones, so assault experiences come in many forms. Therefore, it’s important not to mitigate survivors’ experiences by claiming that their assaults weren’t “real” or insisting that the type of unwanted contact they experienced “happens to everyone.” Some forms of assault are normalized in our society, but it’s crucial to remember that they shouldn’t be and they can be traumatic in their own right.

3. Remember that no one asks to be sexually assaulted.

It doesn’t matter how short a survivor’s skirt was or how drunk they got the night of their assault — sexual assault is exclusively the perpetrator’s fault. The lack of consent inherent in sexual assault means that no one is “asking for it” — both implicitly or explicitly. Probing survivors about their clothing or state of mind during the time of their assault is extremely invalidating and is a form of “victim-blaming.” When others share that they’ve been assaulted, readjust your perspective and put the blame where it belongs — directly on the perpetrators.

4. Check your gender biases.

Anyone of any gender can be assaulted — including men — but men who’ve survived sexual assault often face their own gendered brand of “survivor-shaming.” Men are often “congratulated” after they experience sexual assault or relentlessly told that they must have liked the unwanted sexual contact they experienced. Many people also act as though surviving assault emasculates men, which can make it difficult for men to come forward with their stories or report their assaults. Although women are more likely to experience sexual assault than men are, a significant number of men have been sexually assaulted — and their experiences aren’t a laughing matter. If a man shares with you that he’s been assaulted, take his story seriously.

5. Listen to and believe survivors.

The stigma around sexual assault contributes to a culture in which we often disbelieve survivors’ experiences, but sexual assault survivors deserve for us to validate and believe them. If someone shares that they’re a sexual assault survivor, believe that their story is real and empathize with them. Listen intently as they share their experiences, and refrain from asking excessive questions or making their personal experiences about yourself. Respect that your loved one may only share what they feel comfortable disclosing and may also experience emotions that they’ve repressed for a long period of time. If you can, share reputable resources in case your loved one needs extra support.

6. Practice enthusiastic sober consent with your partners.

One of the best ways to support survivors is to prevent sexual assault from occurring in the first place. In the heat of the moment, it may be tempting to forge ahead in the bedroom, but be sure to ask your partner if they feel comfortable each step of the way. Be mindful of the tone of their responses — only an enthusiastic “yes” is true consent. If your partner expresses discomfort during certain activities, stop immediately without pressuring or questioning them. Most importantly, remember that being under the influence can limit your partner’s ability to consent. If your partner isn’t coherent enough to grasp the situation, sexual activity should be taken off the table until they sober up. When you practice enthusiastic sober consent, you not only respect your partner’s life experiences, but you also stop assault in its tracks.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

Originally published: April 11, 2021
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