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9 Things I Learned Volunteering For a Crisis Chat

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In December 2019, I started my journey as a volunteer for RAINN and the National Sexual Assault Hotline (NSAH). Among its services, the NSAH provides an anonymous chat service, where survivors of sexual assault can speak with a trained staff member or volunteer. No personal information is collected (unless mandated by law), no chat transcripts are saved, and what is shared is confidential and anonymous. And unfortunately, the demand for this service continues to grow each day. I say “unfortunately” because I wish things like this didn’t even need to exist. 

A lot of people ask me why I chose to volunteer for something so…intense. And while that’s a fair question, I try to bring it back to the statistics. Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Every 73 seconds. One in every six women will be a victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. One in six. The need for support and safety to disclose serves as my reason for volunteering on this chat hotline.

However, what I didn’t anticipate were the lessons I’d learn about people in general. Some of the situations I hear about are too horrible to talk about (plus, it’s confidential), but it’s the resiliency and bravery of survivors that really astonishes me. Here are some of the truths I’ve discovered while chatting anonymously with a stranger. 

  1. Humans are incredibly strong, brave and resilient. Imagine going through the worst trauma imaginable and finding the strength to come onto a sexual assault hotline and tell someone about it. I speak to many people who disclose what’s happened for the very first time. They don’t even know me, and they are trusting me with their most painful truths. That’s bravery.
  2. COVID-19 has put many in danger. We’ve all heard about the financial, social, economic and medical effects of the pandemic. What we don’t hear enough about? The survivors stuck at home with their perpetrators. Since April 2020, more than half of the NSAH visitors are minors. The survivors who can’t ask a teacher for help because they’re learning virtually. The survivors who are protecting younger siblings who can’t go to daycare right now. We need to talk about this more, the forgotten ones who have been left at home, in danger, every single day.
  3. We need more support for our male survivors. The conversation with a male visitor is often vastly different than with a female visitor. There is often shame associated with any chat, but in my experience, it’s more difficult for a man to disclose, especially if they feel confused about their sexuality due to an assault.
  4. We need to believe survivors. After #MeToo took off, traffic increased to hotlines like RAINN’s chat. People felt empowered to come forward. And one of the best things that came out of that movement was the statement: “I believe you.” I’ve lost count of the number of people who simply wanted to be heard and believed. If I could reach through the screen and hold their hand, I would have every single time.
  5. Current events can be triggering. During my training, Harvey Weinstein was the name that was brought up as an example. Following that bombshell news report, calls increased to the hotline by more than 200 percent. Other names like Larry Nassar and Jeffrey Epstein can have the same effect. When horrible things happen in the news, we need to check in with our survivor friends. 
  6. Shame and guilt have not gone away for survivors. I would say that the majority of my chats are with people who blame themselves for their rape or assault. Many blame themselves because they initiated intimacy, or they went out on the date in the first place, or they didn’t explicitly say “no.” In this author’s opinion, there needs to be more dialogue in sex education about what “consent” means. “Consent” is not the absence of a “no.” “Consent” is a verbal “yes,” and you always have the right to change your mind at any time. 
  7. It’s important to let survivors define their own experience. I get asked a lot if someone’s experience “qualifies” as assault. The truth is, it is not my job to confirm that. While “rape” is a legal definition that can vary from state to state, it is always important to give the survivor the space and support to decide how they want to talk about their experience. 
  8. Parents need to believe their kids. I hate to say this, but parents call their kids liars all the time, and that fear keeps survivors from reaching out for support. We believe survivors.
  9. Self-care is paramount. This goes for survivors, but it also applies to their support networks and other crisis workers. If you volunteer for any sort and provide trauma-informed care or work for a hotline, take time for yourself before and after your shifts to decompress.

I hope that someday chats like this aren’t necessary. But until that day, I’ll be here, doing my part to support survivors and believe their stories.

Originally published: March 16, 2021
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