A strong support network can make a world of difference in the aftermath of violence, but knowing whom to turn to after experiencing assault, harassment, or abuse can be a difficult thing. Some survivors are met with immediate positive affirmations and offers of help, while others have found that friends and family members may be unwilling or unable to deal with this issue. They may subscribe to rape myths, or make hurtful comments such as “you just need to get over it” or “it doesn’t sound like it was that bad.” Such comments can be very damaging and delay a survivor’s recovery. They may also have traumatic experiences in their own past that make it difficult for them to be there for you. This is a startling realization – how do you get through something like this without the people you know and trust the most?
How do you know whom you can talk to? Think back on conversations you have had with friends or family members about rape and sexual assault. If they have made comments that imply that the rape was the victim’s fault, such as questioning the victim’s behavior, how he or she was dressed, what he or she was doing prior to, during, or after the assault, etc. this might be a person to stay away from, at least initially. You can certainly go back and address the issue with them when you are feeling stronger, but in the short term after experiencing an assault, these comments can be hurtful and damaging.
On the other hand, if you know a person who has stated that rape is never the victim’s fault, is informed on issues of interpersonal violence, is traditionally nonjudgmental, etc., this may be a good person to talk to. None of these things are a guarantee that the conversation will go well, because it is impossible to predict someone’s reaction in any given situation. However, you can certainly stack the deck in your favor by choosing people who are knowledgeable about the issue and have been traditionally tolerant and nonjudgmental.
Sadly, many survivors of sexual violence are scared to talk to any family members or friends because they are afraid of being blamed, questioned, or not believed. They may feel that no one in their immediate circle will know how to respond to someone who has experienced assault or rape. This is when you need to think “outside the box” and consider seeking support from alternative sources. Some suggestions include a family physician or OB/GYN who you have known for a while, a counselor or therapist, a teacher or professor, and online sources of support such as RAINN’s online hotline or Pandora’s Project. Online resources can be especially helpful for someone who is just starting out on the journey of recovery because they can be accessed anonymously, yet you will find people who understand. For example, RAINN’s online hotline allows you to have an anonymous, “instant messenger” conversation with a trained volunteer who can offer your resources and support. Pandora’s Project offers forums where you can communicate with other survivors about what you are experiencing.
Once you have established a support network with professionals such as physicians or counselors and/or other survivors, this may be the time to talk with some of your family or friends who you were previously unsure about talking to. A support network can be your “fall back” in case a conversation with a family member or friend does not go well.
It’s a good idea to brainstorm with someone in your support network before talking to your friend or family member. Do you want to have the person over for a quiet dinner where you can talk? Do you want to have them come to your counselor’s office so the counselor can help you tell them? Do you want to write a letter? Most of all, it’s important to set goals. What are you hoping to gain from the conversation? What do you want your mom/dad/significant other to know? What do you need from them?
It can also be helpful to have some resources to offer your family member or friend. RAINN has information about helping a loved one, as well as how your family member or friend can take care of him or herself. Family and friends of survivors are also welcome to utilize the RAINN online hotline (previously mentioned) and counseling services. You can also point people toward the Know Your IX resource on supporting a survivor.
Sexual assault may be an extremely isolating experience. You may feel alone, like no one else can understand what you are going through. But you are not alone. Every two minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey, there is an average of 207,754 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year. You are not the only one going through this, and you will be surprised at how much help is available and how many wonderful people are ready to be there for you. Reach out to them.