Supporting a Survivor of Sexual Assault: The Basics

17 Jul

by Kat Kelley

It happens here. One in four Georgetown women and one in thirty three Georgetown men will experience sexual assault before they graduate.*

It happens here. It happens to Hoyas. Hoyas are perpetrators, bystanders, allies, and survivors of sexual assault.

Look around you. Look around you as you stand in the pasta line at Leo’s, in your Econ recitation, browsing Facebook in Lau 2, or on the treadmill at Yates. It happens here. Can you really afford to ignore it any longer? Are you prepared to support your friend-teammate-lab partner-neighbor if they turn to you for help?

As a society we consistently fail to adequately support survivors of sexual assault and to hold perpetrators accountable. Of college women who experience sexual assault, 42% tell no one about the assault, and only 5% report to the police. The problem is not the survivors who aren’t reporting. Survivors are not responsible for preventing sexual assault, only perpetrators can do that. Reporting is traumatic, survivors often say they feel “re-victimized” by the reporting process.

We are the problem. We need to change the equation. We need to change the way we respond to survivors.

So how can we be allies? First, don’t underestimate the power of your words. I have had survivors tell me that just hearing me talk about sexual assault, seeing what I post on Facebook, subtly showing support, all makes a difference. Sharing your story is hard. Survivors often don’t know who they can trust, or how people will respond. It’s important to show the world that you are an ally.

Okay, so your roommate-classmate-brother-coworker discloses. What do you do? Start by believing. Survivors are blamed and chastised, they are asked if it was “a misunderstanding” or told that its a “gray area.” We need to start by believing.

Next, listen. Don’t underestimate the power of listening. Listen- don’t ask a million questions, don’t probe for more information than a survivor is ready to give. Actively listen, and show your unconditional support.

One of the most important things a survivor needs to hear is “this wasn’t your fault.” Sexual assault is never warranted. No matter what they were wearing, who they were with, where they were, or what they were drinking.  And certainly don’t invalidate their experience by calling it a “gray area.” Consent is affirmative, not implied. You don’t need to push and shove to “prove” you aren’t consenting. Consent must be continuous- it cannot be assumed just because you’ve been involved with someone before, or because you have consented to other actions building up to that moment. And if someone isn’t consenting- you can tell, if someone is lying there still and terrified, its probably a good time to check-in. There are no gray areas, and it is never the survivors fault.

Validate their experience and their emotions. Survivors may feel shame, guilt, depression, dirty, angry, afraid, unable to sleep or focus, or they may be unresponsive, or show no emotions. There is no “right” way to respond. Whatever a survivor feels, that’s okay- that is understandable, and they have every right to feel that way. Validate their emotions, and show empathy.

Finally, empower and support survivors. Survivors have had their control, their bodily autonomy taken from them. Don’t tell them what to do, or what is right for them. Allow them to explore their options, provide them with resources, but don’t tell them how to proceed. They need to do what is best for them, and as an ally, their healing process is your first priority.

And finally, supporting a survivor isn’t easy, and it is important for allies, friends, and loved-ones to practice self-care as well. You aren’t an expert, you can’t do everything for a survivor. Show your support, but know and respect your limits.

If you find this post in any way triggering, please know that a wide range of resources are available.


*Information not available for trans and gender-queer students.

If you find this post in any way triggering, please know that a wide range of resources are available.

This piece was written as a follow-up to an Ignite Georgetown talk given by Kat Kelley in March, 2013.


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