The impacts of sexual violence can include a wide array of frustrations and barriers to daily functioning for survivors. Watching from the sidelines as a loved one struggles with those difficulties can bring a similar yet different sense of helplessness and frustration. Secondary survivors — the partners, friends, and family members of survivors — often go through their own trauma response as a result of hearing about the survivor’s experiences and witnessing the negative impacts.
Whether a primary survivor is still reeling in the immediate aftermath of having experienced sexual violence, or whether they are struggling with flashbacks and triggers months or years after the initial incident, it can be painful to watch someone experiencing a crisis. It is important to note that a crisis is different than an emergency. An emergency presents imminent risk of physical harm, whereas a crisis is the mental and emotional response when a situation is too overwhelming to be handled by regular coping methods.
Contrary to rape culture and social norms that suggest sexual violence is rooted in sexual desire, lust, or uncontrollable biological urges, rape is a crime deeply embedded in power and control. When a perpetrator commits an act of sexual violence against another person, they deny that person the ability to exert control over their own body, the power to enforce their own boundaries, and the basic necessity of maintaining a sense of safety and well-being.
When a survivor discloses an experience of sexual violence to friends or family, the person hearing the disclosure may respond by trying to fix the situation. That could include things like insisting on going to the hospital, filing a report with the police, moving to a different location, or one of many other actions that prescribe a specific avenue of healing and recovery. Although this response comes from a place of good intentions, these actions often increase the feeling that the survivor has no control over their own life.
Rather than having yet another person impose their will, their concerns, and their priorities on the survivor, it is more beneficial to start from a place of empowerment.
Empowerment means helping the survivor reestablish a sense of control and agency. This may happen by allowing the survivor to recognize their own strengths and capabilities (instead of insisting that they are strong for having gone through something so horrific), helping them find the information necessary to make their own decisions (instead of making decisions without consulting them or against their wishes), and allowing them to take actions they feel comfortable with (instead of pressuring them to do things they don’t want to do).
When we don’t empower survivors to make their own choices within their personal healing process, it can feel re-traumatizing because the survivor is again in a situation beyond their control. Responding from a place of empowerment, however, restores control to the survivor and allows recovery to happen at a pace that feels comfortable.
Trauma-informed care is a perspective that takes into consideration the impact of trauma and the myriad trauma responses when providing services. We have seen increasing attention to providing trauma-informed care in the fields of medical and mental health services, but we have also received requests for trauma-informed dental check-ups, moving companies, and many other services. That makes sense because trauma impacts all areas of life. I recently discovered that this also applies to marathon training.
I am a runner. My running journey began almost 10 years ago when the rape crisis center at which I volunteered held an annual 5k fundraiser race. 5ks led to 10ks, which led to half marathons, and eventually marathons. My dream was to one day make it to the Boston Marathon, and through dedication and hard work, I got there. I ran the 2016 Boston Marathon, using the race as a way to turn my passion into a fundraiser in support of OCRCC, again uniting my interest in running and interest in working to end sexual violence.
I am also a social worker. In my role at the Center, I regularly work with clients who have experienced sexual violence. I bear witness to stories of personal healing, tumultuous relationships, bureaucratic response systems, and social norms that allocate blame and judgment where they don’t belong. I love what I do, but sometimes this work can be hard.
Although I had run marathons before, and although I was beyond ecstatic about running the Boston Marathon, I found it nearly impossible to train for the race. Based on what I know of marathon training and what I know of trauma, it seems to me that the physical demand of training was more difficult because of the emotional toll of my work.
At the Orange County Rape Crisis Center (OCRCC), we spend a lot of time talking about sexual violence because it’s our job! For others, these conversations may not come so easily. Sexual violence is an uncomfortable and deeply personal topic, and talking about your experience can feel invasive. For many people, though, talking about their experience is exactly what is needed to move forward in the healing process. The Center offers a 24-Hour Help Line (also called a crisis line or hotline) to provide an anonymous, confidential space for these conversations. Here are 7 questions that might help you in deciding whether to call the help line for support.
1. I’m not sure if I this is the right place to talk about my situation. Should I call the help line?
If you have any concerns about unwanted sexual attention or experiences, absolutely call the help line. Even if you aren’t sure if what happened to you would be considered “sexual violence” — call us. If we’re not the best resource for what you are personally experiencing, we can help point you in the right direction. Sexual violence can be hard to talk about and nobody should have to sit alone in an uncertain situation. People can call our help line anytime, immediately after experiencing trauma or even years later. We provide support and resources for survivors, their loved ones, and professionals who support them.
2. I don’t know who I’m talking to. Who is on the other end of the line?
The folks who answer our help line are known as Companions. They have had extensive training on sexual assault, crisis counseling, and community resources so that they can provide a safe space to listen compassionately and confidentially to your concerns and to offer referrals for further assistance.
When discussing a timeline of the anti-sexual violence movement, many people refer to second wave feminism and women’s liberation in the 1960s and ‘70s as the beginning of movement. It is true that many hallmarks of the movement occurred during these years, including the founding of early rape crisis centers. It also led to subsequent federal laws and budget allocations that codified the necessity of rape crisis centers as important community resources.
Survivors of sexual violence often struggle with anxiety, depression, symptoms of PTSD, or sleep disorders, which are sometimes dismissed as being “all in your head.” Based on decades of practice and research, Bessel van der Kolk shows how traumatic experiences leave a physical imprint in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Despite the somewhat intimidating small print and large number of pages, this book is an invaluable resource for anyone working through trauma or supporting survivors of trauma.
Kolk begins by explaining how the brain processes traumatic incidents. The threat of danger triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response, which changes how somebody interprets, processes, and remembers a traumatic experience. Due to the different ways people interpret trauma, survivors exhibit a range of responses when dealing with the aftermath of an assault. Some may express intense emotions, like rage or hopelessness, while others may seem shut down or disconnected. Many survivors experience all of these responses at different times during their healing process.
In honor of International Forensic Nurse’s Week, we acknowledge the effort and dedication of the highly trained cadre of SANE nurses that provide sensitive and skillful medical attention to survivors of sexual assault. SANE stands for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, a specialization that is necessary, beneficial, and valuable. SANE nurses receive extensive training to fulfill two equally important roles: collecting forensic evidence and providing trauma-informed medical care to survivors.