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.
Regardless of who you are or how much time has lapsed since the assault, you can always use the empowerment model to support someone who discloses an instance of sexual violence.
- Ensure physical and emotional safety. Check for immediate medical concerns, or thoughts of suicide or homicide.
- Start by believing their experience and reassuring them that the assault is not their fault.
- Hold conversations in private locations and don’t talk to other people about what happened unless they specifically ask you to tell someone else. Don’t share more information than they ask you to share.
- Let the survivor decide what to talk about, when to talk, and how much detail to share.
- Take care of yourself. Vicarious trauma for secondary survivors is real and difficult, and you deserve support too. Plus, good self-care enables you to better take care of others.
- Calling the OCRCC to gather information on medical options, legal options, professional support, and community resources. Again, it is important not to spread the survivor’s story around; rather, you can focus on specific questions about what services are available and logistical questions about accessing those services.
- Researching statistics on sexual violence, common trauma responses, and coping mechanism. Knowledge is power.
- Clarifying that you still care about the survivor and will not take away their agency. When someone feels powerless, it can be helpful to let them know that you will not recreate harmful power dynamics in how you relate to them (which may require giving up your role as savior!).
- Respecting and supporting their decisions — whether or not you agree with their actions — which can include things like deciding not to file a report with police or choosing not to tell certain people about the assault. (Along with that, though, be sure to seek out your own support systems and establish your own coping mechanisms when you personally feel distressed about the situation. It can feel discouraging, infuriating, or upsetting when a survivor chooses not to do something that you think would be important. Your response in this situation is also valid, and also deserving of care and compassion. When processing through your reactions, talk to someone other than the survivor and be sure to focus on your own response rather than sharing details of the survivor’s story.)
Although the instinct to “fix” a situation or “make it better” has good intentions, it relies on the idea that survivors of sexual violence are fragile, broken, and helpless, which doesn’t create the circumstances necessary for healing and recovery. On the other hand, holding them up as heroes that survived unbelievable hardship minimizes and invalidates the difficulties they have experienced. Empowerment helps build a space for survivors to claim their experience (and all the emotions and reactions that go along with it), make their own decisions, and reclaim control over their life, which is a key step toward healing. Supporting survivors along their own path to healing is the most important way that friends, family, and loved ones can help.
Natalie Ziemba is our Crisis Response Coordinator. She manages the Center’s 24-Hour Help Line, oversees our volunteer Companions, coordinates the Orange County SART, bakes delicious cookies, and more.