On my dresser sits a seemingly insignificant pile of items: a change of clothes, my wallet, keys, a coloring book, and a folder. Someone could walk past this pile a hundred times and not think anything of it, but for me, it carries a very special meaning. This collection of materials is ready for me in the event I need to meet a survivor at the hospital. When I’m on call, that means anytime, day or night. I need to be prepared, always, for the next phone call.
As I reflect over the last several months of my internship at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, I’m reminded of the countless examples of the power of the human spirit I had the honor to witness. Somehow, despite experiencing unimaginable trauma, I saw survivors continue to hope, to dream, to support one another, and to fight back against biased, frustrating systems. This didn’t happen in the absence of difficult days; the challenges and hopes co-existed, even when that hope was understandably limited.
I learned so much from the staff and the clients we supported; much more than I could ever capture in a short blog. That said, there are some key lessons I’d like to share with people who interact with survivors. Given the frequency of sexual trauma, that includes everyone. In speaking with many survivors, the responses they received after disclosing sexual trauma ranged anywhere from supportive to retraumatizing. Helping survivors in their healing journeys requires all of us, and the good news is that there are many things we can do to make this process better.
Listen: There is no substitution for non-judgmental, supportive listening when someone discloses sexual trauma. This means we may have to push back against our human nature to instantly try to solve or fix someone’s situation. Listen without trying to make someone immediately feel better – just hear them. It’s really important that survivors of sexual trauma feel like they have some control. Keep in mind that they likely experienced a situation where they were robbed of control. Stay as calm as possible, validate the survivor’s experience, and ask how you can best support them.
Maintain Trust: If a survivor discloses their trauma it means that, on some level, they have decided to put their trust in you. I cannot overstate how important this is. Justifiably so, survivors may have difficulty trusting people after what they’ve experienced. This is an incredible opportunity to provide an example of what a trusting relationship can look like and help create an environment of support and healing. Respect the survivor’s boundaries: if they do not want to talk further about something, that’s okay. If they ask you not to share what they’ve told you, keep it private. If a survivor is trying to decide next steps (report to police, go to the hospital, etc.), help them research their options so they can make decisions they feel are best for them. Acknowledge the strength and courage it took to disclose their trauma and make this experience as positive as possible for them.
Patience: There is no direct, linear pathway to healing from sexual trauma, and everyone responds differently. During my internship, I learned quickly that no two hotline or hospital support calls were the same. Some people may show emotion, others may not. Some survivors report being able to heal from their trauma relatively quickly, while others may take a lifetime. All of these responses and everything in between are completely valid. Trauma work can be extremely complex and exhausting for survivors. For those operating in a supportive capacity to survivors, patience is critical. If the survivor is someone close to you, it may be very hard to manage your own emotions. Often, caregivers and partners of survivors are referred to as secondary survivors because of the wide-reaching impact of sexual trauma. Your own self-care is very important in this process, too. It can be difficult to support others if we aren’t taking care of ourselves.
Support Is Available: Sexual trauma can feel extremely isolating. Despite statistics illustrating how frequently sexual violence occurs, it is still largely kept in secret. This secretive nature of sexual violence is one of the reasons it has been able to persist. If we’re not supposed to talk about it, it must be something shameful, right? Sadly, this mentality denies survivors the type of support they need and deserve as well as limits critical dialogue about preventing sexual violence. When someone has experienced sexual trauma directly or they are supporting someone who has, support is available. The Orange County Rape Crisis Center offers a variety of support groups, a 24/7 helpline (call, chat, or text), therapy referrals, education and outreach, and advocacy.
In closing, the most significant lesson from my internship is that survivors and secondary survivors do not have to navigate the complexities of sexual trauma alone. There are many people committed to this work: to supporting survivors; to changing conditions that perpetuate sexual violence; and to transforming systems that fail at obtaining justice for survivors. As a survivor myself, having the opportunity to support fellow survivors and work with others who tirelessly strive to end sexual violence has been life-changing. Like I was throughout my internship, these advocates will always be ready to take the next call, until we finally end sexual violence.