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.