By Nathalie Limon
I feel like the subject of sexual assault is a topic that people feel they have to tip-toe around in conversation. It’s understandable though, since our innate desire to mitigate the possibility of offending people is strong. Since it’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, there’s been an increase in stigma around the subject on social media. But how can we support sexual assault survivors without being over-bearing, offensive and just completely useless?
- Know what you’re on about
Before we even attempt to talk, we should probably figure out what the words ‘sexual assault’ really mean. You don’t want to open your mouth and have the words come out your arse, do you? Imagine having all the gear but having no idea. Well, that’s us and our mouths if we don’t even know what we’re on about. Basically, sexual assault can be in the form of catcalling, unconsented sex and everything else in between. In short – unsolicited sexual interaction that makes the targeted person feel uncomfortable. Sexual assault can be scarring and depricating to anyone’s (male or female, gay or straight) mental health, so knowing the bog standard basics is the first step.
- Listen to them
Sometimes it’s not a case of what advice you can give, but what comfort you can bring. Opening up about scarring experiences has never come easy for anyone. Victims may feel ashamed to talk and are scared that their story won’t be believed. Taking the back seat and just listening to them is the best way to support a sexual assault survivor. RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline staff suggest using phrases like, ‘it’s not your fault’, ‘I’m sorry this happened’, ‘How can I be helpful?’ or even just 3 simple words like ‘I believe you’, because these can be transformative in their healing process.
- Do not blame them
You don’t need to have a Master’s degree in astrophysics to realise that blaming survivors will only be counterproductive in progressing their healing process. It is not their fault. No one, and I repeat NO ONE has ever asked to be sexaully assaulted. Just because they might have been wearing something provocative does not mean they ‘asked for it’. Clothing has never been the authorisation code for assault. Erase whatever nonsensical drivel you may have about a woman’s clothes being a one-way ticket into her pants. That is not how it works. Blaming them only adds fuel to the fire you’re trying to put out.
- Let them know you’re there for them
Letting someone know that you’re a ring away and that you care about them speaks volumes. Let them know that your view on them hasn’t changed and that they’re not damaged goods. But also let them know that it’s okay to be upset over what’s happened and that you’ll be there for them whenever they need someone to talk to. It’s okay if they’re not fine tomorrow morning, a wound like this takes time to heal. Utilising all 7 months I’ve had of A Level Psychology, there’s this thing called unconditional positive regard where you basically accept whatever a person is saying without holding any judgement against them. Sometimes being silent speaks volumes.
- Stop normalising sexual assault
Even if it’s just catcalling, a car honk or grabbing of any kind it’s not okay. No they’re not just doing that because they think you’re attractive and no it’s not a compliment in any type of parallel universe. It hurts me to know that one out of every 5 girls have experienced sexual assault at least once since the age of 16. At least. And most of the time nothing happens afterwards, no retribution or even just a telling off. And there happens to just be an excuse for every situation. ‘The person was so drunk they didn’t know what they were doing’, ‘you were walking alone at night what did you expect’, ‘you were wearing a short, tight skirt so I thought that meant-’ no. The more we tolerate sexual assault the bigger the issue becomes.
- Raise awareness
By simply talking about it openly with family or friends, or even calling out sexual misconduct in public, we can not only reduce the amount of people affected but also erase the ‘guilty’ stigma of being a sexual assault survivor. Online activism on social media is a way that we can all increase awareness for sexual assault, even from the comfort of our homes. Campaigns such as the #MeToo movement have helped encourage survivors to be brave enough to share their story and unveil true accounts of sexual assault and its drastic effects on victims.
In short, days like this (when we’re all confined to the 4 walls of our house) it’s understandable to feel encaged and hopeless. Some days you can’t do anything other than watch the outside world collapse from your bedroom window. But there are still ways that you can help. Even though the shops are closed and the Asda queues are so long they make you feel like you’re waiting to get on The Ultimate at Lightwater Valley, communication and social connections aren’t closed. Relationships aren’t closed. Supportive friends aren’t closed. No one should ever make you feel bad about being a victim. Instead, you should be proud to be a survivor.
Rape Crisis Helpline: 0808 802 9999 (12-2:30 and 7-9:30)
National organisation offering support and counselling for those affected by rape and sexual abuse.
Women Against Rape
This is the joint website of Women Against Rape and Black Women’s Rape Action Project. Both organisations are based on self-help and provide support, legal information and advocacy. We campaign for justice and protection for all women and girls, including asylum seekers, who have suffered sexual, domestic and/or racist violence.
Survivors UK – Male Rape and Sexual Abuse Support
If you have been subjected to male rape or sexual abuse, one of your biggest challenges will be taking the decision to talk to someone. At Survivors UK we know this can seem an enormous and daunting step. Anxiety and fear are among the most common emotions experienced by the abused. But these feelings do become easier and people can, and do, successfully go on to explore their past and its links with today in making sense of recurring problems. We offer emotional support by our Chat Service and SMS and we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction.