You're a sexual assault survivor? I don't know what to say.

4/10/2017  By Thirty Percenters

April 10, 2017  

In the 1970s, the first sexual assault awareness events were "Take Back the Night" marches. In the 1980s, sexual assault coalitions wanted a week to promote awareness. In the 1990s, a week became a month - the month of April, now known as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

No one wants to talk about sexual abuse. It's the mother of all taboo subjects. But the consensus among sexual assault advocates is that talking is exactly what is needed - for awareness, for prevention, and for healing.

Local and national numbers
Last year, Abuse Support & Prevention Education Now (ASPEN) Victim Services of Kittitas County provided services to 43 sexual assault victims and 263 domestic violence victims. On a national scale, data from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) show that sexual assault occurs every 98 seconds, despite a 50% decline over the past two decades.

Given the statistics, in your workplace, someone you know well could be a sexual assault survivor.

Prepare to care
As people find the courage to share their stories, you may find yourself in the terrifying but honored position of being their "safe place to land." Maybe you are also a survivor, or others who have survived sexual assault have shared their experiences with you.

Someone in your workplace, someone you know well, could be a sexual assault survivor.

Either way, it can be difficult to know how to respond when you learn that someone is dealing with sexual assault.

From the RAINN Survivor Series. See more survivor stories at rainn.org.

When survivors feel empowered to speak out about their experience - even if it's just to one person - the stigma of sexual assault loses some of its power. Your willingness to listen without judgment makes you a key person in the survivor's healing process.

So what should you say to a survivor who shares their story with you?

RAINN's website offers practical tips on supportive language you can use - what to say, and why it's effective - when a survivor opens up to you:

"I’m sorry this happened." Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like "This must be really tough for you," and, "I’m so glad you are sharing this with me," help to communicate empathy.
"It’s not your fault." Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame.
"I believe you."  It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. The best thing you can do is to believe them.
"You are not alone."  Remind the survivor that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story. Remind them there are other people in their life who care and that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they recover from the experience.
"Are you open to seeking medical attention?"  The survivor might need medical attention, even if the event happened a while ago. You can support the survivor by offering to accompany them or find more information.
"You can trust me." If a survivor opens up to you, it means they trust you. Reassure them that you can be trusted and will respect their privacy. Always ask the survivor before you share their story with others. (If a minor discloses a situation of sexual abuse, you are required in most situations to report the crime. Let the minor know that you have to tell another adult, and ask them if they’d like to be involved.)
"This doesn’t change how I think of you." Some survivors are concerned that sharing what happened will change the way other people see them, especially a partner. Reassure the survivor that surviving sexual violence doesn’t change the way you think or feel about them.

Related resources: 
http://www.comphc.org/yakima-valley-mental-health-victim.php
ASPEN's services include medical, legal and general advocacy for victims. They provide community education and prevention training, as well as domestic violence services and shelter in Kittitas County.
http://www.wcsap.org/survivors-family-friends
Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs

Managed by Kittitas Valley Healthcare, Thirty Percenters does not provide medical advice. For medical advice, please see your healthcare professional.