Health and Wellness

Building Trust: 7 Strategies for Encouraging the Victims of Sexual Assault to Speak Up

6:02 AM



At least one person in your immediate circle of family and friends has been a victim of sexual assault. There are others with whom you work or with whom you attend school. You may know who it is, but there are others in the same circle who have yet to disclose their victimization. There are scores of reasons for them to speak up, but it takes trust and strategy to get them to make their case “public.”


The extent of the problem:
Despite the news all around us, the public trials of major celebrities, various iterations of the MeToo movement, and more, few understand the extent of the plague. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) keeps the staggering U.S. records:

     91% of victims of rape and sexual assault are female, and 9% are male.
     51.1% of female victims report being raped by an intimate partner.
     40.9% of female victims report being raped by acquaintance.
     52.4% of male victims report being raped by an acquaintance.
     15.1% of male victims report being raped by a stranger.
     49.5% of multiracial women and over 45% of American Indian/Alaska Native women were subjected to some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.
     25% of girls and 17% of boys will be sexually assaulted before age 18.
     30% of women were between the ages of 11 and 17 at the time of their first rape.
     12.3% of women were age 10 or younger at the time of their first rape.
     27.8% of men were age 10 or younger at the time of their first rape.

The huge financial costs for treatment of the physical and psychological damage barely make up for the core human suffering. Yet, the victims of sexual violence in childhood, as adults, among college students, throughout the military services, and other groups are reluctant to acknowledge and/or admit the violence done let alone seek help or speak up.

The reasons they won’t speak up:
     Blame: Victims, often assaulted by a family member or acquaintance, feel responsibility, guilt, and shame. Confused, terrified, and embarrassed by the event, the examination, the interrogation, and reliving the incident, victims fear speaking about it. As their Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) deepens, they bury the experience so it becomes increasingly painful to discuss.
     Belief: With considerable reason, victims feel no one will believe them. This is especially true in cases where the victim has been abused by an authority figure like a boss,  teacher, or cleric. In fact, the abuser specifically warns the victim to remain silent because no one will believe. Many of the individual and group scandals of recent years arise from the victims intimidated by the power of position. This is not to blame the victim but to explain the depth and breadth of the traumatic condition.
     Consequences: Too often, victims of sexual violence have been conditioned by a culture where the behavior has no apparent legal or personal consequences. This effectively normalizes the actions and, again, makes the victim feel abnormal. The lack of felt consequences leaves children especially damaged because they have not developed the ability to discern means, consequences, and values.
     Retaliation: The sexually violent behavior is such an intimate and invasive experience the victim may choose to claim and retain privacy. History shows violence is repeated often because the perpetrators extort the victims’ silence with threats of retaliation in the form of additional violence, public humiliation, legal action, and more.

7 strategies to help victims of sexual assault to speak up:

1.    Listen actively: Before you proactively suggest speaking up to a victim of sexual violence, you should know what you are talking about. It is presumptive of you to interfere, and that is the way your advice will appear. Your sensitivity and sympathy are not enough to make a real difference.

You must build absolute trust, and that takes some time and work. It starts with establishing a basis in empathy. Empathy refers to a genuine ability to understand and share a victim’s feelings and emotions. Without this emotional connection, you cannot expect victims to reach beyond their isolation. And, active listening can open and strengthen the relationship if you use silence, acknowledgement, and confirmation strategically.

2.    Target an audience: The call to speak up belongs to the victim. It’s the victim’s privilege to name the audience to which they will revisit their trauma. You cannot assume the victim wants to join a political or cultural movement. Such occasions may damage them further if they are not emotionally and psychologically ready on their own terms.

The victim has no obligation to go public. But speaking up to family, friends, and support groups can be positive moves when they are ready. If they fear going to the police or authorities, attorneys can help. Attorneys also can help victims who feel strong enough to pursue damages and retribution.

3.    Follow leaders: Even victims can learn from others. While speaking up may not be right for them at the moment, they can grow into a comfort zone with disclosure. If you can attend public events featuring outspoken victims, the suffering party in your life may appreciate the courage it takes to discuss their history. And, in time, they should see that struggle as personally valuable.

You or members of a support group may help the victim understand that speaking up to one, some, or many can be a transformative experience. Sharing leads to support and understanding among those who have endured similar experiences. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) advises, “Speaking out publicly is not right for everyone. No one should be pressured to tell their story. Survivors are heroes whether they speak out or not. Speaking out can mean many things – it can mean putting your story on paper for yourself in a journal entry, telling one trusted person, speaking at a national conference of advocates, or testifying on legislation at your state’s legislature, for example.”

4.    Share the truth: Knowledge breaks barriers and bridges isolation. Sharing information and statistics on sexual violence helps victims understand they are not alone. This is not something to pressure them with, but helping them to access facts to explore at their will and convenience adds context to their suffering.

The University of Michigan, for instance, reports because male victims of sexual violence have been socialized and stereotyped as being in control, they “are more likely than women to initially respond with anger, or to try to minimize the importance or severity of the assault.” They are likely to resist admitting the abuse endured. But they may be more likely to appreciate the evidence.

5.    Tell the story: Journal way is one way of getting the “secrets” out. It lets the victim put the event outside. It’s a diary of sorts deserving privacy, but it helps the victims express themselves. They need only start with notes or broad strokes, but you can encourage them to build the narrative.

If you’re the friend or relative, it’s not your place r skill level to press them on names and specifics. This is a therapy not a police report. With time and patience, you might encourage them to articulate the written narrative. If you enjoy their trust, the story can open their mind and encourage their self-confidence.

6.    Make no judgment: If you find yourself the confident of a sexual violence victim, you take on challenging layers. You must master your patience because you cannot usual judgemental language. Any suggestion the victim is taking too long or saying too little sounds judgemental to casualties in their damaged frame of mind.

Instead, you should check on their situation frequently. The check-in can be a light lunch, a night at the movies, a conversation about the latest entertainment — any positive event. The event is not to threaten their silence but to build bridges for communication in trust and empathy.

7.    Surrender control: You must remember this is not about you. Among other things, sexual violence is a power play. It diminishes and immobilizes the person’s individual personal power and control. It will take more than time to restore it.

It will take more than medicine and counseling. The suffering party’s whole being has been changed, and it will take a lot to empower the person. They have a right to anger and rage as well as screaming and silence. As a friend, relative, or parent, the most you can be is available to them for education, listening, sharing, and support.

Where do you go from here?
You continue to support the sexual assault victim you know. It’s your task to listen patiently and help them tend to their physical and psychological needs. Without assuming the role of doctor or psychologist, you must build a framework for communication in education, empathy, and encouragement. When the time is right, you can connect victims with a supportive attorney, introduce them to high-impact support groups, and support such movements yourself.




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