The 3 Simple Steps for Addressing Sexual Assault

I’ll never forget what it felt like hitting “post.” I was in a state of complete panic. I felt like I was breathing through a straw. I was absolutely terrified of how the world would react, and so I closed my computer, silenced my phone, and went to work, eager for the distraction. I was nervous people would leave me once they knew.

Sometimes, when we feel most alone, is actually when life is holding us in the palm of its hand.

When I finally decided to tune back in, I was met with the most overwhelming, humbling, achingly beautiful display of love I’ve ever experienced. People were coming out of the woodwork to read, discuss, thank me, show support, and share their own struggles. The aftermath was something transcendental. For so long, I had been drowning in my secrets. When I told my truth, it felt like finally learning how to swim. I had never felt so liberated, unburdened, light. It was such a supremely healing experience

Now, a year later, looking back, I am still bathing in the warm glow of my support and understanding. When I say it was a healing experience, I do mean it; I feel so much more at peace with this part of myself. However, that’s not to say that I am “healed” of the experience. It still claws at me some nights, steals my oxygen some days, but I do feel better equipped to handle it. And better yet, I’m now in a place where I’m realizing that I don’t have to handle it alone, which is the most magnificent sigh of relief.

But the most massive takeaway that I have had in the wake of this all is that my story of openness, followed by love and support, is unfortunately the exception, and not the rule. And that is largely due to the incredibly toxic and rudimentary way in which sexual assault is understood in our culture.

I’ve spouted these facts all over the place, but that’s because they cannot be shared enough:

1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men are raped during their lifetime. 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before reaching the age of 18. 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted during their college years.

What these numbers mean is that sexual assault, abuse, and rape are heartbreakingly common. Every classroom, office, family gathering, baseball game, movie theater, grocery store, is chock-full of victims of sexual trauma. This truth is uncomfortable and confusing and gritty and ugly and upsetting and scary, and so we shy away from it. Discussing anything sex related is considered taboo, especially sexual assault. Rather than acknowledge this devastating truth, we minimize it. This comes in a plethora of forms, but the most dominant and painful manifestations are ignoring, mocking, and blaming. We pretend it’s not real, make jokes, and point fingers, and in doing so, perpetuate rape culture and silence and isolate those suffering. (I cannot even begin to fathom how rape is still a punchline, that’s a whole other blog.) And so we walk through each day, interacting with our acquaintances, peers, and loved ones, and may never even realize that so, so many of them are carrying this pain in their bones.

So, how do we begin to fix this? Well, I have a few simple ideas, a place to start.

(Let me preface this by saying that I am far from an expert. There are so many people who are much more educated, experienced, and insightful when it comes to the topic of combating rape culture and sexual assault. [Here’s a quick list of some]. This advice comes solely from my thoughts sorting through my experiences, as well as discussing the topic with friends. Take it or leave it as you wish, just please start taking action somewhere.)

If we want to combat rape culture and the harmful stigmas surrounding sexual assault, let us start with three simple principles: 1) creating a space for conversations, 2) offering appropriate and empathetic support to victims, and 3) being mindful of continued support for victims. What do I mean by all of that? Let me break it down a bit further.

1. We need to create a space for conversation about rape culture and sexual assault.

Sexual assault is not a particularly easy or pleasant subject to talk about. It is a physically and emotionally disgusting, disturbing thing, and it is wildly uncomfortable and upsetting to discuss. But it is also vital to talk about. Because the truth is that it is happening all around us. And so when we avoid talking about it, dilute it, or turn it into a punchline, both as a society and in our own social spheres, we do two incredibly harmful things:

First of all, we waste the opportunity to build education and awareness. Education surrounding consent and rape culture is one of the most powerful preventative measures. By not having the conversations and discussion about this topic, we are ignoring and thus perpetuating the problem. These dialogues are so important, particularly with and amongst young people. This is real and exists and if we do not talk about it with our families and in our schools and in public space, we are not keeping each other safe. If sexual assault is so rampant on college campuses, why are we not sitting our children down to discuss it before they go? Why is it not a required course for all incoming freshman? If rape and childhood sexual assault are so common, why are we not checking in with our loved ones to see if they are doing okay, letting them know that we are here for them if it ever happens, if it ever has happened? Why is every person in a relationship not having conversations with their partner about consent and healthy intimacy? There is no excuse. We must do more.

Secondly, when we don’t have respectful and open conversations about these things, we send a message to sexual assault survivors that it is not okay for them to talk about their experiences. By ignoring or mocking the problem, we unwittingly communicate to them that their most traumatic and painful experience is not respectable, is not appropriate, is not valid. We isolate and shame them, exacerbate their trauma. One of the most unexpected responses to me sharing my blog last year was the amount of people who reached out and shared their stories of sexual trauma with me. Among those who shared, the large majority divulged to me that they had never told anyone before. That was an indescribable experience. I felt so honored to be a safe place for them to share a small piece of their story. I also felt devastated that they had been bearing the burden alone.  We must do a better job helping victims of sexual assault feel able to speak about their experiences. They need a space to feel able to lay down some of that weight.

I was so lucky. I am stupid privileged and blessed to be able to say that telling people was healing. For so many people, opening up about these deeply painful experiences can be retraumatizing, as they are met with blame, disregard, and disbelief. I have a tremendous support system. I have absolutely no idea how or why I am so lucky. We must create these spaces and systems of support for all survivors.

2. We need to provide appropriate, unconditional, and empathetic support to survivors of sexual trauma.

When we create a safe space for conversation, we take a giant step in the right direction. However, since it is a subject that remains uncomfortable and foreign to many of us, we are often not well equipped to respond to people’s experiences with sexual assault. Part of what keeps us from having the dialogue and asking the questions is that we are afraid to hear the answers. And then, once we hear them, we have no idea what to say. And so, in those crucial moments when someone is at their most raw and vulnerable, we end up attacking them with reactive, inappropriate, unsupportive, and downright hurtful responses.

There is no textbook or “right” way to respond to someone who is sharing with you that they have experienced sexual assault or rape. There are, however, wrong ways to respond. Do not blame them- it is not their fault. Don’t you dare ask them what they were wearing, or how drunk they were, or ask how many times they’ve hooked up before. Those questions feel like you are justifying someone taking advantage of them. Do not shame them- nothing about them is wrong, or sinful, or lacking, or gross or dirty or soiled or ruined because of what someone else did to them. Do not doubt them- you have not an inkling of the courage it took for them to share this with you. When I shared my blog, one of my oldest, closest, soul friends, Kaleigh, shared a few simple and impactful words with me:

“You are not alone.”

“It is not your fault.”

“I believe you.”

Three simple phrases, and yet they mean so much. I will never get sick of them, I can never hear them too many times. They will always help me feel just a tiny bit more at ease, understood, accepted. If someone you know or love is struggling with the effects of sexual assault or abuse or rape, and you don’t have a clue how to respond or what to say, this is a great place to start. “I love you” and “you are worthy of love” are nice to hear, too. Being taken advantage of often makes you fearful that you are unloveable and unworthy. Reminders that is untrue are helpful. Besides these simple affirmations, know that most of the time we are not even really looking to hear your voice- we are just looking to feel safe sharing ours. Much of the time, all you need to do is provide the ears and listen.

(Sidenote: Outside of being one of my dearest friends, Kaleigh is also an inspiring blogger and courageous sexual assault survivor, and wrote a shatteringly beautiful post about the effect of lewd comments on victims. Give her blog a read).

Also! I cannot stress enough the importance of getting professional help. While support of loved ones is so important and helpful, the average person is not educated and trained in handling trauma. In addition, it can at times be very overwhelming and heavy to care for someone dealing with sexual assault, and loved ones can experience vicarious trauma effects. Encourage and empower the victim to seek out professional counseling. Sexual assault victims have a greatly increased likelihood of struggling with lethal things such as drug addiction and suicidal ideation. The amount of support they need may range from minimal to drastic. Utilize professional supports, they are a wonderful resource.

3. We need to improve our understanding of the long term effects of sexual assault, and offer continued support to survivors.

I wanna share a story. A few months back, I was at a buddy’s house hanging with a bunch of my college friends. We were hanging and drinking in the living room when the news came on. The story of the night was some new development in the Brock Turner case. Most of you probably already know the story, but the sparknotes version is that Brock Turner brutally raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster at Stanford University. (And then was only sentenced to six months in prison. And then was released after only serving three.) Anyway, when the news segment flashed across the screen, my friends, a group of mostly men, began to remark upon it. (Don’t worry, no one said anything offensive! In fact, it was just the opposite.) We all had a discussion about how disturbing the case was, how tragic for the woman, and how unjust and unbelievable it was that Turner wasn’t facing harsher sanctions. It was a productive conversation and made me, as a rape survivor, feel safe and cared for.

Like I said earlier, when I shared my story of sexual assault last year, it was a really liberating experience. It helped me process and heal, and I’m in a really good place with my experience. And so I generally feel open and comfortable talking about it, as it no longer feels raw, the stingers removed.

And yet, despite the fact that I’m in a good place regarding my experience, and that I was participating in a positive conversation, I found myself getting extremely triggered. I had to excuse myself and took space alone out on their back porch. I was getting more worked up by the second, unable to find air or words. The Brock Turner case was really difficult for me because it had a lot of similarities to my experience. I was also taken advantage of while so drunk that I was unconscious, except I was raped in an alleyway rather than behind a dumpster. Watching the whole thing unfold so publicly was both empowering and unbearably painful. It was empowering because I struggled for a long time with feelings of guilt and blame due to my being drunk, and seeing so many people say so resolutely that taking advantage of someone who was drunk was wrong and was rape freed me of a lot of self-hate. It was painful because there was also a slew of people publicly saying the opposite, chastising, picking apart, and blaming the victim. At times it felt like the whole country was talking about me.

And so suddenly, unexpectedly, I was sucked into a dark place. After some time alone, my friend Jeremy came outside looking for me. When he sat down across from me and asked if I was okay, I collapsed even more. I just cried and he reached out and held my hand silently for a few minutes. Then he addressed the elephant in the room- I don’t remember his exact words, but essentially, he said something about how hard it must be to talk about those things with what I’d gone through. Having him acknowledge and label that made my sadness feel validated. He sat there with me and let me cry-ramble some really depressing stuff at him, and just listened and kept holding my hand. In hindsight, I think I was having a bit of an episode, and he just sat there and walked through it with me until I was feeling calm again. It was so unbelievably helpful. (Wow, how amazing is he, right? Again, I dunno what I did to deserve such wonderful humans surrounding me).

All this is to say that dealing with sexual assault isn’t a one time thing. You don’t really ever “get over it,” so to say. For many, it permeates their everyday life. Even for the luckiest of people, the ones who are able to find support and healing, it crops up every now and then. It brings things like fear, depression, distorted self-esteem, and PTSD, and those are things that are constant battles. When you’re triggered, it can evoke serious reactions. Sometimes triggers are things related to your experience, like anniversaries, or intimacy, or parties. Sometimes triggers are random and completely unrelated. Regardless of the cause, they happen. We need to be aware, and gentle, and understanding, help them learn to walk again, no matter how long it takes for them to talk about it, or how many times they seek support. It is not a quick fix; it is a long rehabilitation, full of surprise aches and pains. If we want to truly support victims of sexual assault, we need to continually check in and support them for the long haul.

Sexual assault is an overwhelming, overpowering, difficult subject.

It’s easy to get lost in it all, to feel that the odds are stacked against you, that there’s just no winning. And it’s true- the odds are stacked against us. It is an uphill battle. But we can’t concede. We have to keep fighting the good fight. We need to do something, even if it’s just a little something. Even if it’s just by taking baby steps, by creating safe spaces for conversations, by responding to victims with compassion, by offering continuing support. We have to start somewhere. We have to start. TC mark

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