Sexual assault can happen to anyone. It can be very difficult and overwhelming to hear that someone you care about has been sexually assaulted. At times like these, it is often hard to know how to act or what to say. The most important thing you can do is help the survivor feel safe and supported. Students at Colorado State University and in the greater Fort Collins community have a number of resources available to assist them in dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault.
Every person responds differently to sexual assault. Frequent responses include feelings of fear, distress, humiliation, anger, confusion, numbness, and guilt. It is important that the survivor be allowed to experience and process through these feelings without the fear of having them invalidated or dismissed.
MORE ABOUT SUPPORTING SURVIVORS
1. First and most importantly, believe them when they confide in you. Do not place blame on them for the sexual assault (there is NOTHING they could have done to deserve or cause what happened to them), and don’t pressure them to talk. It is better to go slowly and let them set the pace. Focus on the survivor’s needs, and remember that every person’s healing process is unique.
2. Check and make sure they are not in any serious danger or displaying suicidal behaviors. If they are in danger or considering suicide, help them create a plan to be safe. This might include notifying police or family, keeping them company, or helping them change to an anonymous location.
3. Check on the survivor’s health and, if necessary, help them seek medical attention.
4. As long as immediate safety and health care are not issues, restore choices. In order for you to help facilitate healing for someone who had choice taken from them by the attacker, you have to give them choices in every instance you can. It can be small things like, “would you like to sit on the couch or in the dining room?” Or, it can mean restoring choice in big decisions like, “do you want to report to the police or go to the hospital?” Also, open-ended questions (“What do you want to do?”) can be overwhelming so try to give specific options.
5. When you discuss options with the survivor you may need some extra support from an advocate. The survivor can talk to an advocate or, if they are not ready, you can talk to an advocate and bring the information to the survivor at an appropriate time. One option may be to contact the police. It is important to know that reporting a sexual assault crime is often a very difficult, long, and painful process for survivors. It is not an appropriate option for everyone, but a trained advocate can help you both navigate through your student’s options. Numbers for college and community advocates are included at the end of this guide.
6. Make sure the survivor gets the professional care and support they may need. Counseling can be very helpful in assisting with the healing process of coping with the sexual assault.
7. Take care of yourself. When you are supporting a survivor, you need to make sure the focus is on them and not on you (this may be difficult if you find that you have some very strong emotional reactions about the event and being a support person). Taking care of yourself might include talking with an advocate or a counselor. The more emotional clarity and strength you have when you are with the survivor, the better you will be able to support them.
- Listen and try to understand. Reassure them that they have your love and support.
- Help the survivor distinguish between “if only” and “guilt.” It is common for survivors to blame themselves for what happened. Reassure them that it was not their fault and that the only person responsible is the perpetrator.
- Don’t take it personally if they did not tell you right away. They may have been scared of your reaction, felt shame or embarrassment, or tried to protect you. It is very common for survivors to wait before sharing with people they care about.
- The survivor is in control. This means allowing them to speak for themselves unless they specifically want you to. Interpersonal Violence is a crime that takes away an individual’s power. It makes them feel invaded, changed, and out of control. It is crucial for survivors to be able to make their own decisions in order to regain power over their own lives.
- Encourage them to see themselves as a strong, courageous survivor who is reclaiming their own life.
- Question the validity of the survivor’s claim. This can lead to more pain. Remember that 98% of reported sexual assaults are accurate.
- Do not criticize the survivor for being where they were, not resisting more, etc. The only person responsible for the sexual assault is the perpetrator. Everyone has the basic human right to be free from threat, harassment, or attack. Whatever they did to survive the situation was the right thing to do.
- Do not over simplify what happened by saying it wasn’t that bad or that they should forget about it. Let them say exactly how they feel.
- Do not sympathize with the abuser. The survivor needs your absolute support. The perpetrators behavior was inexcusable.
- Tell the survivor what they must do. Each and every person who experiences trauma is in the driver’s seat about how to heal and move forward. They get to be the ones making decisions about who to tell and if they want to report.
- Share the story without permission.
During this critical time, your focus needs to be on supporting your student, not taking on the role of detective, judge or jury. Realize that “legal justice” and “emotional healing” are two different things; for many survivors, legal justice is not the primary goal. It’s okay to have doubts about what to say or how to react when your student tells you they have been sexually assaulted. Recognize your own needs, and accept that there will very likely be changes in your relationship with your student as they heal.
HOW TO HELP YOUR LOVED ONE
- Most importantly, believe what your student tells you (even if they sometimes doubt themselves, their memories are vague, or if what they tell you sounds extreme). Don’t become frustrated if the story changes. The details will likely come out in bits and pieces.
- Listen and help your student process through all of the confusing and painful feelings. Validate their anger, pain, and fear. These are natural responses that need to be felt, expressed, and heard. Validate the damage (all sexual abuse and rape is harmful, even if there are no physical scars or visible indicators of struggle). There are no positive or neutral experiences of sexual assault.
- It is okay to tell your student that this is a difficult topic for you to talk about. Let them know that you are open to talk about anything, even if it is uncomfortable.
- Control your own emotions. Don’t panic. If you show great emotion, your student may find it harder to talk with you and may even feel guilty for upsetting you. Share your feelings, but make sure your feelings don’t overwhelm theirs. As a loved one of a survivor, you may have reactions of anger, sadness, and shame. Find a supportive person or counselor with whom you can share your strong feelings with so that your conversations with your student can focus on their needs.
- Separate the anger you may feel at your student for having broken any rules or using poor judgment from the anger that you feel at the abuser. The offender is the only one responsible for the assault. No matter how badly you need to vocalize your anger, don’t vent it on your student or other family members.
- Recognize your student’s need for privacy. Their boundaries have been violated and reclaiming personal space is important. Respect the time and space it takes to heal after a sexual assault.
- Seek immediate professional help if your student displays any suicidal behaviors or if you are worried about their emotional or physical well-being.
- Take care of yourself. Educate yourself about sexual assault and the healing process. Realize when you’ve reached your own limitations, and encourage your student to talk to a professional.
Suggested Readings for Parents of Survivors of Sexual Assault
If it Happens to Your Child, It Happens to You! A Parents Help Source for Sexual Assault. Christine A Golderg (1987)
If He Is Raped: A Guidebook for Parents, Mates & Friends. Alan McEvoy, Jeff Brookings, & Debbie Rollo (1999)
If She Is Raped, A Book for Husbands, Fathers and Male Friends. Alan McEvoy and Jeff Brookings (1984)
The Sexually Abused Child: A Parent’s Guide to Coping and Understanding. Kathleen Flynn (1994)
Colorado State University Victims Assistance Team (24 hour, confidential): 1-970-492-4242
National Sexual Assault Hotline (24-hour, confidential): 1-800-656-HOPE, www.rainn.org.
ADVOCACY SERVICES AVAILABLE THROUGH THE WOMEN AND GENDER ADVOCACY CENTER
Advocates are available to provide confidential crisis intervention and emotional support. We provide information about academic, legal, medical, emotional, and student conduct resources to survivors of sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking. We also offer support to secondary survivors, such as intimate partners, friends, family, and you.
Call 970-491-6384 during business hours M-F. In addition, the 24-hour Victim Assistance Team is available to assist survivors of sexual assault and their loved ones. Call 970-492-4242 and ask to speak with an advocate.
All information shared with advocates is confidential unless the person is a danger to themselves, someone is in imminent danger or a child currently under 18 has been abused.
How do I refer to an advocate? Try saying…
“I’d really like to call an advocate to work with us here if that’s OK with you. I can be here with you in addition to the advocate. They are a good resource to have.”
SUPPORTING STUDENTS/ WHAT IS MY OBLIGATION?
During the course of your time at CSU, you may have a student disclose to you that they are a survivor of sexual assault, relationship violence, or stalking. Faculty, Staff and Student Staff at CSU are mandatory reporters under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This means that you are required by law to report any form of sexual misconduct. This does not mean that you don’t care about your students and their choices; rather it signifies that campus safety is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. When a student discloses to you, it is best to mention your role as a mandated reporter and let them know that they may be contacted by the University after you communicated to the campus Title IX coordinator. The student will always have the choice on whether or not to share their story with the University.
If the student wishes to continue talking to you, allow them to share what is on their mind. Regardless of how the conversation proceeds you are required to report your conversation. For more information on your role as a mandated reporter call (970) 491-1350 or go to http://safety.colostate.edu
There are many reasons students may disclose to you – they may be asking for emotional support, asking for extra time or consideration in a class or program you run, or wondering where to go for resources. This situation may be recent, a long time in the past or ongoing. Regardless of the reason, research shows that the response of the person to whom a survivor makes an initial disclosure has a significant effect on their healing process. The most important response that you can have is to actively listen to the survivor and to validate, provide support, and inform on resources.
In addition to letting the student know you must report, offer WGAC as a confidential resource that can assist in processing their experience and navigating various resources and systems.
Other Confidential Campus Resources are:
CSU Health Network: (970) 491-7121
Counseling Services: (970)491-6053
Student Legal Services: (970) 491-1482
WHAT A SURVIVOR MAY BE GOING THROUGH…
The student may not want you to solve the problem. If the student has experienced interpersonal violence, their power has been taken away. The best thing we can do is to share resources and empower them to make their own choices.
There may be cultural issues that affect the way a student responds. Religion, race, ethnicity, disability, gender, national origin and sexual orientation all play a significant role in a person’s response to interpersonal violence.
The student may tell you what they did to provoke the incident as a way of blaming themselves, such as “because I drank too much…” or “because I made him mad…” If the student told someone else, such as a friend, roommate or family member, that person may have blamed them as well. We can help by giving them messages that counter this blame – “It wasn’t your fault. No matter what you did, no one deserves for this to happen to them.”
The student may have fear of judgment. Talking about their trauma often makes survivors uneasy and heightens their sense of wariness. It is important that you remain open, free from judgment. It doesn’t matter what they were wearing, that they were alone, if they were drinking, etc. They did not deserve what happened to them.
The student may have concerns about what will happen to the assailant. Most types of violence happen between people who know each other; it is more likely than not that the survivor cared for the assailant in some way.
The student may be worried that many other people will find out. This fear is one of the most significant reasons a student leaves school after a situation of interpersonal violence occurs. Remind them that you are a mandated reporter and you are willing to listen, and that there are confidential resources on campus as well.
Common Reactions Following a Traumatic Event
Note: These reactions are common for many survivors; yet each person’s journey is different.
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing. This can often affect academics significantly, both in class and in completing assignments.
- Trying to go about one’s normal routine as if everything is OK
- Sleep and eating disturbance.
- Flashbacks (feeling of reliving the event), intrusive memories (can’t stop thinking about the event) and nightmares
- Withdrawal from people and places in one’s life
WHEN SOMEONE DISCLOSES A SEXUAL ASSAULT TO YOU…
- Allow and encourage the victim to make decisions whenever possible.
- Encourage sharing of feelings, but don’t press for details or force a discussion.
- Communicate your understanding, acceptance, and support.
WHAT TO SAY TO SOMEONE WHO HAS BEEN ASSAULTED…
- “No one deserves to be assaulted. This was not your fault. You did not deserve to be sexually assaulted”
- “Whatever you did to survive the situation was the right thing to do.”
- “I believe you. It was not your fault. This was something that someone did TO you.”
- “Regardless of ____________, (how you were dressed, how much you drank, if you were flirting, what you did prior to the sexual assault, etc) there is no excuse for sexual assault. You did not deserve this.”
- “That must have been a very unsettling / scary / confusing / uncomfortable / frightening experience.”
- “You are not crazy. You are reacting normally to a difficult situation.”
- “It doesn’t make a difference if you consented to do other things sexually with this person. You said “no” to this part, and that person did not respect you. You have the right to change your mind at anytime when you are with someone.”
REFERRING SOMEONE TO THE VICTIM ASSISTANCE TEAM…
- I’d really like to call a VAT advocate to work with us here if that is ok with you. I can stay here with you, but they are a good resource to have.
- We’re really fortunate to have a service called the Victim Assistance Team on our campus to help students with this kind of concern. Let’s give them a call.
- VAT advocates are students, staff, and faculty trained to assist someone who has been assaulted by explaining all of the options that you have. They are also trained to understand the reactions that you may experience.
- An advocate can assist you in getting connected with other services on and off campus to make sure you are getting what you need after this serious situation.
- Advocates can make sure that you are able to deal with any possible legal or academic concerns.
- Do you want me to call them for you?
- Do you want to use my phone?
- Do you want the advocate to meet you here?
- Here is their phone number—970-492-4242, ask for an advocate when you call. When will you call them?
Did you know we have an advocacy podcast? Check out these episodes of “We Believe You” about supporting survivors.