Opinion: Here’s how to respond to friends when they disclose their sexual assault to you
In wake of Kavanaugh hearings, trauma-informed support is more important now than ever
It is more important than ever that we learn how to support our loved ones who have experienced sexual assault. The last week or so has been especially triggering and traumatizing for survivors of sexual assault and sexual violence with the accusations against Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh surfacing.
Kavanaugh has now been accused by Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick of sexual misconduct. Both Ford and Ramirez claim that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted them while they were teenagers. Kavanaugh has repeatedly denied these claims. Additionally, the ensuing smear campaigns against Ramirez and Ford -- all of which have been debunked by sites like Snopes -- have left survivors of sexual violence feeling retraumatized and angry as hell.
But what do we do when our loved ones disclose their trauma to us? How do we support survivors who may be disclosing their assaults for the first time? How do we help those who are seeing vicious victim blaming and gaslighting every time they look at their phones?
These are tough questions to ask, but it’s imperative that we do our best to answer them.
The first and most important thing to remember is that, in the moment when someone discloses their trauma to you, you are exactly what that person needs in that moment. You are seen by this person as someone who is trustworthy and empathetic. And they are giving you a gift by being on the receiving end of such radical trust. It's not so much about saying the right thing or knowing the list of every single resource available to that person. At that moment, just being there is enough.
But it is important to understand how trauma works and affects victims even years after the cause of the trauma has taken place. Simply put, trauma is the subjective experience of emotional distress in response to an event or prolonged period of extreme stress. During periods of emotional distress, stress hormones are released which cause pupils to dilate and breathing, heart rate, blood sugar levels and blood pressure to increase.
Additionally, memory storage is different from traumatic events. Non-traumatic memories are stored in the hippocampus; there is a relatively linear recall of events with appropriate levels of detail. Often, people will recall and focus on details that would be deemed significant to an outside observer. But traumatic memories are different. They are stored in the amygdala; recall is often nonlinear. Details can be “fuzzy” and often survivors will remember only what they did to survive the trauma and not necessarily the trauma itself. They might also focus on details that outsiders may deem irrelevant or unnecessary.
This is normal. Survivors are trying to verbalize their trauma in a way that might not make sense to those who didn’t experience it. That is not because they are being untruthful or deliberately misremembering their assault. In order to cope, their brains simply aren’t recording memories in a typical way.
So how do you respond? First, thank them for telling you. Again, it is an honor to be trusted enough by a survivor to have them disclose to you. They see you as an incredibly special and important person. Additionally, tell them that you believe them. Survivors often wait or are hesitant to disclose because they do not believe that anyone will believe them. Additionally, when you do speak, speak in “I” statements. It is important to simply listen and be empathetic. Let the survivor verbalize what’s on their mind.
And know what resources are available. This doesn’t mean memorizing 10 different phone numbers or pressuring them to use them. This can literally mean knowing that the Office of Advocacy Services for Interpersonal and Sexual Violence (OASIS) is always available or that the Counseling Center takes walk-in appointments. Even knowing the right words to input into Google can be enough.
But just as important as it is to know what to do when someone discloses, it is just as important to know what not to do. Don’t ask for details that the survivor isn’t offering themselves. They are disclosing exactly as much as they are comfortable with. This also means not questioning their actions and behaviors before, during and after their assault. A survivor is acting normally in response to an abnormal experience. Just because it doesn’t seem logical to us doesn’t mean it is the ‘wrong’ thing to do. Make sure not to touch them without permission. Hugging, handholding and back rubs may be triggering to survivors.
Lastly, don’t judge. Even if you have also been through the same trauma or very similar experiences, your actions may look drastically different. You may be coping differently. And you may not be pursuing the same courses of justice after the fact. There is no right or wrong way to cope with the trauma of sexual violence. Coercing a survivor into pursuing certain actions robs them of their agency. After an assault where their agency is stripped from them, it is especially important for survivors to choose and decide for themselves what their next steps are.
In summation, you can’t go wrong with saying, “Thank you for telling me,” “It’s not your fault,” “You are not alone,” and “Here’s where to get help.”
It is crucial at this time to know how to support and help your loved ones who are survivors. If you yourself are a survivor or are close to a survivor, OASIS is available for appointment on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They are also available to bring this training to your floor, fraternity or sorority, residence hall or team. You are not alone.
Steph Black is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and a columnist for The Eagle.