April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month: an event intended to create space for survivors’ voices, shed light on the insidious nature of sexual violence and amplify calls to action. But this month-long focus on sexual assault can be painful for survivors.
“We have all these events and opportunities to dialogue and create awareness, which is wonderful,” says Jennifer Storm, a survivor of sexual assault, victims’ rights expert and author. “But at the same time, we have to be really mindful about how all of that heightened awareness and education is like a downspout to survivors. It’s really hard to escape it, especially with social media.”
Given the staggering number of survivors in the United States alone — on average, there are more than 430,000 victims of rape and sexual assault each year in the country, according to RAINN — there are millions of survivors who may be dealing with the effects of sexual trauma. That means you probably know someone who has experienced sexual assault.
Because the experiences of trauma and healing are unique to individuals, it’s important to remember that survivors in your life may respond to outreach and support differently. “Some survivors have just begun their healing journey, some have been unable to start, some may be at the end of that cycle, and some may still be living through that trauma,” Prerna Menon, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma and the director of training, education, and social outreach at Repose, wrote via email. “It is important to acknowledge the variance in the many faces of survivors and to be sensitive about how and when to step in and out of this dialogue.”
Although there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to healing, there are ways everyone can help. Here are tips from experts on how to support survivors of sexual assault during April and beyond.
Although some survivors may be vocal and comfortable participating in Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it’s not uncommon for others to steer clear.
“Talking about sexual assault, whether it’s their specific case or just general awareness, can be really, really painful,” Storm says. “As an ally, you may be all about Sexual Assault Awareness Month, attending events and posting to social media. And that’s great. But be mindful that survivors in your circle might not be as zealous about it.”
Be careful not to place expectations or pressure on others, experts say. There are numerous reasons people choose not to get involved — they may wish to avoid triggers, they may have concerns about safety and privacy, or they may simply be exhausted. You don’t need to know their reason to respect their choice.
Shena Young, a holistic and body-inclusive psychologist and founder of Embodied Truth Healing, says this is important to keep in mind, too: “Survivors are survivors every month, every day, every hour of the year — not only in April. Just as Black History Month happens in February, but I am Black every day.”
Engaging in events and creating awareness in April is a place to start, Young says, but to effect real, long-term change and provide survivors with ongoing support, she encourages supporters to identify ways in which they can carry on the work beyond this month.
Processing and healing from trauma can be an isolating experience, and the pandemic has exacerbated this. Cultural expectations and stigmas around sexual violence and mental health may also silence or isolate victims, experts say.
As Menon explains, survivors may feel “unknowingly triggered” with this added isolation. She says that reaching out to say hello, ask how someone is doing (without directly asking about the assault) and letting them know you are available — whether they choose to reply or engage with you — can break that cycle of silence.
Menon adds that crisis center programs are understaffed and now have fewer chances to fundraise because of covid-19 restrictions, yet have a much higher demand for services due to a surge in sexual violence cases since the onset of the pandemic. She says donations from the public could go a long way in providing quality care to those in need, so she recommends that for those who are able, locate your local rape crisis center and offer a donation.
Young says that one of the easiest yet most meaningful things you can do to support survivors is to listen. “Holding space — listening with active presence and empathy — is one of the most sacred and intimate ways of being with another person, and with survivors in particular,” she says. She recommends providing a space that feels as safe and contained as possible, with no distractions, loud noises or intrusions. And whether you are in a group setting or one-on-one, experts say it is paramount that you center the lived experience of the survivor, not your own agenda or feelings.
In practice, that may mean refraining from offering unsolicited advice or probing for details of the assault. As Storm puts it: “Let them guide the conversation.”
Some survivors choose to avoid certain people or places, or choose to not talk about their trauma at all. You may be tempted to encourage them to share or face their fears. But experts says this type of pressure — however well-meaning — can mimic the trauma experience, particularly if there was coercion.
Because setting and holding boundaries may be difficult for people recovering from an assault, “one of the most beautiful gifts that we can give is to respect a boundary,” Young says.
Rather than making assumptions or trying to guess what someone needs, Young says you can gently ask, using invitations such as: Would you like to talk? Is there something you would like to talk about? What do you need right now? How can I support you? Would you like help finding resources?
“Invitations create an opportunity for survivors to make empowered choices with their requests, bodies and stories,” Young says.
Living with and working through trauma can be severely depleting. Activities that bring joy may provide some respite, experts say, and it’s a good idea to ask how survivors in your life would like to spend time together.
You might invite them out to lunch, for a hike, yoga, or another activity you know that they enjoy. Not only is this a chance to get out and create positive memories together, Storm says, but it can also help reinforce healthy coping mechanisms. It is not uncommon for survivors to struggle with addiction, and drug and alcohol use has increased during the pandemic. Especially when stories of sexual assault are in the news, presenting healthy options can be beneficial.
When trying to support survivors — checking in on someone, offering to listen, attending a Take Back the Night event, compiling resources — it’s important to shed your expectations and don’t take it personally if your offer is declined, experts say.
Your own fears, discomfort or desire to take away the pain, especially if the survivor is someone you are close with, might make you wish to fast-forward. As Storm puts it: “Meet them where they are, not where you want them to be.” Check in with yourself to be sure your own needs aren’t dictating the speed or direction of a survivor’s journey.
Experts say that something we can all do is acknowledge the strength and resilience of survivors. “When we talk about sexual assault, we’re naturally in the pain of it, and we often forget to talk about the hope and healing,” Storm says.
From her own experience, she says she knows there is the possibility of “an after — a beautiful place of recovery, healing, hope and joy that can be magical,” and she wants survivors to know that is accessible.
Young believes we need to be more creative and holistic in providing a variety of spaces, experiences and communities for healing, understanding that there is not just one path. “There’s not enough focus on the healing and what it looks like, what survivorship looks like in its beautiful complexity,” she says. “When holding space for survivors, keep that in mind as well. It’s not either-or; it’s both-and: How can we marry the victimhood and the resilience and survivorship pieces?”
Invite survivors to determine and express what they need, Young says, and then work together to reimagine the spaces and world we all want to heal and live in.
Here are some resources for survivors seeking support as well as those who want to help:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). TTY: 1-800-799-4889. Toll-free, confidential, 24-hour hotline for anyone in suicidal crisis.
The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN): The largest anti-sexual violence organization in the United States. RAINN works to support survivors, prevent sexual violence, and work toward improving public policy. Resources for survivors and supporters are available.
Rape crisis center locator: You can use this tool to find a center near you — for services or to reach out to offer donations or get involved.
National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC): A leading nonprofit for providing information and research that aims to prevent and respond to sexual violence. NSVRC leads Sexual Assault Awareness Month and offers more information about how you can get involved.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: An agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that works to improve behavioral health. The site offers resources such as a treatment locator.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): The largest grass-roots mental health organization in the United States. For sexual assault survivors living with addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder or other challenges, NAMI can be a starting point in searching for local chapters that can connect survivors with resources and mental health professionals.
Culturally competent therapist directories and resources: