The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that in the United States, someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes and that one in six women (and one in thirty-three men) are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives . Chances are, you know someone who has been a victim of rape or sexual assault. From a survivor, here are some things victims want you to know but may not be able to say:
I am not what happened to me. The assault affects me and my life- sometimes in big ways- but it’s not all that I am. I may struggle with not letting the assault define who I am, you can help by reminding me of ways in which I’m still myself.
I am strong. Even in the midst of a panic attack, a nightmare, a flashback, or simply a bad day, I am not weak. I’m strong for waking up and facing each day, for living through trauma.
What happened is over, but I’ll deal with the effects for a long time. Again, this does not mean I’m weak, it does not mean I’m dwelling on the assault or having a pity party- it means I’m a normal human being dealing the best I can with a traumatic event. Even if it happened years ago, a particular smell or certain phrase may trigger horrible memories, which in turn can set off flashbacks or panic attacks. There is no “normal” amount of time for a victim to heal from sexual assault; spending months or even years dealing with the assault and healing from it is ok. And even after I have moved past the assault, flashbacks aren’t necessarily out of the picture, please be understanding and patient.
The guilt is overbearing. I probably feel like the assault was in some way my fault; I could have done something differently to avoid it or stop it from happening, or I somehow caused the attacker to hurt me. Sometimes I feel this guilt as a way to convince myself that I had some sort of control over the situation. Regardless of the cause, feeling this way hurts deeply. If there’s one thing you could say to help, it’s probably “it wasn’t your fault.” And say it again and again, because no matter how many times I hear it, there is likely still a lingering sense that I deserved what happened, that I could have or should have prevented or stopped it, or that I caused it.
Please don’t minimize what I’ve been through. Sexual assault is traumatic in any circumstance- whether violent or not, whether the victim knows the assailant or not, fill in a hundred other situations and a sexual assault is still traumatic, distressing, and painful. Please be supportive and positive; please don’t tell me to get over it, to not let it control me, to not think about it. Though these expressions are usually well-intended, they often hurt more than help and minimize what has been a very painful event.
Listen only if you want to. If I’ve chosen to tell you about what happened, I trust you a great deal, I consider you a safe person to talk with, and your response could be very healing or very hurtful. Talking can be healing, and it is a privilege to be on the receiving end of my sharing of information about the assault. However, I’m probably worried that you will be grossed out, or that you just plain don’t want to hear about it- and I want to know if you feel this way. If you’d rather I don’t talk with you about the assault, please tell me. I would much rather try to find someone else I trust to talk with than share painful memories with someone who doesn’t want to hear them.
Please don’t make assumptions. I might crave a safe hug, or I might shrink from any touch at all. Please do not make assumptions about what I need or want; if you ask me, I’ll be happy to tell you.
I truly appreciate your being a safe person. If you take the time to talk and to listen, to care and let me cry, I’ll carry that with me for a long time. I know it isn’t easy listening, caring, standing by someone who is going through the roller coaster that is the aftermath of trauma, and I’ll appreciate that you did so.