Some content may be triggering for discussion of trauma and sexual violence.
I would first like to start off by saying that everyone handles trauma differently, and everyone will respond differently. The experience is always a unique one, because we’re all unique. This is a very general list/discussion for folks who may not know how to respond to disclosure, or may not know how to help otherwise.
Response to Disclosure
If someone discloses that they were sexually abused or sexually violated to you, it can be overwhelming. It can be a little scary, and sometimes it can also traumatize you—so please be aware of your own mental health after the conversation. You can read more about Secondary Trauma here.
Immediately after the disclosure, it’s important to respond appropriately.
Here are some basic dos/don’ts
· "I believe you" / "I hear you"
Validation is important. Make sure they know you’re with them, and have heard what they said. This is especially important if you know the perpetrator.
· "I’m sorry that happened [to you]"
This is a mixed bag, to be honest. I hate when people respond this way to me. It’s not your fault it happened, you can’t do anything about it, and it just feels icky to hear. However, some people may appreciate the sympathies. We all understand what you’re trying to convey when you say this, but some folks may have a negative reaction.
· "Thank you for sharing" / "Thank you for trusting me"
I think this is really important. Disclosing something traumatic is a big deal. It takes a lot of courage and trust, and it’s an important step in any relationship (friendship or romantic). It’s nice for the recipient to realize that sometimes, and validate that you understand the seriousness of the discussion and appreciate the trust they have in you.
· Don’t ask for details
This is a big one. Do not ask a victim if they were drinking, if they went to their room willingly, if they had other options, if they etc. This may be you just trying to understand more about what happened, but will almost always be read as finding a way to blame the victim for their actions/inaction and thus placing fault on them for the decisions of someone else. If they want or wanted to give you more information or details about the situation, they would and will.
· Ask if they need anything, reassure you will help if desired/able
A big part of healing for victims of trauma of any kind is regaining control. Control was taken away from them during the traumatic event, so having control over how it is handled and who knows about it is a big deal to victims/survivors. Ask if they need or are expecting anything specific from you in response. Specifically, state that you won’t interact with that other person, if it’s someone you know. Don’t push reporting, but be knowledgeable about it so if they decide to proceed, you can follow through.
It’s also okay, generally, to mix and match these in your response. It’s also okay to be genuine and honest and say that what they told you is a lot of information, and you need some time to think of a proper response, but appreciate their trust in you and then ask if there’s anything more you can do to help.
It’s difficult to navigate disclosure, because it is a very sensitive topic. Validation and support are key. Make sure they feel heard, believed, and know that they have you for continued support if needed or desired.
It’s a really good idea, regardless of disclosure from others, to be knowledgeable about sexual violence, consent, healthy relationships, how to help, etc.
I have written up some basic definitions of sexual violence types and consent for you to explore, as well as a small write-up on how trauma impacts the body/brain. They all have extra resources to learn more specifically about those topics, too. Feel free to read them, link them to others, and use the resources provided to help educate yourself and others.
Other great organizations and resources include:
KnowYourIX who work to educate young people (teens and young adults) still in schools about their rights under Title IX which protect people from sex discrimination in all state funded schools kindergarten through higher education. There are exceptions to this law, such as schools that have opted out for religious reasons (it requires protecting LGBT+ identities and pregnant students, so some religious schools found that against their own beliefs and opted out of Title IX compliance), but overall your school should be following this law, and can be prosecuted if they are not.
It’s also important to know that Betsy DeVos wants to make dangerous changes to this law that would greatly harm student survivors and put more pressure on them to have physical evidence in order to file a complaint with their school. Please be aware of this law, these changes, and help us fight. Needless to say, this is another great way to show support: defend legislation that protects us, and give money to organizations that are trying to help educate others and protect survivors. Giving money directly to survivors (like me!) also helps.
RAINN (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network) is a great resource for educating on various types of sexual violence. They have great educational tools for friends and family, as many resources for victims/survivors. They also run a hotline and live chat on their website for people to call or message and get help.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline also has a hotline and chat for folks to get help with domestic violence/intimate partner violence specifically. They also have amazing resources and materials on their site.
The NSVRC (National Sexual Violence Resource Center) is another great resource for educational materials. They, like RAINN, have tools for family and friends, as well as victims/survivors. They also run a really nice campaign for Sexual Violence Awareness Month (SAAM) in April. The NSVRC also designs studies to research the prevalence rates of various types of sexual violence in the US.
End Rape On Campus is similar to KnowYourIX, but are focused more on higher education, and have a great Centering the Margins campaign for more marginalized victims/survivors such as survivors of color and LGBT+ survivors.
Love Is Respect is geared more towards middle and high school, but are a great resource for learning about healthy relationships versus toxic or abusive ones. They have interactive games, materials, and some good social media campaigns. Love is Respect also has a hotline, chat, and texting line for help.
The Red Flag Campaign is something for purchase that your school can use during Domestic Violence Awareness Month or other parts of the year to bring awareness to warning signs of abusive relationships.
Catharsis Productions has some great resources for online education. Your school can purchase their online module to educate faculty, staff, and students about sexual violence in a much less serious way. This is not to say they don’t take the topic seriously. They are just presenting it in a more approachable way, and even bring programs into schools for small-ish groups. I have personally worked with them, and used their products at my old job and found them to be very worthwhile and valuable
End The Backlog aims to end the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. You can learn more about this issue, and donate to help them on their website.
It’s On Us is the US governmental campaign aiming at bringing awareness and education to the topic of sexual violence. They have educational resources and tools on their website, also products for purchase to help fund and promote the campaign.
I also compiled a list of videos that could be used for educational programming that include PSA type videos, videos about trauma, videos about sexual health, etc. that can be accessed here from YouTube. Some videos may be triggering for more descriptions/depictions of sexual violence and trauma. Please view with caution.
You should also look for local organizations for more direct and immediate aide in your area. I know in my area we have a decent amount for various types of sexual violence. They offer free counseling and aide for victims/survivors as well.
Please believe survivors. Please educate yourself and others. Please fight with and for us.