Talking to victims and survivors

The most any of us can do when trying to talk to any of these people is to be supportive and understanding.

When I attended a College Media Association conference in New York City over spring break, I attended a series of workshops on sexual assault, one of which was about interacting with survivors.

I must admit, I do not know anyone personally who has suffered from sexual assault, nor have I experienced anything close to sexual assault myself. So any suggestions I have are only from intuition and an empathetic heart.

Much like with any other physical tragedy or hurt of the mind, understanding that you don’t understand how they feel is the first place to start. If you are approached by someone who’s experienced a sexual assault, that means they trust you and desire for you to know about that part of their life.

If you have a friend or family member approach you about a sexual assault, the thing you should ask is what they want from you. If they want to talk about it, or if they just wanted to let you know what they have been through.

It is also important to understand what role they see themselves in the situation. Those who have suffered from sexual assault can see themselves as victims or survivors or both, and knowing how they feel about their situation will determine how to respond and talk to them.

Sexual assault does not only include rape. Sexual assault, as defined by the Office on Women’s Health, “is any type of forced or coerced sexual contact or behavior that happens without consent. Sexual assault includes rape and attempted rape, child molestation and sexual harassment or threats.” So sexual assaults include any form of penetration, and can also be groping.

Sexual assault can extend to sexual misconduct or harassment. Things like stalking, street harassment, “quid pro quo” harassment, or unwanted attention or comments of a sexual manner are all serious complaints and can be very dangerous and traumatic.

If your friend is saying their experience was sexual assault, no matter how serious you may think it is, respect how serious they feel it is.

The most important thing to remember is that your friend is trusting you. Prove to them they are right to do so.

Listen if they want you to listen, comfort if they want you to comfort, and understand how they want you to think of their situation, and refer to it as such.