This article contains discussions of sexual assault and trauma. Please take care of yourself while reading.
When I first tell people I’m a volunteer for a rape crisis line, their responses are always the same. “You’re so brave”; “I could never do something like that”; and “That must be so hard”. While seemingly supportive and validating, these responses have revealed something very troubling to me; that most people view supporting survivors of sexual assault as an impossibly daunting task. It is such a common response for many of us volunteers that it has become somewhat of a joke. But the realities that lie behind this widely shared sentiment is no joke – that the average Joe is both ill-equipped and not responsible for supporting people who have experienced violence.
What if, instead of putting this work in the too hard basket, we got curious? Imagine if each person who had said to us “I could never do that” started to say “what is one important tool that you could teach me for supporting survivors, too”? Yes, a rape crisis line does amazing work in supporting survivors – but when survivors have friends and family around them that have taken the time to develop basic tools to support them, their path to healing is exponentially clearer. Love, kindness, and care, are some of the most powerful tools of resistance we have in the face of oppression, violence, misogyny and hatred.
Below are some myths that I had to unlearn in my journey to becoming a better support person. This list is in no way exhaustive, but rather represents my own personal journey, and things that I have seen help others become better supporters to survivors. Beneath each myth is a new story, outlook or tool that I developed to replace these harmful myths that have made all the difference in my work – I hope that you, too, find them useful in supporting friends and loved ones who have experienced sexualized violence.
1. Minimizing the Event Does Not Minimize the Harm
Sometimes, when we hear stories of assault, our first reaction is to minimize what happened, believing that if we can downgrade the incident to just a “bad date” we will make the survivor feel better. But speaking the words “sexual assault” is not what creates the harm; it is the incident the survivor is talking to you about which has caused them harm. Your attempts to make survivors feel better by saying what happened wasn’t “that bad” simply feeds into a culture that does not believe or support survivors. Instead of minimizing, try to mimic their language. If they call it rape, that’s what it was. If they call it assault, use the word assault too. Believe your friend when they tell you of the impacts this has had on their lives.
In saying that, it is vital that we understand that society socializes women and femmes not to trust our gut. Be patient and understanding, your loved one may not immediately understand what happened to them was violence. Because rape culture has normalized sexualised violence to such an extent that it is just “boys being boys” or a part of being a woman/femme, survivors often need validation that what happened to them was serious and harmful. If your friend or loved one is having trouble wrapping their head around what happened to them, encourage them to trust their gut instinct. If something didn’t feel right, chances are that it wasn’t.
2. Support Does Not Need to Be Solutions Based
We live in a world that demands results. We want things to be measurable, concrete and solid. We want to feel productive and that we are making a tangible difference right here, right now. I think that’s why, so often, when we open up to each other we are so much more likely to be met with “advice” over support. Advice is goal orientated. It demands action and feels like it moves us forward. Support is abstract. It often involves us saying very little, and the conversation can end without any feelings of closure for the supporter. However, when supporting our friends and loved ones who have survived sexual assault, it is vital that we push past the desire to give advice and sit firmly in the realm of support. Sexual assault survivors are resilient, and they are the experts in their own lives and healing; it is highly likely that they already know what they need to do to help themselves. They simply need to feel heard and supported by the people they care about.
Consent extends into every social interaction we engage in; unsolicited advice can feel just as violating and invalidating as non-consensual sexual touch. Next time you feel the urge to give advice, try holding back, and offer a listening ear instead. You will be amazed at how much easier it will be for your friend to open up to you when they are given the space to fully explore where they are at.
Once your friend feels ready, you can explore solutions for healing together. Try asking questions like “what kind of things have worked for you in the past?” or “what are your thoughts on moving forward?” If they want to start thinking about strategies for moving forward but feel stumped, always ask their permission before sharing your ideas or personal experiences. “Would you be open to hearing some strategies that have worked for me?” or “would you like to hear a few suggestions I have been mulling over?” can go a long way in ensuring that you and your loved one are working together to carve a path forward.
3. Healing is Not Linear
When friends and loved ones seem to have regressed, are using coping strategies that feel unhealthy to you, or are only just opening up to you months or even years after the incident, we can easily feel frustrated or even angry with the survivor. We want our friends to be happy, and it can make us feel hopeless and frustrated when we see them struggling. But resist the urge to map your loved one’s healing onto a linear framework; healing is a messy process, and the sooner we can wrap our heads around this the sooner we can better support survivors.
It is also important to examine our victim blaming tendencies when we feel frustrated with a survivor’s process. It is easier to start blaming our friend for not, as you might perceive it, working hard enough to recover than it is to put the blame where it really belongs: with their assaulter. We can’t go back and change the past, but we can try to control the behaviour of our loved ones right here and now. Willing our loved ones to engage in different behaviours that fit with our understanding of linear recovery serves our comfort, and not the needs of survivors. Learn to sit with the discomfort of witnessing another’s pain.
This also applies when our friend/s are utilising survival strategies that we see as “unhealthy” or that we wouldn’t use for ourselves. Things such as alcohol and/or drug use, not leaving the house or bed, restrictive dieting or binge eating, and social isolation, can all make us as support people incredibly uncomfortable. But I ask you again to sit with that discomfort, and ask yourself who it would serve to implore them to stop using these coping strategies: the survivor, or yourself? When people have experienced trauma, however they choose to survive is healthy, because the other option is not surviving. If your friend is worried about their coping strategies, see if you can brainstorm ways of reducing harm together; but not before you congratulate them on being strong and resourceful enough to find ways of surviving after experiencing so much harm in a world still drowning in misogyny and rape culture.
4. Police and Hospitals Are Not For Everyone
It is so reflexive to push survivors to seek hospital or police intervention that it is often the first thing we bring up with survivors. It comes from a good place, but I implore you to think twice before uncritically pushing people towards these institutions. For many, the police and/or hospitals are not the safe spaces that many of us believe them to be. For queer folk, indigenous people, sex workers, poor people, undocumented individuals, people of colour and many others, institutions like the hospital and the police can re-traumatise them and even criminalise them in the wake of their sexual assault. The criminal justice system is NOT set up for survivors; rape itself is technically a crime against the state in Canada, with the survivor acting as the key witness, hardly a humanising or validating system for survivors. Just recently, a story came to light about a woman in Kelowna who was asked by police while making her initial report if she was “turned on at all” and was accused of falsifying her rape to stay out of trouble with her caregivers, in a horrifying but absolutely common place example of police brutality against survivors. Hospitals can be equally inhospitable environments, and trips to emergency can be long, lonely and demoralising when people may just need comfort, support, a hot shower and a good sleep. If your friend doesn’t want to go to the police and/or the hospital, trust that they are the experts on their own needs and don’t push it.
If your friend is wanting to report and/or seek hospital assistance, do your best to be there for them throughout the process by accompanying them if possible (and they want you to) and checking in with them long after you think the process should have been over (especially for friends who are taking their assaulter to court). It can also be useful to support your friend to contact a local rape crisis centre to help them navigate these institutions in a more concrete way.
Supporting survivors is not about your own comfort – it is about creating a safe, non-judgemental space for your loved one to work through incredibly complex thoughts and feelings. The key that I have learnt about being a good support person and avoid re-traumatising your loved one is to meet them where they are at, prioritize their needs and wants over your own comfort, and trust that they are strong. Do more listening than talking. Allow them to steer the conversation. And most importantly, believe them – not just in the sense that we believe that what they say happened is true (which of course, is also vital), but believe that they are the experts on their own lives. And make sure to congratulate yourself for taking the time to be there for someone when they need you, in the ways that they need you to be there. Rape culture NEEDS people to remain ignorant on how to support each other in order to survive. Showing up for one another, bearing witness to each other’s pain, and seeing the strength in kindness and love is one of the single most powerful acts of resistance that we have at our disposal.
Quick Links for Services in Vancouver
WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre
- 604-255-6344; www.wavaw.ca
- 24 hour crisis line for emotional support, information on resources and referals
- Victim Services to assist survivors in navigating the Criminal Justice System
- Free Counselling (no waitlist for indigenous and/or trans/non-binary/two-spirit folk)
- Support Groups
- 24 hour hospital accompaniment
BC Society for Male Survivors of Sexual Assault
Sexual Assault Services
- Vancouver General Hospital or UBC. Ask for a SAS member at triage or call 604-875-4995
- The SAS are a group of female nurses, available 24/7, trained to emotionally support and advocate for the needs of survivors while they are accessing hospital services.
- Forensic testing and storage, STI testing, change of clothes, food, and support in dealing with police all offered but not mandatory.
- SAS can be accessed by folks aged 13+ within 7 days of the assault
Victim Services Unit with VPD
- 604-717-2737; email@example.com
- If you wish to access the Victim Service Unit for assistance, information, referals and emotional support while accessing the criminal legal system, have an officer on-site refer you, or you can self refer by contacting them directly
- 24 hour crisis line