*Trigger Warning: Discussion of Sexual Assault
April marks the start of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This year I am really impressed with the way that campus groups have been collaborating and co-sponsoring events rather than working in silos. Discussion is the first step in cultivating a world where sexual violence is not normalized, downplayed, or tolerated. Please check out the upcoming events that are being put on by many wonderful organizations!
This discussion and activism is great but sometimes when you’re actively involved in this work or you help put on an event related to this topic, someone could see you as a source of support and someone to disclose an assault to. I’m not saying that to scare you, it’s just a possibility and I think it’s something we need to talk about.
As a culture, we do a bad enough job addressing and talking about sexual assault that it’s no wonder that most people have no idea how to react. Here’s some tips on how to handle disclosures.
*The pronouns “they” and “them” are used to signify that survivors may be male, female, or any other gender expression
- Believe Them
If you take nothing else away from this post, remember this. It is extremely unlikely that a survivor is not making up their story. Many studies show that the way the first few people a survivor discloses to reacts directly influences a survivor’s healing process—positively or negatively. Take it seriously, tell them you believe them, and be there as a source of support.
- If You Aren’t Sure That to Do, Ask Them What They Need
You’re a human being. You may make mistakes when you are first responding, especially if this is the first time you’ve heard a story like this. Now, that isn’t a free pass to be a jerk. Be mindful of what you’re saying but don’t fret if you say the wrong thing and then have to back track and correct yourself.
We were never given a manual on how to talk about sexual violence—or any education really. If you don’t know the right words, start by asking them what they need from you.
- Steer Clear of Victim-Blaming Attitudes
This may seem straightforward and fairly obvious but we live in such a victim-blaming society that you might blame the survivor without realizing it. A good way to avoid this is to remember that you are not an investigator so avoid overwhelming the survivor with questions like: what were you doing there? Were you drinking? Why did you go home with them? Aren’t you dating them? Here’s why: none of the answers to those questions matter. If consent is not willingly and enthusiastically given (yes, enthusiastically), then it is not the survivors fault. Placing further blame on the victim will deter them from telling others and/or reporting.
- Point Them to Resources, but Do Not Apply Pressure to Use Them
If someone has disclosed this to you, it means that they trust you. That’s good. After acknowledging and validating their story, point them to available resources whether that be an RA, a counselor, a hotline, a local sexual assault resource center (hint: The Advocacy Center), or a Title IX Coordinator as an option to file a report. Give them these resources as an option but don’t apply pressure on the survivor to use them. If someone doesn’t want to see a counselor, it is not your place to make them see a counselor. Unless you believe that their safety is threatened, survivors need to heal at their own pace and will seek the appropriate resources when ready. Just let them know what is available to them.
- Don’t Make Someone Feel like They Have to Report
Not everyone finds justice and healing in the legal system or other criminal/reporting processes. If someone does not want to come forward or if they are not ready to, do not make them feel like they are obligated to share their story with others. The worst thing you can do is tell someone that if they do not report, their perpetrator will harm others. Odd are, this person is coming to you because they want you to listen, not tell them what to do or how to feel. If someone does not want to report, you must respect that.
- Don’t Downplay it or Discourage Someone From Reporting if They Want to
Similar to what I mentioned in the paragraph above, you are not there to tell someone else what to do or how to handle this. Don’t make something seem like it isn’t a big deal, if it feels like a big deal to the survivor, that is all that matters. Don’t wave it away. Remember: sexual assault is a spectrum of behaviors and they should all be taken seriously.
- Don’t Make it about You
Handling a disclosure can be stressful. Trust me, I’ve been there. Especially if it is someone you care about, sometimes you want to stick your fingers in your ears and not hear anything. This can hurt but remember that it is not about you, it is about them. Don’t say things like you don’t know how to handle it, it’s stressful for you, or you’re afraid of something similar happening to you.
That being said, still take care of yourself. See a confidential counselor if needed. But at least in the moment, it is not about you. Instead, your role is to listen. You are not an investigator or a counselor, so don’t take on that role.
- Keep it Confidential
This is big one. I once attended a training where they had us write down one of our most personal secrets on an index card. We were then instructed to put it in an envelope and seal it. The envelopes were then taken away from us. We all stared, distressed that our personal information might be divulged to the strangers in the room.
That is how disclosing something like a sexual assault feels. Imagine that. Do not spread what has been told to you around to others. It will do nothing but betray their trust and stop them from speaking up further.
Also, there’s a reason why there’s such a pushback against new NYS legislation that mandates survivors to report to the police if they bring a case to their university. Again, you can’t make someone report if they don’t want to. Do not make a report for someone.
Of course, this is not the be-all and end-all guide to disclosures. Every situation is different but keep these tips in mind.
Got questions about how to handle a disclosure? Want to talk? Call The Advocacy Center’s confidential hotline: 607-277-5000 (Hint: Also a good resource to refer someone to).