Sitting with a survivor of sexual assault and listening to their story is difficult. I know. I’ve sat beside over 200 survivors in my role as a volunteer advocate. The stories can bring out feelings of sorrow, outrage, anger, and helplessness.
Most people don’t know what to do or say when someone close to them shares his or her story of being assaulted. The good news is that responding in a supportive way is strikingly simple.
“I believe you.”
Believing a survivor is the number one way to support them. As an advocate, a friend or family member, you get to enjoy the blessing of fully believing what you hear. You don’t need to take sides or wonder if you’re hearing the truth. You just believe because that’s what a survivor needs the most.
Trauma affects the brain and memory functions, and a basic understanding of that is important. Have you ever watched a horror movie and wondered why the characters ran to the basement rather than go outside? The answer is trauma! When we experience a traumatic event, the rational part of the brain shuts down, and our bodies react without conscious thought. Those reactions make no sense when viewed outside of the trauma. Often, what a survivor said or did at the time of their assault makes little sense – and that is completely normal.
Trauma affects memory, too. The part of the brain that records memories in the order they occurred also shuts down. This leads to memories of the event getting recorded in random pieces. Those pieces are in a part of memory that cannot tell time. That means a survivor will mix up the order of what happened and may give different accounts or remember something not remembered before. This, too, is completely normal.
“It’s not your fault”
Survivors of sexual assault will take the blame for their assault. This often comes out as “should or shouldn’t haves” and can sound like, “I should have stayed with my friends.” You may agree that different choices may have resulted in a different outcome. However, it is important for you to remember that no matter what the survivor did or did not do, the only person responsible for the sin of the assault is the perpetrator.
When you hear the survivor say something that sounds like they are placing blame on themselves, remind them that the perpetrator made his or her own decision to sin. It is not the survivor’s fault. Remind the survivor of this every time you hear that person try to take the blame.
As an advocate, it is not your responsibility to tell them how to be safer or what to do next time. This will affirm to the survivor that it really is their fault. Your job is to listen, believe, and keep telling them it’s not their fault.
“What do you want to do?”
Ask the survivor what they want to do regarding the assault. It may be that talking to you is all they need. Perhaps they want to tell someone else or go to law enforcement. Perhaps they are fearful and want help planning how to be safe. Don’t stop with asking the question, though. Your role as advocate is to help the survivor accomplish his or her goals. This is true, even if you think you have a better solution. The survivor knows what is best for them. By helping the survivor achieve state goals, you are helping the survivor begin to take back control. This empowerment is very powerful for the survivor.
A quick word of caution: you will be tempted to fix what. This comes from a loving and caring heart, from a place of wanting to help. This is not your problem to solve. Advocates are not fixers; rather, they walk beside the survivor, gently encouraging and supporting. The advocate role is one of listening and helping the survivor achieve his or her goals.
“Jesus understands. He loves you.”
Always remind a survivor of Jesus’ love. Some survivors find comfort in knowing they have a Savior who also suffered abuse, and that he understands their pain. Remember the trauma we talked about earlier? When a survivor recounts what happened, their brain goes back into trauma mode. Share Bible stories with survivors rather than Bible passages. Stories are easier for the mind to comprehend and remember. The ones that you remember are the best for retelling since you’ll be most comfortable sharing it. Another option is to ask the Survivor what their favorite Bible story is and then recall it together.
Believing, removing blame, empowering, and sharing Jesus. It will not feel like enough, but it is exactly what a survivor needs.