Supporting a Survivor of Domestic or Sexual Assault

So, we role played in training today and it really got me thinking about something. In one of the sessions I played a woman who’s granddaughter had been sexually assaulted, calling the hotline to try and get her granddaughter to talk to an advocate who could help her, but the granddaughter didn’t want to. This is the moment that really brought the work I have been doing to become an advocate to life; as I took on the persona of this woman, just trying to help someone she loved I felt so frustrated, so helpless… and yet, at the same time, as me I felt so enthusiastic, so excited to start helping people to deal with these situations, to give them that power back.

It was during this discussion that I also began to think about just how little information there is out there for those who have loved ones dealing with sexual assault and domestic violence. All too often well intentioned loved ones end up hurting both the survivor and themselves due to a lack of knowledge, and their struggles to deal with their own emotional stress. I hope that this article can serve as a resource for those who are struggling to care for loved ones who have been abused.

There is only one thing you have to remember when caring for a loved one: your job is to empower.

Rape and Domestic Violence are not crimes of passion, they are crimes of power. Abusers are not so overcome with lust or rage that they abused; as evidenced by the fact that abusers can stop when they feel they are in risk of being caught, and abusers only abuse those who they feel are too weak to fight back. For instance, a domestic abuser would never strike their boss or someone else with power over them, which indicates that it is not the abusers temper that causes them to abuse, but rather a desire to control the victim.

For these reasons the most important part of a survivor’s recovery is their regaining the power that was taken from them through the abuse. Thats why I make it a practice to refer to those who have suffered abuse as survivors, rather than victims, whenever possible – yes, they have been victimized, but what the focus should be on is their ability to survive their attack and become stronger through their experiences.

What a loved one can do is to help a survivor in the process of gain ingthat power back for themselves. Obviously, this process and the actions a loved one can take will differ case by case but to start, I have provided a few guidelines to keep in mind…

  • Don’t make choices for them – feel free to offer advice and support, but encourage the survivor to make their own decisions and take control of the situation for themselves. It may go against your intuition; I understand that, as a loved one, you are going to want to take all the pain away and take care of the survivior – but what the survivor NEEDS right now is to feel in control of their bodies and their lives again… and you can help make that happen!
  • Arm yourself with knowledge – society is filled with misconceptions about rape and domestic violence, misconceptions that lead to victim blaming. For instance, the notion that a woman can instigate an assault by being out alone or wearing a provocative outfit is a common misconception that needs to be addressed. The truth is no one deserves, or does anything to cause, a sexual assault – even if you feel someone has been acting in a way that puts them at a heightened risk for danger, I’m sure you’ll at least agree that rape/domestic assault is never an acceptable “consequence.” Avoid victim-blaming and help the survivor to stop feeling guilty and blaming themselves – remind them how brave they are, how strong they are to have gotten through this and try to direct their anger towards the person who deserves it – the perpetrator.
  • Make yourself available – Let the survivor know you are there to support them with all that they need. While they should feel that their decisions are their own, they should never have to feel as if they are alone. So be a comforting ear, a hand to hold, and so on… just make sure you are empowering them, rather than trying to sweep it all away.

Its not easy for the loved ones of survivors, oftentimes they feel frustrated and robbed of power in ways similar to the survivor of the actual abuse, due to the fact that there is”nothing” tangible they can do. Loved ones, just like survivors, want some action they can take that will erase the pain and make everything better. Perhaps the hardest part of the healing process is realizing that there is nothing one can do other than to be supportive, loving, and informative.

Learn about the myths and the about the options survivors have and then use that information to be a source of love and support for the survivor who is struggling to regain control over their bodies and their lives.

Finally, remember, if you or someone you know is recovering from a Rape or Sexual Assault you can call 1.800.656.HOPE any day of the week, any hour of the day to get guidance, advice, and support for yourself.

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