Breaking the Silence: 5 Ways to Support Survivors of Sexual Violence

Photo shows rear view of two people with long hair wearing coats sitting on back of bench by waterJune is recognized as National PTSD Awareness Month. One of the populations most at risk for developing posttraumatic stress are survivors of sexual assault. In fact, sexual assault is the event that most commonly causes posttraumatic stress among women, with 94% reporting symptoms during the first 14 days (Riggs, Murdock, & Walsh, 1992). Additionally, 30% of sexual assault survivors continue to experience PTSD symptoms nine months later (Rothbaum & Foa, 1992). According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (2007), a woman is sexually assaulted somewhere in the United States every 120 seconds.

Sadly, sexual violence is still shrouded in a cloak of silence due to the stigma many people associate with rape. In spite of this, research has identified that 92% of survivors disclose what happened to at least one person close to them, such as a family member, significant other, or trusted friend. Unfortunately, these disclosures are not always met with support. In fact, anywhere from 25% to 75% of survivors who share information about their traumatic event experience a negative or non-supportive response from at least one person in their personal support system (Campbell, Ahrens, Wasco, Sefl, & Barnes, 2001; Golding, et al., 1989; Filipas & Ullman, 2001).

These numbers alarmingly attest to why survivors often suffer in silence. If they confide in someone, they risk being blamed, judged, or worse, not believed. These kinds of negative responses may be further traumatizing and drive survivors back into a world of secrecy where healing is delayed or even thwarted.

The time is now to create a culture where survivors of sexual assault can feel confident and safe in sharing their experiences. Survivors should be able to find respite in sharing their trauma while having it be received with support, warmth, and respect. PTSD Awareness Month can be a campaign for change. Let us lift up survivors with words of support and validation. At the same time, let us cease to accept rape myths that perpetuate and contribute to negative responses upon disclosure.

The time is now to create a culture where survivors of sexual assault can feel confident and safe in sharing their experiences.

Additionally, this paradigm shift where survivors are unequivocally supported allows all to play a critical part in attenuating PTSD symptoms. When survivors disclose their trauma and they experience a positive social response, this promotes healing, faster recovery, and fewer PTSD symptoms (Ullman & Peter-Hagene, 2014).

Here are some powerful ways to stand by a survivor and support them when they break through their silence. Remember the acronym BRAVE—which is easy, as it embodies every survivor of sexual trauma. BRAVE serves a communication model to be used as guidance for signaling five types of positive responses that help promote healing for survivors of sexual violence.

  • Believe: Perhaps the most important reaction you should have when supporting a survivor is to believe them. Even if they are sharing information that is hard to hear, you must communicate to them they are believed. Try saying, “I believe you and I am so sorry that happened. You are not responsible for what happened. You are not to blame.”
  • Resources: Let them know they are not alone and there are resources to help no matter where they are in their healing journey. Resources such as RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) and PAVE (Promoting Awareness/Victim Empowerment) are recognized national anti-sexual violence organizations that offer a plethora of resources and educational materials for survivors and their loved ones. Another great resource is your local rape crisis center. Many communities have advocates that can go with the survivor to the hospital or police station if they decide to report the assault. For those who may be interested in seeking trauma-informed professional counseling, directories such as GoodTherapy.org can help a survivor connect with a trauma specialist near them.
  • Affirming/Affirmations: Offer emotional support and provide statements that acknowledge the survivor’s strength and courage to move toward positive change by sharing. Examples of affirming statements might include: “Thank you so much for your courage and bravery in sharing this with me.” “I am so honored you trusted me and felt safe enough to tell me this.” “I am amazed by your strength to survive and talk about the experience of sexual violence.”
  • Voice: Every survivor must know they have a voice and that it will be heard. Remember, many survivors feel as if their voice was taken away by the trauma, and may feel further silenced by rape culture. Consequently, just providing a safe space for them to talk while you listen—with no judgment, without interruptions, without probing questions—can be exceptionally healing. Don’t underestimate your value as a listener.
  • Empower: Survivors had their control taken away by the assault. One of your most basic rights as a human being is to decide what happens to your body, and this was grossly violated. Thus, it is paramount survivors feel in control again. They need to feel empowered to make choices. In particular, survivors need to reestablish control over their physical boundaries. While a gentle touch on the arm or a hug can help some feel cared for and protected, you cannot assume this will be comfortable. It’s advisable to ask permission and hear an affirmative “yes” that they are comfortable with touch before you make any physical gesture. Other empowering statements may include: “How may I best support you right now?” “What do you need from me?”

Conclusion

With the BRAVE communication model, when a survivor of sexual violence shatters the silence by sharing, you can be ready to respond with kindness, compassion, and the gentle care survivors deserve. Your response may be an integral part of their healing process.

References:

  1. Campbell R., Ahrens C., Wasco S., Sefl T., & Barnes, H. (2001). Social reactions to rape victims: Healing and hurtful effects on psychological and physical health outcomes. Violence and Victims, 16(3), 287-302.
  2. Filipas, H. H., & Ullman, S. E. (2001). Social reactions to sexual assault victims from various support sources. Violence and Victims, 16(6), 673-692.
  3. Golding, J. M, Siegel, J. M., Sorenson, S. B., Burnam, M. A., & Stein, J. A. (1989). Social support sources following sexual assault. Journal of Community Psychology, 17(1), 92-107.
  4. Rothbaum, B. O., & Foa, E. B. (1992). Subtypes of posttraumatic stress disorder and duration of symptoms. In J. R. T. Davidson & E. B. Foa (Eds.) Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: DSM-IV and Beyond. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
  5. Rothbaum, B. O., Foa, E. B., Riggs, D. S., Murdock, T., & Walsh, W. (1992). Prospective examination of post-traumatic stress disorder in rape victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 5(3), 455-475.
  6. Ullman, S. E., & Peter-Hagene, L. (2014). Social reactions to sexual assault disclosure, coping, perceived control. Journal of Community Psychology, 42(4): 495-508. doi: 10.1002/jcop.21624
  7. National crime victimization survey. (2007). U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=dcdetail&iid=245

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Michelle Kukla, PsyD, therapist in Palatine, Illinois

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Colette

    Colette

    June 19th, 2017 at 11:02 AM

    I think that there are too many times when we forget that our reactions to the things that someone shares with us can be just as important as the things that they are sharing.
    If we are ready and willing to show them love and compassion think about how much easier it must feel for them to share these intimate and frightening details with us.
    If we act standoffish and uncaring so you think that it would be very easy for them to let us know the things that happened to them?

  • Dr. Michelle Kukla

    Dr. Michelle Kukla

    June 19th, 2017 at 3:17 PM

    Hi Colette,
    Your above statements are well said. Yes, love and compassion produce powerful healing forces. Just adding more heart into all our relationships will yield a warmer culture for which survivors can freely remove the cloak of silence and step out of the shadows of shame that silences them! Time to end the stigma of shame as a survivor. That’s why I created the BRAVE model because it encapsulates every survivor. Cheers to a future where survivors no longer need to fear a negative reaction when they disclose their trauma! Colette, you have written the recipe to put us on that path!

  • jenna

    jenna

    June 19th, 2017 at 2:07 PM

    My problem is though that I am afraid of saying and doing the wrong thing. What if I accidentally said something that would make them feel even worse about the situation? I don’t think that I would handle it very well if I caused them even more pain.

  • Dr. Michelle Kukla

    Dr. Michelle Kukla

    June 19th, 2017 at 3:01 PM

    Hi Jenna, the fact that you are taking the time to read this article and make a comment speaks volumes for your care and sensitivity to survivors breaking their silence. That is a wonderful start! If you only remember the “B” in the BRAVE model standing for “believe” this will be immensely supportive and will go along way. To tell a survivor of sexual violence that you believe them when they disclose and to hold a space of safety for them will help them in their healing process. Jenna, there is also nothing wrong with asking the survivor how you can best support them. Don’t under estimate your value to just sit with a survivor that has disclosed to you and let them know that you are there, you are not going anywhere and that you BELIEVE them! Again, thank you for taking the care to comment and always feel free to reference this article for further support!

  • jenna

    jenna

    June 20th, 2017 at 11:21 AM

    Thanks for that affirmation.

  • Courtney

    Courtney

    June 23rd, 2017 at 1:05 PM

    There is not one person out there who is always going to have the right words all the time. But sometimes a hug and a smile can go a long way even when the words fail you.

  • Dr. Michelle Kukla

    Dr. Michelle Kukla

    June 23rd, 2017 at 2:43 PM

    Absolutely so true, Courtney! As long as you check in with the survivor to make sure they are comfortable with a hug, this can be a wonderful way to wrap them in care and support!

  • Dave

    Dave

    June 26th, 2017 at 2:27 AM

    I am beyond shattered or crushed but more like completely destroyed by what has occurred. Growing up in a Christian home I was completely sheltered with zero knowledge of the different long term consequences, progressive mental and emotional problems that can develope a survivor of Extreme long term child sexual abuse by a parent. I was so uninformed that when I learned had happened to my wife that I had not the slightest idea of the significants of that information that my wife was not at all happy to share with me. The far reaching extensive damage done to my wife’s mental and emotional health was way above my understanding and quite frankly was so foreign to me that I had no point of reference to judge in gauge the seriousness of her story. Beginning at six years old and lasting until she was 15 her father abused her violently. We married 18 years later and I was her third husband. The first few years we both seem to be happy enough however she continuously told me things about her Intimate preferences during our love making. At first I was a palled when she told me to do this or do that and that she really liked this particular thing or that particular thing and it one point I responded “oh good grief honey, normal people don’t do that! She had engaged and was very experienced in sexual practices that in some cases I had never even heard of. After less than a half a dozen years she began to grow very distant and cold emotionally and was retreating and withdrawing from participating in a real marital relationship. By the time we had been married for 11 years my wife was never home, didn’t keep our house cook our meals or do my laundry and had developed her own set of friends that I was not welcome to join or participate with in their outings and activities. She had gotten very involved with our church and had begun to be extremely active in charity work and especially in being a certified County jail chaplain under the leadership of our churches jail ministry that controlled all Christian related activities at the county jail. She counseled with Women inmates and eventually develop day after jail care program as a life coach to help these women change acting out the destructive patterns in their lives and learn better coping and social skills. She was very well known in our community highly respected was often asked for her opinion of an inmate by a judge, probation or parole officer. Then lightning struck in early spring of 2013. For about five years prior I had a gut feeling, eight instinct that something was very wrong but nothing I couldn’t put my finger on specifically because all of my wife’s activities outside the home seem to be faith based safe activities. Nonetheless I have a growing sense that something was a foot and along the way I had observed my wife acting out in ways that did not seem to fit with her character and personality when she was around certain men. I had developed a very successful career as a technical sales representative and had reached the top in my industry as the most productive technical salesman throughout the United States and 28 foreign countries where are my industries trade organizations operate it. During that week free time I was of course exposed to untold number of hours of sales training which also included learning to recognize and read body language and unconscious signals that we all exhibit in our daily lives. As I watched my wife during these episodes of animation I could not believe my eyes at what her body language was signaling. Nothing worse than sexual excitement and unconscious signals to those men that she was ready and wanting sexual relations. I couldn’t believe what I thought I was seeing in ignored it and told myself I was imagining or miss reading my wife. But then into thousand and 13 early spring I found her deeply emotionally involved in an online relationship making plans to bring them into our community from the foreign country and actually had invited him to move into my house! I outed this relationship in private and in the presence of our church pastor. She was shocked but thoroughly exposed and caught so she offered no denial but made extreme effort to minimize the relationship however she apologized said she had made a mistake that she love me want to be with my wife for the rest of our lives and please don’t divorce her. I for gave her and we had marriage counseling with our pastor for several months. Things got worse and worse and worse and I began to grow increasingly suspicious of her activities and I had that growing inner sense that something was terribly wrong. We finally separated in the fall of 2015 with her moving in with her dad who was very sick and about to lose his leg from complications of diabetes. We were separated for six months before she returns home. During that time I Saul my cellular phone bill increasing each month. I finally went online and looked at my account and inspected the text and data usage into my hole found it my wife was at that time averaging about 7000 texts a week hundreds and hundreds of telephone calls from all over the country and throughout our state including calls from several military bases! She had thousands of friends on Facebook so I began to do reverse look up son telephone numbers that I saw excessive text messaging back-and-forth and excessive calling loading the mini text and calls late at night or in the wee hours of the morning and go length of time for those calls. I open accounts at several of the background checking agencies and began tracing down ownership of these telephone numbers that were messaging and talking back-and-forth with my wife. I also ran a background check on my wife and was shocked when they ran a scan on social media sites that my wife was on a half a dozen or more of those sites besides Facebook and to my horror found her listed as a featured member of a dating site which was nothing more than a booty call site! A featured member is a account holder of the peas extra money to be more heavily advertised so they can meet more people to date or have affairs with. I could no longer keep my mouth shut and I can find is my wife with a screenshot of the profile on the dating site and screenshots of the phone companies list of text messages and calls with the dates the times the length the location where the calls originated from and then I told her I had reversed look up many of the telephone numbers and was able to give her the names of the men that I was most suspicious she was having affairs with. She became out of control anger and denied everything told me I was a lunatic in that she would not answer any of my questions and that if I were to find out anything it would be because I would dig it out by the roots! After her return home she continued spinning in ordinate amount of time on Facebook and always guarded her cell phone and iPad like a pitbull guards a steak! If she got up at 3:30 or four in the morning to go to the bathroom she took her cell phone and iPad with her! She would give me no access to look at her phone or check her messages or anything. That caused my miss trust of her and suspicion to reach extreme level and I felt like I knew what was going on but with her denials I was going to have to expose it and prove to her that I knew she was lying in forming relationships with other men. By the time I was finished I had uncovered so many relationships with men that it was mind staggering. I also uncovered relationships with women. Through using Data recovery programs I was able to pull deleted pictures text WhatsApp conversation Snapchat conversations email that have been deleted off of several of her old cell phones going back almost 12 years. Those texts were proof that she had sexual relations with multiple men she had affairs with married men, she had been flying into our city from out of state to meet her in there hotels, I recovered deleted photographs that included naked pictures of young and old women, facial pictures of Michlen and gentle toll pictures of mini men’s private parts. Also many pictures of my wife including one video she had secretly made of her and I engaging in sexual activity. I downloaded her sexiest deleted picture into a special search engine that revealed it was published on 381 different Internet sites. Here is the progression, immediately following her refusal to allow her father to abuse her anyway longer under threat she would call the authorities at 15 years old she began on a rampage of sexual relations with sometimes four or five different men a week. This activity continued through her first and second marriage and did not even slow down when she and I married and had not stopped or been altered in anyway up to just these past few months. She had developed a very sophisticated method to expose herself to men in person or online make a friend connection and then slowly subtly begin to exhibit signs in give signals to the man that she was vulnerable and available for sexual activities. If they did not turn the friendship into a sexual relation within 4 to 6 weeks of on line friendship she would drop film called and start the process over with another man. I documented direct Communications text messages pictures and everything going back 11 years in history.and activities with these men over c The course of 11 years through my telephone company account and data retrieval programs, used multiple background search companies, making phone calls and talking to men directly or talking to their spouse. I had the confessions of many of her lovers who had no idea that my wife had become a predator and had lured them in to perform abusive sex acts on her to satisfy her impulses and urges that she had no power to control! I presented all of my documentation to my best friend in life that I grew up with and who I’ve known longer than any other human being outside of immediate family. My friend is one of the leading psychologist in my state and was the man that wrote the drug treatment plan with protocols for the state funded programs as well as was the director of all of the in-house treatment centers owned by the state. My friend who is like a brother immediately recognized the seriousness when I had my first conversation on the phone with him and before he ever received copies or of my evidence he assembled a team of psychologist psychiatrist and therapist all specializing in child sexual abuse as well as the adult survivors. I sent him all of the evidence and material which he shared with them all and then we came toget her and had a six hour phone conference between all of us. After reviewing all of the evidence in asking me mini mini mini questions they drew some preliminary conclusions. I was told that this is not a diagnosis but you have a stab list enough evidence that we can clearly see certain signs of several different psych psychological and emotional conditions including but not limited to hypersexuality, sexualimpulsive disorder, multiplayer personality syndrome with posttraumatic shock syndrome in additional to several other developing conditions. Was explained to me that during her initial hope use by her primary abuser that she was imprinted with neural pathways being developed in her brain specifically designed to accommodate her experience of sexual abuse. These new pathways stimulated the two pleasure centers in the brain causing them to produce a high volume of endorphins, adrenaline and other such chemicals that amounted to a huge cocktail of pleasure drugs that she had become physically mentally and emotionally dependent upon. They explained that it appeared that her only method or way to stimulate the produce the cocktail was to re-create and re-experience the original abuse. I have been urged to get my wife into professional therapy and told it will be have to be extensive it may be years before her recovery with a possibility that she might never come back. A special concern and red flag for the team of doctors was how she had progressed from a victim into an abuser herself and the tactics she was utilizing were very creative and everything wrapped under layers and layers and layers of secrecy with her public persona so much the opposite of her secret life self to the point of nobody will believe it! That is the butt of my story in that I too have been altered , Damaged and have developed some impulses in activities from the exposure I received in a marital relationship with my wife. She left me one week ago and surprise surprise moved back in with her dad who is recovered now. Her mother passed away five years ago so they live alone in for several months prior to her leaving she began to clean her dad’s residence almost daily, cook his meals, do his laundry, and become his constant companion and best friend! She loves her dad so much that she has told me she would never ever support any allegations that he had abused her that he did that deserve to be prosecuted or get in trouble and that she really feels that it was her fault for being abused by him because as a child she was very flirtatious.
    What a horrible terrible awful nightmare existence I have lead for these past four years call my Nading in the complete destruction of my marriage, the loss of the woman that I love with all of my heart with the final in dignity being on sites like this No type of help or even acknowledgment is offered for the spouse of an adult survivor of child sex abuse. I know the aftereffects Kim very widely depending on the nature of the abuse in the link of time that it occurred. I have been told by the experts that the type of abuse she suffered is Extreme and the length of time of a minimum of nine years is excessively long so that the end result is my wife is far more damaged changed altered mentally emotionally spiritually with me being left alone without help without support often times not believed and or attacked for being a damaged spouse Obie adult survivor of child sexual abuse! I am second from one spectrum to the next . Very frustrated and yes growing extremely angry! I’m sorry for the weight but feel it was necessary to tell the bulk of my experiences.

  • Dr. Michelle Kukla

    Dr. Michelle Kukla

    June 26th, 2017 at 11:22 AM

    Hi Dave, I am glad that you found GoodTherapy.org’s platform safe to share your story. Yes, the emotional aftermath caused by sexual trauma also impacts the loved ones of survivors too; especially their partner. There is some support available for you to use as a resource, too. First, a trauma sensitive therapist can help you process your pain in this journey. Individual therapy could provide you with a setting where a therapist would be there for you and your pain. If not familiar with everything GoodTherapy.org offers, they have a fantastic therapy directory to help procure a therapist with a specialty in trauma. You may also consider looking at the fantastic website called Support for Partners at: supportforpartners.org/. They provide chat forums and lists of other wonderful resources to help promote healing for you too!

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