June 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?”
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.
- 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.
- Filipas, H. H., & Ullman, S. E. (2001). Social reactions to sexual assault victims from various support sources. Violence and Victims, 16(6), 673-692.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- National crime victimization survey. (2007). U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=dcdetail&iid=245
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