How Not to React When Survivors of Sexual Trauma Disclose

Rear view of two young adults with long hair sitting on grass. one hugs the otherA survey conducted in 2011 by The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence revealed one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped during their lifetime (Black, Basile, Breiding, Smith, Walters, Merrick, & Stevens, 2011). Additionally, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18 (Finkelhor, Hotaling, Lewis, & Smith, 1990). Given these alarmingly high numbers, it is not unlikely a survivor of sexual trauma may disclose to you in your lifetime.

Therefore, it is paramount to be prepared, to arm yourself with guidance and direction that will allow you to handle such a situation with care. Most survivors of sexual trauma will share what happened to them with at least one person in their personal network, such as a close friend, family member, or significant other. Survivors may selectively confide in others about their trauma, but I believe it is essential everyone has access to education and information about how to best respond—and how NOT to respond—in the event someone close to you discloses their experience.

Responding to Disclosure in Positive Ways

Sadly, research has shown survivors often receive negative or unsupportive reactions when disclosing trauma. Some of these responses often include blame, criticism of their actions at the time of the assault, questioning if an attack was indeed rape, and so on. These negative responses can have detrimental outcomes for survivors and often cause further hurt and emotional pain.

Survivors often receive negative or unsupportive reactions when disclosing trauma. … These negative responses can have detrimental outcomes for survivors and often cause further hurt and emotional pain.

I previously wrote an article in which I focused on ways people can offer support to survivors of sexual trauma who confide in them. This article highlighted ways to use the BRAVE communications model to respond to disclosure with care and sensitivity. I was struck by how many people reached out and expressed they were still afraid to say the wrong thing during sexual assault disclosures. I was touched by the number of people who demonstrated such a strong commitment to not saying something unsupportive during this sensitive time. Consequently, I felt compelled to write a follow-up to discuss in detail what never to say or do when someone confides the sexual trauma they have experienced.

Since negative social responses often thwart a survivor’s recovery and may produce more posttraumatic stress symptoms (Ullman & Peter-Hagene, 2014), it’s critical you are thoughtful in your responses to these situations. One of the key elements to handling disclosure moments with support is knowing what never to do or say. You can prepare yourself beforehand by developing your awareness of the dialogue and behaviors to avoid, and this essential first step will help ensure any survivors of sexual violence who share their story will receive a positive experience when they decide to do so.

Preparedness can go a long way toward fostering healing for survivors. The list below offers guidance and a starting place, though it may not be all-inclusive, for people to develop understanding of how not to react when disclosed to:

  1. Avoid reacting with disbelief.  One of the most detrimental ways to respond is to show you don’t believe the survivor. Studies have shown false reports of rape only account for about 2-8% of reports. These statistics are similar to any other crime (Lonsway, Archambault, & Lisak, D., 2009). We certainly don’t doubt or question people who tell us they have had their home burglarized or their wallet stolen. Sexual violence should be no different.
  2. Avoid reacting with blame, criticism, or judgment. Don’t ask “why” and “what” questions, as these are only likely to perpetuate victim blaming and contribute to the survivor’s negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Questions such as, “Why did you go alone to the apartment?” “Why were you drinking alcohol?” “Why did you get drunk?” “What were you wearing?” “Why did you start being physically intimate if you didn’t want to have sex?” “Why didn’t you fight back?” “Why didn’t you scream?”are not at all helpful. In no circumstance is a survivor of sexual violence to blame for the crime. “Why” and “what” questions, however, have the potential to communicate to the survivor they are responsible for the act of another person, which, again, is never the case. Only the perpetrator of the sexual assault is to blame. In general, use extreme care when considering a why/what question in this circumstance.
  3. Avoid negative reactions. Being negative when a survivor shares their trauma story can have consequences for the survivor. It’s generally not advisable to tell survivors they shouldn’t report the incident or tell them their attacker is unlikely to be caught even if they do report the attack. Neither is telling a survivor they shouldn’t share with any more people a positive reaction. You may say this because you care and worry how others might react to hearing of the assault, but the atmosphere of negativity created is generally unhelpful and unsupportive. It is also critical survivors are not told what to do or how to handle the aftermath of the attack, as this effectively continues to take away or limit their sense of power and control. Survivors need to feel empowered. This means they should make their own choices about how to handle the crime, including decisions on whether or not to press charges.
  4. Don’t treat survivors differently. Treating survivors differently, such as by acting as if they are damaged in some way or now defective, can be damaging to their wellness and recovery. Survivors need to know they have a consistent and stable support system, so if you begin avoiding a person who has disclosed to you, this can be hurtful. If you aren’t sure how you can help them, you can always ask!
  5. Avoid minimizing what happened. Never tell survivors to just get over it or that what happened is in the past. Other unhelpful things to say to survivors include, “You don’t need professional help;” “It was only sex;” or “Are you sure it was really rape?” “Sexual assault is about power and control, not sex.” These types of questions and statements are attempts to reduce what has happened to the survivor. The truth is, sexual violence is a common traumatic event frequently leading to PTSD in survivors, a majority of whom are women. Sexual trauma is not to be reduced and minimized, as the effects of this kind of trauma include negative emotional and physical consequences often warranting professional assistance. Encouraging survivors to seek mental health care for trauma can promote healing.

If a survivor of sexual assault confides in you, avoid the above reactions to increase your chances of providing survivors with a positive disclosure experience. This sensitivity will continue to help dismantle rape culture, make it more comfortable for survivors of sexual violence to share when they feel appropriate, and validate a survivor’s decision to place their trust in you. Healing takes time, but you can help the process—one moment at a time!

References:

  1. Black, M. C., Basile, K. C., Breiding, M. J., Smith, S .G., Walters, M. L., Merrick, M. T., Stevens, M. R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 summary report. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_Report2010-a.pdf
  2. Finkelhor, D., Hotaling, G., Lewis, I. A., & Smith, C. (1990). Sexual abuse in a national survey of adult men and women: Prevalence, characteristics and risk factors. Child Abuse & Neglect 14, 19-28. doi:10.1016/0145-2134(90)90077-7
  3. Lonsway, K., Archambault, J., & Lisak, D. (2009). False reports: Moving beyond the issue to successfully investigate and prosecute non-stranger sexual assault. The Voice, 3(1), 1-11.
  4. Ullman, Sarah E.; and Peter-Hagene, Liana. (2014). Social reactions to sexual assault disclosure, coping, perceived control and PTSD symptoms in sexual assault victims. Journal of Community Psychology, 42(4): 495–508. doi:  10.1002/jcop.21624

© 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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  • Bryant

    Bryant

    August 28th, 2017 at 3:09 PM

    If someone believes in you and trusts you enough to share something like this with you then how on earth could you ever belittle them or act like you do not believe them? Can you imagine sharing something that was so terrible that happened to you and then have someone totally jerk the rug out from under you and react in a completely inappropriate manner? It would be devastating for any of us, I think that we can all agree on that. Please, be the friend and the comfort that they need at this time, not the judge.

  • Dr. Kukla

    Dr. Kukla

    August 28th, 2017 at 4:17 PM

    Bryant, thank you for echoing such strong sentiments about being a positive support in these circumstances. I love your last sentence, it rings so true. We just need to keep disseminating this information far and wide. Your thoughts bring a strong sense of comfort in providing a better culture for healing sexual trauma.

  • Alan P.

    Alan P.

    August 29th, 2017 at 11:01 AM

    My production company in Canada just delivered a series of videos that deal with how to respond to disclosures of sexual violence in a university setting. This article is a direct reflection of what we did. We showed how not to respond and then how to respond supportively. Important and crucial to the survivor is being believed and supported.

  • Dr. Michelle Kukla

    Dr. Michelle Kukla

    August 29th, 2017 at 8:42 PM

    Wow, Alan! Thank you for contributing this information. That is so awesome to hear that there are videos that help demonstrate these skills and especially for the college setting. I hope a lot of college students get to view those videos. Thank you for highlighting this fantastic news.

  • Bryant

    Bryant

    August 29th, 2017 at 3:06 PM

    :) glad to hear that

  • Nikki w

    Nikki w

    August 30th, 2017 at 3:42 PM

    It’s so sad o say but I just told my parents that a family member sexually abused me growing up. Hardest thing I’ve ever had to say to anyone for a million reasons. Their response was not what I was expecting which was support but the opposite. They told me that something’s should just to kept inside and that at what expensive do I expose this information. It could ruin his life. I couldn’t even believe what I was hearing. It was them taking the other family members side. This has affected everything in my life. Every relationship I’ve ever had. And now it’s worse to know that the people around me now know and are treating me like I’ve done something wrong. I don’t know what to do now but I don’t want to live with all of this burden on my shoulders anymore. It’s out!! I was expecting to feel relief if i even had the guts to tell them and it’s so much worse now. Please tell me it will get better….

  • Dr. Michelle Kukla

    Dr. Michelle Kukla

    August 30th, 2017 at 6:04 PM

    Hi Nikki,
    First, thank you for your courage to share on this forum your recent experience with disclosure. Your are a very brave woman and you displayed a lot of courage in sharing your trauma with your parents. I am sorry they did not support you in the way that you needed or what is best to promote healing and hope for you. Your experience is sadly not rare and is why I continue to write on these topics to help educate for change and for a culture where survivors are no longer silenced.

    But I will tell you there is hope for things getting better!!! I get to witness survivors on a regular basis transition from victim to thriver and heal wounds. Yes, it can take some time, but healing is possible! I would encourage you to seek counseling if you have not already done so with a trauma informed therapist. GoodTherapy.org provides a nice directory to find a therapist. You may also try your community agency for sexual assault for therapy services. You may also want to consider seeing if your parents would do some family therapy sessions with you so that they can learn from a mental health professional about tools to directly support you during your healing journey. You may also find support groups for survivors of sexual violence to be helpful too, there are likely some groups held at your local center against sexual violence. Again, you are so brave and not alone. I am glad you are finding your voice and breaking the silence against sexual violence.

    Perhaps your parents would be open to reading some more material on how they can show healthy support to you such as allowing you to make choices about how you share this information and with whom instead of promoting silence for you, which is not helpful. Here is a good book I often recommend to parents when their child has been sexually abused: When Your Child Has Been Molested: A Parents Guide to Healing and Recovery – Kathryn B. Hagans .

    I also wrote a previous article on discussing 5 positive ways to support a survivor of sexual trauma: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/breaking-silence-5-ways-to-support-survivors-of-sexual-violence-0619174. Perhaps they could read this which would give them some more guidance. Nikki, there are also some links in this article to several non-profits that help survivors of sexual trauma called RAINN & PAVE. They also have excellent resources to help in these situations. Erin Merryn an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse has several books about a family member abusing her and what happened when she broke her silence. She is the force behind Erin’s Law to help protect children from abuse. Her website can be found here: erinslaw.org. Ms. Merryn is a a very inspiring woman that has transcended trauma and found healing. Things do get better, Nikki! I wish you the best on your healing journey!

  • Theo

    Theo

    September 4th, 2017 at 6:30 AM

    A lot of people tend to think that they are the ones who did something wrong when they have been abused. So you never want to make them feel more of what they are already feeling. You need to show them that you believe that this was not their fault and that you are there to support them with whatever they need. They do not need to be made to feel like they are the one who has done something wrong.

  • Dr. Michelle Kukla

    Dr. Michelle Kukla

    September 4th, 2017 at 12:01 PM

    Very well said, Theo! Thank you for sharing your insights! You are so right, we cannot allow survivors to feel judged or blamed. I am glad you have this insight and awareness to create the right climate to promote healing for a survivor that could disclose to you! This is wonderful!

  • Someone

    Someone

    September 4th, 2017 at 11:41 PM

    Just some advice to supporters of a survivor. If mental illness is a personal issue for you, be careful when advising a survivor to seek professional help. Some people have stigma against therapy, counseling, mental illness, etc and even after something as serious and traumatic as rape or childhood sexual abuse, that stigma could still be there. Just prepare yourself that they may not respond well and may even react in a way that is very hurtful to you. Perhaps give them a head’s up before you start the conversation and let them know what the topic will be about. Don’t ever assume that “O, it’s fine. There’s no way they are stigmatized”. Even if they’re a friend you’ve been open with about mental illness for years or they were a psychology major in college, just don’t assume. Just be brave and prepare yourself for a negative response. If you get one, don’t argue with them or try to force change. You brought the concern to their attention. That’s all you can do as a friend and supporter.

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