A 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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!
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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