April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so I thought it only fitting to begin the month with a post on the topic. I hope to continue to share information regarding sexual assault throughout the month.
One of my areas of focus since beginning my training in psychology has been the treatment of those who experience sexual assault. I completed my dissertation on the topic – developing a treatment intervention, volunteered at Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR) providing rape crisis services, and educating my peers – both formally and informally – on the impact of sexual assault.
I have memorized a lot of statistics about sexual assault, many of them staggering (the most recent report from the CDC can be found here) and which I intend to share throughout the month, but one thing I have found most surprising is the stigma which remains and the challenge in finding adequate treatment and long-term resources.
As a graduate student, I wrote an opinion piece to a paper and gave a presentation to my peers about how clinicians – particularly new ones – can approach their clients who report an experience with sexual assault. Since then, of course, my views have continued to evolve, but the foundation remains the same, and again I offer the following advice not only to therapists working with sexual assault survivors*, but to anyone wanting to help:
- Believe her when she** tells you what happened.
- Remember that it is never the survivor’s fault.
- Make space to talk about the assault, but do not force the issue.
- Validate her feelings (e.g., “Yes, that sounds awful.”)
- Normalize her experience – particularly that her reaction to the assault is understandable.
Of course, this is not comprehensive and is not meant to take the place of formal training. Instead, I offer these as building blocks and as a reminder to everyone that sexual assault is a complex and unfortunately common experience and should be treated and responded to with care.
*There is much discussion among professionals regarding the use of the term “survivor” as compared to “victim,” and I acknowledge that each side has valid points. For myself, I prefer “survivor,” and thus use it here.
**Because the majority of sexual assaults are committed against women, I use female pronouns and designations. This does not, however, suggest that men are not sexual assaulted.