Supporting Survivors of Sexual Violence

It was amazing to see the dialogue created by last week’s post, “Halloween, A Study in Unhealthy Gender Norms.”  All of the thoughtful comments have really had me thinking.  I hope that they have provided wonderful conversation and thought material for you as they have for me.  I usually try not to write about things that are too closely related two weeks in a row, but in this case, there has been something on my mind all week that relates to last week’s topic.  I was particularly struck by the words of my friend Lauren,

“There has never been a woman in the history of our society that has PROVOKED a man to stare at her, objectify her, touch her, sexually assault her or beat her. Those are CHOICES that men make. Those are LEARNED behaviors that men need to UN-learn.”

Her words could not ring more true, and undoubtedly, one of my greater struggles in life is to unlearn the socialization we men experience with regards to our interactions with women.  After all, in my thoughts that Halloween night, I crossed that line of blaming women for the way men were acting toward them.  Even while trying to hold the men accountable, I couldn’t help but think, “But she chose to wear that absurd outfit!”

It’s hard!  It frustrates the hell out of me!  This is why I get so excited about playing a role in the socialization of the young men in my life . . . cousins, nephew, friends’ kids, maybe even a son of mine one day (though the jury’s still out on this one).  My mind always comes back to Andrea Gibson’s question of “What will I teach my son?”  I love a story my friend Zach has told me many times of his mentor Novian talking to his son after the boy hit his sister.  Novian asked his son something to the effect of, “What did we learn is the most important part of being a man?”  The boy responds, “Being gentle.”

The truth is, though, that we cannot simply wait for a generation of young men to rise up and make the change in how we treat women because in the time we wait, every two minutes, another woman in the U.S. is a victim of sexual violence.  We as men must constantly work to hold each other accountable – something that is hard and scary and can feel alienating but is incredibly important.  We must examine our own relationships  and ensure that they are sex-positive and healthy.

One thing that we as men and women in our society can work to do better, though, is support survivors of sexual violence.  In the past week, I have been thinking a lot about how we treat women who have the courage to come forward to prosecute their aggressor or seek help for the trauma in a sexual assault.  Fortunately there are many wonderful shelters, organizations, advocacy groups, and individuals who are doing the work to help women understand that, in the words of Lauren, “there has never been a woman in the history of our society that has PROVOKED a man” to assault her.  In no way could sexual violence ever be the fault of the survivor.

Unfortunately, though, despite the incredible individuals who dedicate their lives to supporting survivors, the pervading message given to survivors is one of blame and shame.  In the 2010 election, I was shocked to find out that Ken Buck, the former prosecutor and Republican candidate for Senate in Colorado, could be so insensitive to the survivor of sexual violence that he was supposed to be an advocate for in his role as a prosecutor that he told her she should feel shame and that the jury would likely see this as a case of “buyer’s remorse.”  He told her that he didn’t think they should prosecute because they would be unable to win the case (despite there being a confession from her former boyfriend and assailant where he admits that she said no multiple times and came in and out of consciousness while he had sex with her).

I was heartbroken this week to learn of 14-year-old Samantha Kelly who committed suicide because of the bullying and harassment that she received after she came forward to press charges against a well-known senior in her school who had committed sexual violence against her.  The horror and shame of being told day in and day out at school that she had made the whole thing up and that she was a liar was simply too much for Samantha.

Is it any wonder with how we respond to the women who have the courage to come forward that 60% of rapes go unreported and that only 6% of rapists ever see the inside of a jail cell?  I’ve heard the response a million times (most often from men though not exclusively), “There’s no way to know if she’s making it up.  Women often make this kind of stuff up to get back at guys.”  Never mind the reality that an incredible small number of cases that are even brought forward (2-8%) are found to be false (though false accusations are much more likely to be reported in the media).

The point here is that we all (though I would argue more particularly men) need to find ways to better support survivors of sexual violence.  Whether or not you realize it, you know a survivor.  In fact, you probably know a fair number of them.  In addition to working to end sexual violence, we need to build a culture of support and love for survivors of sexual violence.  Thus, based on a series of lists (sources below) I have found online with a little addition from myself, I have put together my own:

10 Things We All Can Do to Support Survivors of Sexual Violence

  1. BELIEVE THEM.  If someone has the courage to share their trauma with you, the worst thing you can do is question whether or not they are telling the truth.  They are talking to you because they trust you, so the very least you can do in a culture that encourages self-blame and doubt around sexual violence is to BELIEVE THE SURVIVOR.  In fact, whenever you hear of a woman having survived sexual violence, trust and support that she is hurting and believe her.  It’s the justice system to use words like “alleged assault.”  We can be the ones to be fully supportive.
  2. LISTEN.  If a survivor comes to you, often the best thing you can do for them is to listen.  They may want to share everything.  They may want to share only a little.  There may be long moments of silence.  Just listen actively and with warmth and love.  By listening, you are taking a piece (no matter how small) of the survivor’s burden onto your shoulders, thus making their burden that much lighter.  Carrying the burden together can help lead to healing!
  3. ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP.  The question should never be “if” there is anything you can do.  Instead, remind survivors and those peripherally affected by sexual violence that “I am here.  What can I do to help you in this hard time?”  There are many ways to help.  Everything from good thoughts and prayer to accompanying someone to the hospital or police station are important.
  4. DON’T ADD MORE VIOLENCE TO THE SITUATION.  If a survivor comes to you for help, things like, “I am going to kill that mother F*%@” are in no way helpful and can often make a survivor feel more scared and insecure.
  5. NEVER TELL A SURVIVOR WHAT THEY SHOULD OR MUST TO DO.  One of the most horrific aspects of sexual violence is the agency and control that is stolen from survivors.  The best thing you can do to support them is to help them regain their control and agency by supporting them in their needs and desires, but it is not your role to suggest or demand that they take any action.
  6. NEVER REMAIN SILENT.  If someone says something that sounds like victim-blaming, speak up!  If a public figure says something that even hints that gender violence could, in any way, be the fault of the survivor, let them know you disapprove!  Talk to your friends and family about sexual violence – if it is never talked about, we only serve to make it seem like something shameful and that survivors should hide.
  7. LOOK INWARD.  Have the courage to question your own attitudes about sexual violence and gender oppression in general.  Consider ways that your own attitudes and language help to perpetuate the culture that condones sexual violence and shames survivors.
  8. DONATE MONEY OR TIME.  Unfortunately those organizations that help support survivors of sexual violence are incredibly underfunded (and many are losing their funding in many states’ current budget crises).  Donate your time or money to help these organizations continue to support survivors.  The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network can help you locate a local center to support.
  9. DON’T FUND SEXUAL VIOLENCE.  Popular media that blames victims or makes jokes about sexual violence are unacceptable.  Don’t support them.  Don’t support athletes, comedians, radio hosts, musicians, actors, television shows, or other media that are not fully supportive of survivors or that defend and condone sexual violence.  Further, pornography is often directly tied to power over women and rape in sex.  Don’t buy or watch pornography unless it is explicitly sex-positive (though I am not super familiar, I know that there are feminist porn producers out there working to subvert the norm of violence and power in pornography).
  10. TEACH YOUR SONS (AND DAUGHTERS).  Andrea Gibson is right.  One of the most important questions we should be asking ourselves is not what we can teach our daughters to help them avoid being a victim.  Instead, we should be looking to what we can teach our sons that will prevent sexual violence at its roots

This list is by no means exhaustive.  It is simply drawn from the work of the incredible Jackson Katz and Shanna Katz (unrelated) and from my training and work in Earlham College’s Sexual Assault Survivor’s Advocates program.  If you think the list is missing something, please add it in the comments.  It is time for us to create a community of support for our survivors.  That community involves you.

Peace be the Journey.

Post Script
If you’re a survivor of sexual violence and need help, visit the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network’s website for their online hotline or to locate a local support service.  You can also call their 24-Hour Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.  You are not alone.  There is hope and help.

5 thoughts on “Supporting Survivors of Sexual Violence

  1. This is beautiful Jamie. Thank you for that.
    I don’t think I fully understood what it means to be a feminist until I heard that last line of Andrea’s poem, and was forever changed.

    RAAP (Rape Assistance and Awareness Program) Awesome local org. responding to and educating on sexual violence.

    Apparently I am a regular “commenter” on your blog now : )

  2. Thanks for posting this Jamie.
    I appreciate your voice!

  3. […] a culture that glorifies sexualized-violence and where sexual violence is beyond commonplace, it is the responsibility of our elected representatives to hold themselves and our country to a […]

  4. […] look to recognize the ways in which we are privileged over women and must act accordingly by, say, speaking out against sexual violence and building more positive sexual relationships with our partners.  All white folks, even if a […]

  5. […] ideas on how to better support survivors of sexual violence, read Supporting Survivors of Sexual Violence. Share this:EmailFacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in […]

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