How to respond when someone discloses a sexual assault
By Jim Paulus
As we’re sitting in the coffee shop, I can sense the conversation is taking a turn when the person across from me begins to describe a painful event from the past. My companion is fighting emotions now coming to the surface. My own emotions begin to rise: empathy and sadness but also fear, worry and anxiety. How should I respond? Will I make it worse if I say the wrong thing? Why is this person telling me?
Given the opportunity, I like to think most of us are willing to help another person. But how do we respond when the act of serving another is costly, involves things out of our control or leaves us feeling vulnerable and weak?
One of the most difficult situations in which we can be called to serve another is when a victim of sexual violence confides their story in us. Although it is a privilege to be trusted with someone’s story, it can be overwhelming to listen to the aftereffects of a traumatic experience.
The data published on the increase of sexual violence is staggering. The likelihood that we will hear such stories is on the rise. There are a variety of published statistics, but many studies, including those conducted by the Center for Disease Control, report that one in five women is the victim of sexual violence during her lifetime and even more report sexual harassment.
In my roles in higher education as a counselor and administrator in student development, I have wrestled with how to help victims. If I am honest, there are times when I have wished that students would report to someone else or even not report at all. One can feel helpless listening to a story, and there is pain involved when there are not ways to provide immediate relief.
The field of higher education has been under increased scrutiny regarding how we respond to sexual violence on campuses. Colleges and universities are being held accountable for the culture of campuses, whether or not school officials are aware of violence or should have been aware and how they respond.
An important question being asked is whether or not a campus encourages victims to come forward. In the past, whether intentional or not, some colleges have communicated that they did not want to hear about such wrong doings. It is difficult to hear that your community has not lived up to the expected ideal. It is much easier for others to deal with these painful events. And so some colleges would advise their students to go to law enforcement instead of taking the time to listen and respond to their campus community. Thankfully, campuses are becoming much more open to creating space for survivors of sexual assault to find safe places to report and receive support.
I believe this openness for victims to come forward has and will continue to spread to other areas of our culture, including churches, neighborhoods and places of employment. Following are some helpful reminders for us if we are in a situation where someone shares a story in which they are a victim of sexual harassment and/or violence. These are specifically geared towards situations where the victim is sharing their story for the first time.
Listening, not fixing: The natural response to hearing the pain of another person, especially someone you care about, is to fix it as quickly as possible. We want their pain to be relieved as soon as possible. This will most likely not be an option, and the urge to fix may create more difficulty for the victim. Often what is needed is someone to be present and willing to listen. If you are like me, it is difficult to be passive and not actively working toward a solution.
Listening, not blaming: When talking with a victim, it is important to choose your words wisely. Being victimized strikes at the core of a person and the retelling of such an episode leaves one exposed and vulnerable. Be very careful of comments, suggestions or questions that could be interpreted as judgmental or laying blame on the victim. Most likely this person has considered if they are to blame. At this stage in the process, it is important that the person listening be supportive and careful with word choices or drawing conclusions.
Giving space: I believe that Christ is the ultimate source of healing in all cases. But when someone initially shares his or her story of sexual violence, it may not be the time to introduce faith. The person may be initially unsure of God’s intention and may question why God did not prevent the violence. Allow the person space to bring God into recovery when they are ready to process the spiritual element of their experience.
Identifying the next step: As I’ve said, it is a privilege to be trusted with the retelling of a scary and painful experience. Getting over the mountain of telling anyone is an important step in the healing process. Oftentimes it will be important to direct the victim to the next step. Depending on the situation and timing, victims will need other support services, such as medical care, counseling or information about legal options. Although we may not be able to “fix” everything for someone, we can be a very important step in that process of getting them to people more trained to intervene.
I encourage us all to promote this topic in our friendship circles and faith communities. I believe one of the ways God looks to display his love and healing is through his people. If we choose to not be comfortable with topics such as sexual violence we are hindering the work God wants to do for those who need him.
Ezekiel 22:30 say, "I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one.
This Scripture paints a challenging but encouraging picture of how God looks for his people to “stand in the gap.” The context of the verse does not address sexual assault specifically, but I believe all followers of Christ can benefit from this concept. Many of us do have gaps in our lives and need healing and wholeness. Christ is the ultimate source of healing, and I believe he is looking for his followers to stand in the gap for others and be a voice of love and hope, even when the subject matter is uncomfortable and overwhelming.
Jim Paulus is vice president for student life at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kan.