Sexual violence is a broad term that encompasses many forms of sexual contact without consent. Every two minutes in the United States, someone is sexually assaulted (www.rainn.org). Anyone can be a victim of sexual assault and most people who commit sexual assault are known to the victim. Sexual assault can occur in any community and relationship, regardless of race, sex, gender identity, gender expression culture, religion, sexual orientation, ability status, national origin, ethnicity, geographic location, or faith. Laws vary from state to state, but what matters is how you feel about what happened. If you are not sure, we are here to help: 828-2085.
Definitions under VCU Policy
Sexual harassment: Gender-based verbal or physical conduct that unreasonably interferes with or deprives someone of educational access, benefits or opportunities.
Non-consensual sexual intercourse: Any sexual intercourse (anal, oral or vaginal) however slight with any object by an individual upon another individual without consent
Non-consensual sexual contact: Any intentional sexual touching however slight with any object by an individual upon another individual without consent.
What is Consent
Under VCU's sexual misconduct policy, Consent is informed, knowing and voluntary. It is active, not passive. Silence, in and of itself, cannot be interpreted as consent. Consent can be given by words or actions, as long as those words and actions create mutually understandable permission regarding the conditions of sexual activity. Consent to one form of sexual activity cannot imply consent to other forms of sexual activity and previous relationships or consent cannot imply consent to future sexual acts. Consent cannot be obtained by use of physical force, compelling threats, intimidating behavior or coercion. In order to give consent, one must be of legal age.
What are some of the potential effects of an assault?
Survivors of sexual assault react to their experiences in many different ways. There are many feelings and experiences that are common for many survivors, while others may be specific to the given circumstances. For example in the GLBTQ community, an assault can be even more difficult to cope with due to fears of not being believed or facing discrimination from service providers. If you have not experienced any of these, it does not mean there is something wrong with how you are healing from the assault. The feelings you experience are part of the healing process. Everyone's experience is different.
Sexual assault is an act of power and control. When you were assaulted, you were without power during the assault. It is natural to feel frightened and powerless after what you have experienced. You may:
- Feel a loss of control over your life
- Feel a sense of shock and disbelief
- Have difficulty concentrating
- Go through a period of acting as if nothing happened (after the initial shock is over)
- Be fearful and feel unsafe
How should I respond to someone who has been sexually assaulted?
When someone has been raped or sexually assaulted, they obviously need a great deal of support from friends and family as well as counselors, law enforcement, doctors and so on. Many people simply do not know how to help someone through the trauma of rape or sexual assault, and so they become frustrated and bewildered, feeling that they are in some way failing someone they love. These feelings can sometimes be unintentionally transmitted to the survivor. This can make it even harder for survivors to cope with their experiences and often leaves them with even more feelings of guilt and confusion.
Every person responds differently to an assault, although there are certain feelings that are common, such as fear, distress, humiliation, anger, confusion, numbness, and guilt. The feelings a person has may vary from week-to-week, day-to-day, even minute-to-minute. What's important is that a person who has been violated be allowed to experience their feelings without fear of having them invalidated or dismissed. It is important that the survivor feels they are supported by people who will allow them to talk and who will try to understand their needs.
It is essential that a survivor knows they are believed, and that they be allowed to begin to rebuild their life at their own pace. The dominant feature of sexual assault is that it is forced on a person against their will. It is an act of violence and violation regardless of how much visible "violence" is used; it takes away a person's control, so it is vital that someone who has experienced assaulted be in control of their journey to recovery. Survivors often need to rebuild feelings of safety, trust, control, and self-worth- all things which are may be lost through an assault.
The following are some suggestions on helping the person you love through the trauma of rape or sexual assault. The responses of those close to a survivor can occasionally make things more difficult for him or her, and that is something nobody wants. The focus should always be on the survivor – never try to advise they do anything that may make them uncomfortable. Also, try to remember that you need support too, in order to continue supporting the survivor.
Physical health and safety are important. Remember that whether or not survivors chose to report the assault, a medical check-up may be necessary, as well as pregnancy, HIV or STI tests. There are ways to learn more about these services anonymously and at low or no cost. An advocate or counselor can help by providing information and resources.
Do not underestimate the power of simply listening and trying to understand what happened during the assault. The survivor may have been frozen by fear, or trusted the attacker because they thought they knew him or her. They may have been threatened or physically attacked and may have realistically feared the worst would happen if they resisted. You wouldn't expect somebody who has been mugged to have been able to prevent it…take a moment to consider the reasons for this "selective blaming." Myths relating to why rape happens contribute to blaming the victim. For example, beliefs that women "ask for it" or men are "unable to help themselves" often create a burden of guilt for many survivors and they may already feel partly responsible because they too live within a culture that supports these myths. Any criticism of their handling of the situation, whether during the attack or afterwards, simply adds to that guilt, and it is important that the blame is placed firmly where it belongs – with the person who committed the assault.
Many people internalize beliefs such as: "If I don't walk alone at night, I will not be raped" or "If I watch my drink when I'm at a party or bar, I won't get raped." These beliefs serve a purpose- to help one feel safe, but sharing these beliefs with someone who has been assaulted can be hurtful. Don't criticize a survivor of abuse for going where they were at the time, for wearing a certain outfit, for not resisting more or screaming, for not talking about it earlier… or anything else. Anybody, anywhere, can be a victim of abuse, regardless of age, gender, race, class, occupation, religious beliefs, and so on. No one deserves to be raped- regardless of circumstances "no" means "no," even if it is not explicitly stated.
If the survivor did not tell you about the assault right away, they may have been scared of your reaction, or felt ashamed or embarrassed to tell you. They may even have wanted to protect you from the pain of knowing what has happened to them. The survivor may have chosen to think the situation through first, or to talk to people less personally involved, such as a counselor.
There is a difference between a survivor processing the emotions of a traumatic event and blaming themselves. Try to help them distinguish between these feelings. It is okay for the survivor to feel angry, sad, upset, fearful, and so on about what happened to them. Everyone has a basic human right to be free from threat, harassment or attack. Try not to over-simplify what has happened by saying it isn't very bad, "move on," "never mind", or "forget it." Let them say exactly how they feel. Always remember that what happened was not their fault, though, and try to help remind them of that.
Let them know that you will be there now and in the future, you will give them your support, and allow them to work through their recovery in their own time. Do not to push the survivor into expressing things before they are ready. Ask if they know any other friends they would find it easier to talk to, or if they would like to see a counselor or advocate. Offer to help them find and get an appointment if they'd like assistance, but remember not to pressure them into anything if they are not ready. If they agree to see a counselor, doctor, advocate, or seek another form of help, offer to accompany them to the appointment for moral support.
Sexual assault can result in survivors feeling violated, changed or "different" and out of control. In order to rebuild trust and strength, it is crucial that the survivor be able to make decisions independently and regain influence over what happens in their lives. It is common for loved ones to feel distressed, to step in and be too protective, or to treat the survivor differently and make decisions for them, all of which can add to the frustration of the survivor. Ask them how they want to be helped, and in trying to do this you'll help rebuild their trust. Try not to speak for them unless they specifically request that you do so. When friends, the police, the doctor, etc., ask how they feel, always let them speak for themselves. If they want or need to talk to someone else, make it clear that they can choose whether or not you are with them.
Be respectful and supportive of decisions made by the survivor, even if it is not what you want them to do or what you think "should" be done. Each person has to decide what is right for their own emotional recovery. Also, try not to direct the anger and frustration you are likely to feel about the assault at the survivor. Remember, they may be trying to protect you from these feelings by remaining silent about the assault.
Reassure them that you know it is not their fault, and if you do feel anger, make it very clear that it is directed towards the person who committed the assault and not the survivor. Making vengeful statements is not helpful; it can make them feel even more unsafe, make them distressed to see you so upset, or could worry them that you'll get into trouble or get hurt. This can also leave survivors feeling out of control and that their needs are again being ignored. It is ok to ask friends or other trusted people for support and ideas about how to deal with your own understandable feelings of anger and frustration. And please, don't blame yourself for what happened because you weren't with them, hadn't protected them, etc. The responsibility lies solely with the person who committed the assault.
Help them to feel safe and take part in activities again, but only at their own pace and in ways they feel are best. Knowing they can talk to you about times when they feel unsafe and can ask for your companionship when they need it, can be reassuring as they tackle challenging situations.
Approach or touch the survivor gently, or ask if it is okay to touch them. They may want to be held and comforted, or prefer not to be touched until they feel safe. Encourage them to say what is comfortable and safe and how they want to spend their time with you. If you find that there is an emotional distance following the assault, try not to blame them or put pressure on them to forget it quickly. Try not to take it personally – remember, it is not about you. Seek support for yourself from a counselor or advocate or from someone who may understand.
Sexual situations can be "triggering" and cause survivors to recall the assault and accompanying feelings of violation and fear. Although logically the survivor realizes you are not the person who assaulted them, triggering events can come without warning. Over time, the survivor can learn to control their response to these triggers, with your support. Listening and responding in a patient and kind way will help to re-establish feelings of closeness and trust.
The survivor may need different types of support from different people. No one person can do everything for them. Sometimes, a counselor or trusted friends and colleagues can help in ways those closest to them can't. Tell the survivor that you believe them, that you don't blame them, and that you want to empower them to regain control of their life. Through active listening, respecting their feelings and decisions, and demonstrating you care, you can make a great difference and help the survivor begin to heal.
815 S. Cathedral Place
Richmond, VA 23220
Phone: (804) VCU-WELL (828-9355)
Monday - Thursday, 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
Friday, 10:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
VCU Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Services (M-Th 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., F 10:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.)
24/7 VA Family Violence and Sexual Assault Hotline (800) 838-8238