Sexual assault is one of the most challenging situations I encounter as a psychologist who specializes in children and youth. Trauma therapy involves multiple steps. The survivor needs to process the pain and humiliation of the attack. They often need to disclose the attack to their parents, coaches, teachers and friends because the consequences of the attack are completely devastating and impact most – or all – areas of their life. And then on top of all of this, they may need to then navigate through the dense bureaucracies of the criminal justice system before they can try to heal and move forward with their lives.
It takes a tremendous amount of courage to stand up and share the details of your assault, with the hopes of seeking justice and preventing future assaults on other people. In far too many sexual assault cases, a police investigation stalls or is terminated because of lack of actionable evidence. The resulting “dismissal” leaves a survivor feeling disbelieved, disrespected, vulnerable and marginalized.
As a therapist, I try to turn these moments around. What can a survivor do to reclaim their voice? How can they be empowered to help other people facing similar trauma? It is with the hopes of helping the sexual assault survivors that I see, that I am writing these words. These recommendations are based on direct clinical interviews with I have had with them. I want to help them feel empowered by sharing their insight and recommendations. They have suffered much, but they have also learned and grown in wisdom. I believe that they have much to offer the readers of this article. Please take heed of their advice.
- Stick together! Do not go out with four friends and return home with two or three. Make a safety plan before a night out that everyone agrees on and can stick to. Keep an eye on one another when you’re out. Help your friends make good choices, especially if they have drank so much that they cannot apply good judgement or make good decisions themselves. Buy friends a soft drink instead of another beer. Help friends call taxi cabs and make sure they get into the cabs safely and with enough money for the fare.
- Safety first. If you are hosting a house party, you bear some responsibility to keep all of your guests safe. Make sure you greet everyone and say good night to everyone. Ensure your guests are drinking responsibly and definitely not to the point of becoming violent, sick or unconscious. Make certain that everyone gets home safely or sleeps it off in your home. Parties are no fun when someone gets hurt.
- Unconditional love. If you are a family member or friend of a sexual assault survivor, your support is vital to their recovery. Believe them. Do not ask too many questions. Do not judge them. Parents: do not punish your child if an attack happened while they were out without your consent. Unconditional love is what is required and what will best help the survivor overcome their trauma.
- Cut out red tape. We MUST reduce the barriers to justice. I have seen this happen and it hinders survivor recovery. It would be more helpful to survivors if police and their forensic labs were efficient in their investigations and did not drag things out needlessly to reach a determination of whether to charge a perpetrator or not. Pointless waiting and red tape are like a punishment to the survivor.
- Take responsibility. For those out there who have been on the wrong side of sexual assault, stand up and take responsibility for your actions. Don’t hide behind lawyers. Don’t shrink away from alternative forms of resolution, like restorative justice. If you are fuzzy about consent, watch the tea cup video. And, most importantly, do not try to intimidate your victim to stay silent. Bringing things out into the open is a vital step in the recovery of a fellow human whom you harmed.
I hope this article helps someone in some way. Whether you as the reader are a friend, family member, police detective, prosecutor or a perpetrator—I hope the wisdom shared here motivates you to do the right thing. Sexual assault is a societal problem that requires a multifaceted, community-based response.
– Dr. Jillian Roberts