After my last post, a Not Another Wave reader asked me what someone can do to support a friend or loved one who’s been sexually assaulted. The question surprised me a little because, as an advocate, supporting someone in that position is (literally) my life’s work and I’ve come to take the knowledge and skills associated with my job for granted. It occurred to me that the things I know to do, the things I understand before I walk in the room, aren’t common sense to everyone. I thought that a good way to answer this reader’s question would be to start by giving some background information about victimization before writing a to-do list for the next post, so that we can all be supportive to those who need it.

Before beginning, however, I’m going to reemphasize what I said in my last article: rape and sexual assault are never, never, NEVER the victim’s fault. I don’t care if the victim was making “stupid” choices; the perpetrator/offender is the one who ultimately used those choices as an excuse to commit a crime. We need to place blame on the appropriate person, which is the person who violated someone else’s rights.

Let’s start by looking at sexual assault as a crime. For the most part, sex assaults are committed by someone the victim already knows and feels at least some trust for- a partner, a friend, a date, a new acquaintance at the bar- and not by some stranger in a dark alley. Most offenders “groom” their victims before committing the assault. In the case of new acquaintances, for example, offenders follow the same pattern that people follow when trying for a consensual hookup: they look for a person who’s out with friends (more relaxed), they ingratiate themselves with the group, and they slowly push boundaries (i.e. stroke the target’s thigh). They then try to get the target alone. So far, nothing amiss, right? The crime occurs when they go for something sexual (a grope, a touch, a kiss), the target doesn’t say yes, and they keep going anyway. The victim might fight back; but then again, the victim might not. Everyone’s different. After the crime is completed (i.e. penetration), the offender continues to groom. They may cuddle their victim. They may make excuses (i.e. “You got me so turned on, I just had to”). They may make threats. Whatever they do, they will do whatever it takes to make their victim confused about whether consent was given and whether anything wrong took place (because rapists don’t cuddle, right?). And because the things that happened in front of other people are a normal part of consensual hooking up, it’s often hard for the victim to find validation that anything seemed out of place before the two were alone together. Hence the very reasonable fear that “no one will believe me.”

Even for those who do report, getting a conviction is like winning a very painful lottery. Sexual assault forensic exams (SAFEs- please don’t ever call them “rape kits” again!) require excruciatingly close examination of a person’s body, including plucking hairs (head and otherwise) for DNA evidence and taking photographs of your body. Police interviews, even when done by the most compassionate of officers, require telling and retelling of the incident- including the embarrassing details- and being willing to answer questions that might feel victim-blaming. All of this is for the chance that the offender might be prosecuted and thus might be convicted, which also requires telling and re-telling the story in the public venue of a hearing. Most of them aren’t. Evidence isn’t sufficient to counter the claims that “it was consensual,” the offender strikes a plea bargain, the victim can’t take it anymore and refuses to testify…the list goes on and on. It’s a wonder anyone reports in the first place (see statistics here).

Regardless of whether or not someone makes a report, they have to live with what was done. For everyone, this means something a little different. I could rattle off common trauma reactions- recurring nightmares, fear of encountering the offender, being hypervigilant, drastic changes in your reactions to otherwise-normal occurrences- but these things don’t mean a whole lot until you live them. I can say nightmares, but that doesn’t help you understand that some victims spend months avoiding sleep because every time they close their eyes they’re reliving the rape. Sometimes victims lose their partners because they can’t have sex anymore- or because they have sex with too many people, to try and “overcome” the assault. Some victims run ten miles a day; others down Jack like there’s no tomorrow. Some will panic because the person who assaulted them is someone they loved, cared about, and/or trusted- and now they’re scared that they can’t trust anyone ever again. Some will tell you they’re fine. Some won’t.

The thing to understand is that everyone, eventually, has to deal with their experience in some capacity. Healing from a sexual assault isn’t like healing from a cut or a scrape, and it’s not an event- it’s a process. Commanders at my job (on a military base) like to give victims a few days off work, but then expect them to come back in a week later as though nothing ever happened. That’s not how this goes. Trauma- including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD- can take a lifetime to heal. A person might be a wreck one day and seem their usual self the next. Someone else might appear to be recovering nicely, only to lock themselves in their house the day they have to face their offender in court. There’s anger, depression, sorrow, self-blame, not in any linear fashion, and not in a predictable pattern. Counseling can help, but not everyone wants that. Regardless, the aftermath is often hellish to live through and has no definable end.

So what can you do to be an ally or a supportive friend or loved one? Expecting a victim to return to the person they were before the assault is insensitive and unrealistic, and yet we want to be hopeful that the people we care about aren’t irrevocably taken from us by the offender. Tune in next time, and I’ll give you some places to start.