When I speak about preventing sexual violence on college campuses, I often share brief definitions of different forms of sexual violence including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. Once I’ve given these brief definitions I then ask, “How many of you know someone who has experienced sexual violence?”
Again and again, on campuses across the United States and Canada, 75% of college students consistently raise their hand and say they know someone who has experienced sexual violence.
Those who do direct advocacy and support work get at least 40 hours of training and often times much more including on-going training, certifications, and advanced degrees in the areas of counseling, neuroscience of trauma, and more.
It’s unrealistic to offer this level of training to college students generally, but it is critical to offer them some tips to support survivors. Especially, because 75% of them already know survivors and 80-90% of sexual violence on campuses go unreported to police or campus officials. We have to equip individuals and communities to be able to respond to survivors in ways that avoid harm and are helpful.
Here are the four overly simplified suggestions I make to college students about supporting survivors.
Make sure the individual is safe. Are they injured? Do they need medical attention? Do they have a safe place to stay? If the person who harmed them is someone they live with, can you offer them another place to stay? Are they mentally and emotionally safe? Are they suicidal? Do they need immediate counseling and support to be safe? Make sure they are safe.
Very rarely do individuals claim that they experienced sexual violence when they have not. Many of us have an inflated sense of this happening, because of how the media portrays these things.
Just because a criminal process didn’t find it beyond a reasonable doubt that the person identified was guilty, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Just because a campus process didn’t find a preponderance of evidence that the identified person was responsible, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Just because someone rescinds a report of sexual violence after being socially ostracized and isolated, or physically and violently threatened, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
According to the FBI the incidents of individuals claiming they experienced sexual violence when they did not is about the same rate as people who said someone stole their car when that didn’t happen.
If someone shares with you that they have experienced sexual violence, believe them. It is highly unlikely they they are making this up. AND it is not your role to investigate, gather information, and share that information with decision makers. Someone else will be in that role. All you have to do is believe them. And tell them that you believe them.
3. “It is not your fault.”
Victim-blaming is all too common for survivors of sexual violence to experience. No one should be made to feel responsible for what someone else has done to them. Victim-blaming can contribute to hurt and trauma. Victim-blaming’s roots are in the rape culture in our society, our reactive approaches to sexual violence, and our own cognitive protective mechanisms.
Our culture says, to women in particular, “don’t wear that, don’t drink too much, watch your drink, go with your friends, and come home with your friends” These messages are often intended to help individuals reduce their risk of experiencing sexual violence.
However, they are strictly reactive and amount to telling women what they need to do to respond to being an environment and society where sexual violence is all too common, rather than being proactive and trying to prevent that sexual violence from happening in the first place to that individual or to anyone. These messages can also lead to victim-blaming.
Survivors of sexual violence often hear these messages, before and after experiencing sexual violence. We all want to believe that horrible things won’t happen to us. We want to believe in what cognitive science calls the “Just World Hypothesis.” We want to believe that the world is a fair and just place. So when horrible things happen, we scan for information that makes this situation unusual and therefore one that we don’t need to worry about.
By doing so, we can maintain our belief in a just world. When we hear someone was mugged at 4 am, we think “that’s awful, but I would never be out at 4am” and then we can go on not feeling afraid and believe that the world is a fair and just place because we would never do that. But this leads to victim-blaming.
We can even do it to ourselves. We may not want to believe that this horrible thing could happen to us again, so we may be tempted to find the thing that even we ourselves did wrong, hoping that if we just never do that thing, then this will never happen to us again. No one should be made to feel responsible for what someone else has done to them.
This is why it is so important to say to someone who has experienced sexual violence, “It is not your fault.” Even if they haven’t mentioned hearing or thinking anything that sounds like victim-blaming, say it anyway. Even if you have said it before, say it again. Even if you’ve repeated it endlessly, keep repeating it. Even if you feel like you are being ridiculously redundant, keep saying it.
Survivors of sexual violence can’t hear those words enough.
Those who experience sexual violence have had their choices and ability to make decisions about themselves taken away. Make sure you are empowering them to make decisions about what happens going forward, both with their healing process and with any reporting they may choose.
This can be especially hard when the person telling us they have experienced sexual violence is some one we care about deeply, and we feel we know what is best for them. Make suggestions. Make recommendations. Repeat them if you feel you need to. But, be sure you are empowering them to make their own decisions.