16 Days of Activism - Day 15
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Written by Beth Olker, Presbyterian Church (USA)
It is one of the conversations we all wish we never have to have. It is one of the hardest conversations to ever have. It is a conversation that can begin a process of healing and recovering from trauma. It often comes out of the blue and can be so shocking that it leaves the listener speechless. It is the moment someone walks into your office/classroom/living room/chapel/coffee house hours and tells you that someone has sexually assaulted them, someone has raped them.
Rape/sexual assault happens so frequently, that in helping ministries, it is more a question of when you will be faced with conversations like this, not if. According to statistics from UN Women, “It is estimated that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner (not including sexual harassment) at some point in their lives…some national studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.” (https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures)
There is no way to prepare yourself for the rush of emotions (anger, fear, sadness, rage, confusion, shock to name a few) that may go through your mind as the one listening to this story, but that cannot overshadow the feelings and needs of the person sharing their trauma with you, so, maybe it would help to review some do’s and don’t’s. If we can’t prepare our bodies for the impact of the story, maybe we can take the time to prepare some words and some actions.
1. How to use your ears:
a. Please just listen to their story. It may be the first time they are telling it. The telling may cause them the re-enter the traumatic moment. Listen fully and try not to interrupt.
b. A person may not use the word “rape” or “sexual assault”. The conversation may begin as simply as, “So this thing happened the other day (at work/home/school/the store) and I feel really weird about it.”
2. How to use your body:
a. Please be sure to ask before you touch them at all. We all know that touch can be healing, but after a sexual assault or rape, they may not want to be touched by anyone at all. Respect that. It may feel clunky, but it is always better to ask before offering any physical contact (but please harken back to my first rule about not interrupting as they share).
b. Body language is an important part of listening. Make sure that you are turned fully towards them. Make sure you are free from distractions from screens and phones. Make sure you are close enough to hear so you don’t have to interrupt to ask them to speak up or repeat any of the story.
3. How to use your voice:
a. After you have listened, please thank them for sharing their story. Please tell them how brave they were to share with you and how much you are honored to be someone they feel safe to tell.
b. Say, “I believe you.” Be explicit in letting them know that you believe them and that you are hear to support them.
c. Ask them what they need. The answer may be “I don’t know”. That’s okay.
d. Remind them that they are not to be blamed at all for what has happened to them and that there is no right timeline or right path towards beginning to heal.
e. Ask them if you can offer a prayer for them (I have included a sample one in their article)
4. How to use your advocacy:
a. Ask them if they have seen a doctor since the assault. Offer to go with them if they are scared. If the assault/rape was recently there are tests and preventative care that can be accessed at the ER for free.
b. Ask them how they feel about filing a police report. Offer to go with them if they are worried.
c. If this event occurred at work, ask them if they think they need to file a claim with HR. Offer to go with them if they want you to.
d. Ask them what they need to be able to feel safe tonight when they go home. Do they need to find a place to stay because their assaulter has access to (or shares) their home? Do they need someone to ride with them to the store to get new locks, or new bedding, or new clothes to replace the ones that are now associated with the assault?
e. Ask them if they have a therapist or psychiatrist that can take them in for an emergency session (This comes with a reminder that humans need all sorts of levels of healing and you cannot serve them all, so the best help you can give them is assistance in finding the help they most need).
This is not an exhaustive list, but my hope is that it can be a help and be a conversation starter so that we are all better supporters and caregivers of each other in moments of trauma.
(I have written this prayer to be prayed over a person who identifies with female pronouns. It can, of course, be adapted for people who use different pronouns than those. It may also help to include the person’s name where I have put pronouns.)
As I sit here with my sister, we acknowledge that you are in this space as well. Bless her with comfort. Help her to not feel alone in the pain she is experiencing. Surround her with the community she needs to feel safe and loved, and to begin her path of healing. Give her daily reminders of your love and the love that flows around her in this world. Keep her brave and give her the space and the tools to be her own best advocate. Help me, and the other people she invites into the space of her story, to always remind her that she is your beloved child and that nothing can separate her from that love and our support. Bring her peace, surround her with love, and show her springs of joy and hope from which she can be filled.