Beneficial communication with sexual assault survivors

In recent years conversations surrounding sexual assault have been pushed through society and mainstream media in order to expose and shed light on the growing issue. Due to an increase in spoken disclosure of sexual assaults, trained professionals in response-related fields must find adequate ways in which they communicate with survivors. 

It is known that these “people of power” have different specific ways in which they are taught to interact in sexual assault disclosure cases; however not all methods are survivor friendly and lack putting the survivor’s needs first. 

Lack of understanding often pushes survivors from sharing their stories or seeking help. My research explores the direct needs of survivors and their hesitations in seeking professional help. 

I conducted a public survey that invited participants to share their experiences surrounding sexual assault, along with many interviews that were analyzed from both parties’ (survivor and professionals) perspectives. Healing and coping look different for different people along with their hesitations. 

More often than not, survivors do not pursue greater help because they are questioned, dismissed, invalidated, and unheard. The change in communication with survivors would benefit from shifting its approach to a more empathetic and listening culture, giving survivors their power, strength, control, and voice. 

Research methods consisted of past literature studies, a survey, and interviews.

The survey and interviews worked hand in hand and turned out to be the most valuable information I would collect. 

The survey was only posted on my Facebook account to ensure no bias in the kinds of participants. Survey participants were completely voluntary. 

The survey recorded a total of 65 participants. Respondents included both male and female individuals along with an age range of 16-70 years old.

Due to the sensitivity of the topic, the identities of all 65 individuals that participated in the survey and the 25 individual interviewees will remain anonymous in this specific article. You can find a greater in-depth review of the data in my complete research paper.

Results of the survey were as to be expected: 48 individuals had been sexually assaulted, 10 had not personally been sexually assaulted but were close to someone that had been, and 12 respondents said no. 

Following the question of having been sexually assaulted or not, participants were asked if they believed individuals that are supposed to be trained to work with sexual assault survivors are equipped with proper tools to assist them in their healing process. 

The response: 46 said no, 18 said yes.

The overwhelming interpretation of my personal research ultimately leads to the idea that while these individuals experience, on paper, the same thing, all of their situations and stories are different and each survivor needs something different than the next. 

All stories and survivors are unique and require a different approach to their healing process. While the deeper exploration of an individual’s healing process requires a greater commitment to specific needs, there are several similarities that first responders can use when interacting with the disclosure.

I ended up composing a first responses tool kit to help equip the everyday responder with beneficial ways to communicate with survivors. 

The first responses tool kit consists of generalized guidance such as listening to the survivor rather than trying to fix the issue right away, leading with empathy, believe the victim without the need for further questions. Find the full tool kit and concluding advice in the completed research paper. 

Since significant numbers of sexual assault survivors report feeling uncomfortable disclosing their stories, it is clear that there are more and less beneficial ways to proceed with responder interactions. There is no correct way to talk to every survivor. Every story and every individual is different. 

There are surface-level ways of interacting with survivors that every person can be equipped with such as validating the survivor, listening, building a safe relationship where they trust you with this information, and leading with empathy. Letting the survivor take control of their story helps give them back the reins, and it allows them to share as much or as little information with you as they’d like.

 Survivors deserve to have a voice in their story so it is a responder’s job to listen to that voice.

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