By Keeli Sorensen
After someone sexually assaulted her during her first year of college, Hannah Rad — a Los Angeles-based TV host, DJ, and member of RAINN’s Speakers Bureau, a network of more than 3,500 survivors of sexual violence who volunteer to share their stories — didn’t feel like she could talk about it. Not only were there no resources for survivors on her campus, but she was worried about what people would think and how they’d react if she told them. Dealing with the trauma of the assault was hard to bear alone, but the fear of what might happen if she told someone felt even scarier.
So she kept it to herself.
“Throughout my 20s it was this secret,” Rad said in an interview with RAINN last year. “Not a day went by that I didn’t think about it — whether I wanted to or not. It was always in the back of my mind; I was never sure if I should tell someone, how and when to tell them, and how they would react.”
This secret affected every part of her life, making it hard for her to keep friendships. “It was constant anxiety and a paralyzing fear of being fully honest,” she said. “I couldn’t trust anyone, and would push friends away as soon as we started to get close.”
Since sharing her story, she has found healing and support from her friends. “I’m in a much healthier state physically and emotionally than I’ve ever been,” Rad said, calling her network a “constant source of motivation, inspiration, and positivity.”
Rad and many other survivors find healing through sharing their stories, but some may never feel comfortable talking about what happened, or they may only feel comfortable talking with some people. And that’s OK, too.
It’s very common for survivors of sexual violence to feel that they can’t talk about it, sometimes especially with those closest to them. The fear of how a loved one might react or how it could affect the relationship can be a major barrier to disclosing what someone did to them. And as you can imagine — or might have experienced yourself — feeling alone and silenced makes it hard to start healing.
The reality is, most friends and family want to help — but they just don’t know how. Looking out for friends and loved ones can really make the difference. That’s why this Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, RAINN is focusing on the crucial role of loved ones in supporting survivors.
This April, in particular, is a stressful and difficult time for all of us as we navigate what it means to live, work, and be part of communities during the COVID-19 crisis. Creating community and providing support for the survivors in your life is as important as ever — especially given that the disruption to a normal routine and support system can be difficult for anyone, let alone those who are healing from trauma. For survivors who experience high levels of stress, anxiety, or depression as a result of their trauma, this might be a particularly hard time, and for those who are quarantined with an abuser, the support and safety of friends and family is crucial.
How to Show Your Support When Someone Discloses
Whether someone you love has told you about their experience already, or you just want to be prepared for the potential moment that someone does, taking the time to proactively learn how to support a survivor can make all the difference. When the time comes, it’s important to remember how to “TALK,” whether you’re looking to support a friend, significant other, roommate, or family member:
- Thank them for telling you. Acknowledge how hard it can be to talk about this type of trauma. Showing your appreciation for their trust from the get-go can help make them feel more comfortable in this difficult conversation.
- Ask how you can help. Even though your first instinct may be to try to jump into problem-solving mode, it’s important to let a survivor make their own choices about what to do next. You don’t have to have all the answers — you just have to listen and let them know that you are there for them to help in any way they need.
- Listen without judgment. It’s normal to have reactions like anger or shock when you hear someone you care about has been hurt. But sometimes those reactions can make a survivor feel like they are responsible for your emotions, which might discourage them from sharing their story.
- Keep supporting. Healing takes time, and it’s crucial that survivors have the ongoing support and love they deserve throughout this process. Every survivor’s healing journey is a unique process, so continued care will look different for every person. Keep checking in with them and reach out to let them know you’re there.
How you respond to survivors’ stories also matters, whether that’s in person or on social media. Believing someone even when you don’t know them personally, and showing solidarity if you can, goes a long way in helping someone determine whether they feel comfortable disclosing to you.
Practice Bystander Intervention — from Afar
When we talk about bystander intervention, it’s usually to describe watching out for your friends at a party, making sure someone gets home safely or noticing when someone around you could be at risk.
Although many of our communities — including school campuses — have moved online, bystander intervention is as important as ever. By checking in with people regularly, you can keep an eye out for warning signs of abuse by an intimate partner or family member, or online sexual harassment and abuse.
Of course, you should always think about whether reaching out to someone could set off retaliation from the person abusing them. You can also brainstorm strategies for reaching out safely and supporting someone experiencing intimate partner violence — learn more here.
It’s normal to have a difficult time processing sexual assault, especially if it happened to you or someone you care about. If you experience heavy emotions as you accompany someone in their healing process, give yourself space to experience them, practice self-care, and find healthy outlets to process.
If you're trying to be there for a survivor in your life, be extra kind to yourself — especially at a time like this. It can be hard to juggle your own feelings with the needs of someone you care about. The important part is that you're trying. Through your support and by telling others in your life about how to TALK with a survivor, you can help make sure no survivor has to feel alone.
Keeli Sorensen is the vice president of victim services at RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, where she provides strategic and operational leadership to the National Sexual Assault Hotline, the Department of Defense’s Safe Helpline, and more than 20 other hotlines that RAINN operates for public and private sector clients.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, help is available. You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE, visit online.rainn.org, or access the RAINN Friends and Family Toolkit.