When is sexual assault awareness month? Right now! April is SAAM, when we take the time to share education and resources for those who may have experienced sexual assault or who may know someone who is a victim of it. The first step of that awareness is to simply ask the question, “What is sexual assault?” The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) describes sexual assault as “any sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the victim.” It’s crucial that you understand this definition and how pervasive the problem of sexual assault is in our culture, because it’s estimated that at least 1 in 6 women and 1 in 25 men experience a sexual assault at least once as an adult. Sadly, though, it’s also estimated that about 90% of assaults go unreported. Why? Fear. Fear that the victim won’t be believed, fear of victim blaming, fear of being judged by friends and family, and even fear that the attacker will retaliate.
Whether you’re the victim or the friend of a victim, the days following a traumatic event like this can be a scary time. Take a look at the steps we recommend below, but reach out to a Hope Coach now if you’re scared of being judged or call the RAINN hotline for victim support. You’re not alone, and it’s okay to ask for help dealing with life’s toughest moments.
How to Respond Immediately after Sexual Assault
If you have just been sexually assaulted, it’s important to do Steps #1-3 immediately! Do those, then circle back to this article after you’re safe and have been seen by a medical professional. If, however, you’re thinking about reporting a sexual assault you experienced a while ago, you can jump to Step #4.
1. Remove yourself from the unsafe situation as soon as possible. If you’ve experienced sexual assault in a domestic violence situation, find a way to safely exit your home and get to a safe or public place. If you can’t leave, try to call 911, even if you’re only able to whisper or use a coded message to communicate your location so they can find you. Your first priority, always, is to find a safe way to get yourself out of immediate danger.
2. Protect the evidence of your assault. Don’t change your outfit or bathe, if possible. It’s important for later that your clothes and skin are usable for testing if you choose to pursue charges against your attacker.
3. Go to the hospital and ask for an advocate, a rape kit, and medical care. If you’re able to get a hold of 911, tell the first responders right away that you want a rape kit so they can take proper care of you. You may be in shock or have severe injuries that also need to be taken care of immediately. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, ask if there’s someone on staff at the hospital, like a counselor or social worker, who can be your friend in the room or even hold your hand if you’re scared.
4. Decide whether you want to report or file charges with the police. It’s estimated that 70-90% of assaults are never reported, so don’t be surprised if you feel hesitant or even afraid to tell anyone what’s happened to you. There are a number of reasons people have not disclosed their trauma, resulting in hashtag activism movements like #whyididntreport. It’s a big decision whether or not to pursue justice through the police and court systems, and it’s yours alone.
5. Seek counsel and support from trusted friends, family, and/or professionals. Whether or not you decide to report your assault, your journey toward healing is going to be long. You shouldn’t have to do that alone! That said, you may not feel comfortable sharing your experience with just anyone. If you’re wondering how to proceed, Amy Morin, LCSW of VeryWellMind has an excellent article that can help guide you through disclosing your experience to others.
6. Check out resources for victims that will educate you about PTSD, self-doubt, and victim blaming, all of which are common obstacles that victims of assault are faced with as they heal.
7. Be kind to your mind, body, and spirit. All three have been through trauma. You may need mental health counseling to help your mind process what’s happened. Your body may need extra care after it helped you survive the attack. Your spirit will need love poured into it after experiencing this pain. Give yourself the care you need and allow others to show you kindness too.
Most importantly, don’t blame yourself. There is nothing you can do (or not do) to deserve sexual assault. It is not your fault that an attacker chose to violate you, and your trauma is valid no matter who you are, how you identify, or where you come from.
How to Help Someone Who Was Sexually Assaulted
It can also be incredibly scary to be the friend of someone who has experienced sexual assault. If you are a witness to or present during the moments directly following an event like this, take a look at the list above and do your best to help your friend walk through those. If a friend has disclosed a traumatic experience to you, here are a few ways you can support them:
- Stay calm. Though you may feel shocked, angry, or heartbroken, take a deep breath. Help your friend feel safe in this conversation.
- Listen. Let them say however much or little they want to. They may just want to tell you it happened. They want to give you details. Listen to whatever comes out of their mouth because this is a very vulnerable moment for your friend.
- Prioritize permission, consent, and boundaries. First and foremost, don't break confidentiality. Just because your friend has disclosed to you doesn't mean they want anyone else to know their story. Understand that this is their story to tell.
- Take action and educate yourself. There are plenty of organizations out there that support victims–you can join or advocate for their programming. Get familiar with the resources available for victims as well, so you can be a source of support, and learn what kinds of things you can do to keep you and your friends safe.
It’s Okay to Be Scared
No matter how many articles you read, true crime podcasts you listen to, or therapists you talk to, nobody expects you to be invincible when it comes to trauma. Even Jesus felt fear (Matthew 26, Luke 22). It’s an emotion we were created to feel, and it serves a purpose in our lives by teaching us where danger might be or where we might need to seek help. Though we use SAAM to call attention to sexual assault, know that resources are available all year long, and reach out to us today if you’re feeling afraid, whether that’s to do with a traumatic event or not, and we’ll share with you the refuge that Jesus’ love can provide.
If you have been sexually assaulted, it's NOT your fault. These 15 tips to protect yourself are meant to help make people more aware.