Today I’m bringing more awareness to Sexual Assault Awareness Month because I believe it’s a very serious topic that needs to be brought to light. Today’s topic is not a light read and it may trigger feelings you don’t expect. If you’d rather skip the content I have planned for today, please use the menu bar above to check out hundreds of other posts. :)
As a teenage survivor of sexual assault, I wouldn’t be doing the world justice by keeping my mouth shut. That’s what all perpetrators want their “victims” to do. They want them to stay silent, shameful and full of guilt.
The tips I’m about to share with you are all things I have experienced and/or wished for at some point during my personal aftermath. This isn’t from a how-to book, it’s just a collection of real thoughts from somebody who has experienced sexual assault.
How to Help a Teenager Who’s Been Sexually Assaulted
First, if you are unclear about what sexual assault means, here is the definition from RAINN.org:
The term sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim.
In a state court’s eyes there are also varying degrees of sexual assault and there is also child sexual assault which is any sexual contact or behavior towards a minor. A minor is never able to give consent. The age of consent varies from state to state.
*Many of these tips are valid for adult survivors as well.
- Believe. If a teenager confides in you about their sexual assault, believe them and tell them it wasn’t their fault. When I was a teenager I was pretty quiet about everything going on in my life. I never told my parents about my sexual abuse, my mom ended up finding my journal that I had kept with detailed written accounts of my experiences. I had told a few close friends of mine over the course of a couple months and that did nothing but bring out their nastiness. They didn’t believe me, they made fun of me, my “boyfriend” said I had cheated on him… it was a nightmare. When my mom finally found out and confronted me and believed me, it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Don’t ever doubt somebody if they confide in you, leave that up to the professionals (medical personnel, police officers, courts, etc.).
- Listen. Your first job beyond believing is listening. I mean really listen. Don’t pass everything off like it’s nothing. Summarize and repeat back what you’ve been told so the teen knows that you’re listening. Don’t ask them to go into detail about what happened unless they’re comfortable talking about it. It takes a lot of courage to do it because survivors take on a tremendous amount of guilt, shame and self-blame after sexual assault.
- Get them help. Whether the assault happened hours ago, days ago, weeks ago or months ago, help them get help. Whatever that means. Tell their parents or bring them to a local hospital if the sexual assault is very recent (have them bring the clothing they were wearing before/during/after the assult). You aren’t helping them at all by keeping their sexual abuse a secret. The secret is too big a burden for them to deal with on their own.
- Go with them. If they want you to come with to a doctor appointment, the police station to give a report or to a therapy session, go along with them. It will show a tremendous amount of support and they won’t feel so alone.
- Don’t ever say, “I know how you feel.” If you haven’t been sexually assaulted yourself (which I hope to God you haven’t), you absolutely cannot know how they feel. You can say something like, “I can only imagine how you’re feeling right now”. Let them know you think it’s awful!
- Don’t blame them or make them feel like it was their fault. This can be done directly (“This is your fault” or “He/She would never do anything like that”) or indirectly (“Well why were you wearing those shorts?”). The only person at fault in a sexual assault is the perpetrator.
- Encourage them to express themselves. I expressed myself by writing. I still do. It started by writing my detailed accounts in a spiral notebook, then on to poetry about suicide and then eventually I got into blogging and then I wrote a book. If your teen is interested in writing, you may also want to check out Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise Desalvo. I own this book and it’s really helpful for encouraging you to write/tell your own story and shows how doing so can transform your life.
- Talk to them about the media. This is a whole other world than the late 1990’s. I didn’t have to deal with social media at the time but I have certainly read ignorant, nasty comments these days that make me wanna punch people in the throat. (Sorry, not sorry.) If there is any story in the news about sexual assault, particularly if a celebrity is involved (it’d be all over social media), the teen will hear and read comments that could encourage further feelings of guilt. Use the stories in the news in a more positive way by reinforcing to the teen that they are not alone, that sexual assault happens everywhere and encourage them to talk openly about their feelings regarding how stories are being portrayed in the media.
- Tell them about RAINN.org. This is an invaluable resource for survivors and their friends and family to get more information. Your teen can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. Volunteers are standing by to take calls 24/7 and calls are completely confidential. If you fear your teen is suicidal, I recommend the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.
- Talk openly with them about good relationships. Give your teen hope. Survivors of sexual assault oftentimes end up in abusive relationships. Be sure the teen knows what a good relationship should be like and understands that a good partner will respect them and be kind and that they don’t deserve anything less. Self-esteem typically goes out the window which can mean settling for so much less than they deserve.
- Avoid physical contact unless it’s being initiated by the teen. Even a hug or kiss coming from a good place (you) can frighten a sexual assault survivor. I remember feeling so claustrophobic for a long time – I still do sometimes. Kisses always made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. Even just a peck on the cheek or lips. I felt like I was suffocating. Proceed with caution in this area and always let them lead the way.
- Suggest reading memoirs written by sexual assault survivors. I wouldn’t encourage this in the very beginning, but at some point they may find it helpful. Reading memoirs helped me realize that it’s happened to other people and I was encouraged by how they were able to overcome it.
- If it’s someone you or your teen knows, proceed with caution. If it does so happen that you know their perpetrator (and/or they do), I’m going to reiterate that you don’t tell them that, “So and so would never do that.” Four out of five sexual assaults happen by someone the victim knows and I promise you they don’t look like abusers. They look like everyday people we see walking around Target or Walmart.
Sexual assault crimes happen way too often – every 107 seconds – according to RAINN. Also, 98% of rapists will never spend a day in jail. What contributes to this is the fact that it’s estimated 68% of sexual assaults are not reported to police. I encourage you to help your teen get help. It’s better to speak up than stay silent. Predators want to silence the survivors. We take back control when we speak up and get help but many times survivors, especially teenagers, need some guidance, love, encouragement and help to do so.