If someone breaks into your house and you no longer feel safe, you have options. You could install a security system or even move to a new house. When someone breaks into your body, you don’t have the same options. Sexual assault and rape is often about power and control. It can leave someone questioning their safety in the world. They also may question their worth and have fears of being “damaged.”
How can a person who has been through this type of trauma begin to heal? Two important factors in healing are support and choice. This includes taking care of physical health, connecting to support, and making a decision of what to do next. Reporting and taking legal action is a very personal choice. When this type of a crime is committed the person doesn't have control. Being empowered to make this personal choice is an important step in recovery.
After a Sexual Assault or Rape - These are options. The first two I encourage all survivors to do.
1. Seek medical care as soon as you can. A physical exam will help determine if there are injuries that need to be treated. Even if there are no visible injuries, there may be internal injuries. A medical professional can discuss with you the possible risk of sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy. Preventative measures can be taken. You have the option of having a rape kit done. This kit makes it possible to collect physical evidence, which may be helpful if you make the choice to pursue legal action. I encourage calling the medical facility in advance to make sure there is someone there who is trained to do the kit. They may also be able to arrange for an advocate to meet you there who can help explain your options. Ideally, seek medical care immediately, however, a rape kit can be collected for up to 5 days after the event. If possible bring the clothes you were wearing at the time of the incident with you in a paper bag.
2. Get support. Find someone you are comfortable talking to about what happened. It could be a friend or family member. It could be a professional like a rape crisis counselor, an advocate, or a therapist. Maybe it’s a mentor, a coach, a teacher, or a spiritual/religious leader. Have multiple sources of support.
3. Take steps to pursue criminal charges. Report what happened to the police. Share as many details as you remember about the incident and the perpetrator.
4. If you are in school, you can take steps judicially. Report what happened to your school’s Title IX Coordinator, Campus Police, or Dean of Students Office. Different campuses may have different resources and procedures. If you aren’t sure what you want to do yet, you may want to speak confidentially to your school’s counseling or health services staff so that they can help outline your options.
5. Take steps to pursue civil charges against the perpetrator. The burden of proof and the role of the victim are different in a civil case than in a criminal case. For more information, see the websites for Victims of Crime and Victims Right Law Center.
6. Do nothing or do nothing for now. You get to choose what’s right for you
What helps someone get to the place where they view themself as a survivor? Being empowered to make the best personal choice of what to do is one thing. The other key factor is having support. Having people who are there whether you want to talk, cry, yell, or sit in silence. To anyone who has ever or who may in the future support someone after an assault or rape, I want you to know that to support someone you just need to A. be there and B. believe the person.
Friends are amazing. Sometimes we can support someone without saying a word. It might be a small gesture like reaching out to hold someone’s hand when you notice her mind is elsewhere while everyone else is chatting away. Some friends are there with a box of tissues and comfort food for a good talk or cry. Some friends call every year on an anniversary to check and see how you’re doing. There are many different ways to be a friend to someone who is healing. Whatever type of support you offer, remember that being there is making a difference in your friend’s recovery. Thank you.
There is no right or wrong way to react after experiencing a sexual assault or rape. There may be changes in behavior, emotions, thought process, and more. There may not be. Everyone is different. People choose to cope or to not cope in all sorts of ways. There’s no set timeline for the healing process. What that healing looks like may change at different points in a person’s life. But it is possible to heal. It is possible to find your way back to yourself. Though who that person is may change a bit.
Some people find their way to healing by taking steps towards bringing their perpetrator to justice. Some find it through exercise and self-defense classes. Some people become involved in educating others or become advocates for other survivors. Some may speak at events to bring awareness to this topic. Some people become really amazing friends to others who go through similar experiences. There are many possibilities.
You get to choose what it means to you to be a survivor. Only you really know where you are on your healing journey. But know that you don’t have to be in it alone. After a sexual assault or a rape it may feel that way at first. It may feel like there was an invasion to your home and you may feel vulnerable. Your house isn’t the only one on the street though. You are part of a community and you have neighbors (i.e. friends, law enforcement, counselors) who can help make your home feel safe again.
This is the third in my series of blogs for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month 2018. If you have been impacted by sexual violence and need support call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-HOPE (4673). If you are in San Diego, call the Center for Community Solutions 888-385-4657. These three blogs were meant to be an introduction and an overview. There will be more blogs on this topic in the future. There's a lot I could write about. If there are specific things you want to learn more about please let me know in the comments.