support after sexual assault

Healing Conversations

Too often trauma gets dismissed as just in our head, but the pain is real. We feel it in our muscles, our cells, our hearts, our heads. And while there’s no magic fix, no pill to make it disappear, we can ask for help. And we can tell our truth whenever we are ready.
— Grey's Anatomy

How people respond when we share our stories of trauma can have a tremendous impact on our healing.  Last week’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy was titled “Silent All These Years” and it did an amazing job addressing sexual and domestic violence.  It followed 3 main story lines which included providing support immediately after the crime, conversations that happen years later, and talking about consent.

When someone shares their experience of sexual assault, rape, or domestic violence, it may feel like opening up a wound, or it may feel like sharing a chapter from a book that happened long ago.  There can be a whole range of emotions depending on where the person is in their healing journey.  How it feels can also vary based on who they are sharing with and the context.  There is no right or wrong way to feel. 

It is up to a survivor to decide who to tell and when.  Again, there is no right or wrong way.  Some may reach out for help immediately to one, or to a few, or to many.  Some may not speak about it for years.  Some may share at one point and then never talk about it again.  For some, this may be a conversation that they come back to again one day in future relationships.  Some may find that it gets a little easier to share their story as time goes on.  For some, it may feel just as overwhelming as the first time.  There is no right or wrong way to feel.  There is no set timeline.

There is however, a right way to respond.  When someone shares their story, they are being vulnerable both with you and with themself.  When the person is met with compassion and support, it can contribute to greater healing.  When the person is met with doubt or victim blaming, those responses can be internalized.  One of the best responses is “It’s not your fault. I believe you.”

Towards the end of the Grey’s episode, we see a survivor being brought to surgery by her doctors.  When they enter the hallway, it is lined with women.  No words are needed.  The message is powerful.  We are here to support you.  


Scene from Grey’s Anatomy: Silent All These Years

It’s the showing up that matters the most.  It’s the compassion.  It’s the solidarity.  It’s someone saying, “It’s not your fault. I believe you.” It’s knowing that we are not alone. When we are met with those things, our strength grows. It is in those moments and in those conversations that healing is happening.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. 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. For more information, visit the RAINN website. Contact me to consult further on this topic or to schedule a therapy appointment.

Wanna Make Out?

I remember my first time.  There was a look exchanged, a smile… In my head I’m excitedly thinking, “Is this really going to happen?” Then there’s a kiss, a touch…and then IT’S HAPPENING. As I type this, Meatloaf’s song Paradise by the Dashboard Light is going through my head.  

What is consent? How do we know we have consent for sex?  It could look something like this….

That’s one of my favorite clips that we showed when teaching college students about consent back when I worked in higher education.  It’s hilarious and memorable.  That’s the point!  In reality consent doesn’t exactly happen like that.  I’ve never had a lawyer show up in the bedroom. But what stops us from having these conversations to be clear about what we are hoping to do and make sure that is also what our partner wants to do?  Maybe it’s because the sex education we had in school looked something like this… 

For some of us this may not be too far from the truth.  Why was it so often that the gym teacher also taught health?  What I remember the most from that class was the gym teacher showing us how to put a condom on a banana and learning about STDs.  As Coach Carr said if you have sex “you will get Chlamydia and die”.  To say that sex education was lacking a lot of key information is an understatement. 

Fast forward to college… I miss college.  The freedom. Living with your closest friends.  Studying things you are excited about.  The concerts, sports, activities, and the parties… My roommates and I had what we called “morning reflection.” We would gather in our living room and discuss what happened the previous night.  Sometimes those conversations would include who hooked up with whom.  Sometimes the stories were shared with excitement, but sometimes there was a different feeling, a yucky feeling.  I’m not talking about regret or instances of “beer goggles.”  We began to identify who was “shady” and who you had to be careful of because they might try to give you lots of alcohol and make a move. 

When I was in college (and it wasn’t THAT long ago), we didn’t have the language to talk about sexual assault.  It wasn’t until years later when I became a therapist and an educator that it clicked. That person wasn’t just “shady” they were a sexual predator.  That yucky feeling was because what happened was sexual assault or rape. 

These events, these crimes, don’t just happen on our school campuses or when we are a certain age.  They happen at social events or when we are out with friends or even in our own homes.  It’s usually not a creepy stranger that suddenly jumps out of the bushes or an ally to attack us.  That’s what I thought a rapist was when I was younger.  The reality is that often times it’s someone we know. 

Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.

1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.

Women ages 18-24 who are college students are 3 times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence.  Females of the same age who are not enrolled in college are 4 times more likely

About 3% of American men – 1 in 33 – have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.

21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted.

55% of sexual assaults occur at or near the victim’s home and 12% at or near a relative’s home.

7 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.

Of sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement, 93% of juvenile victims knew the perpetrator – 59% were acquaintances, 34% were family members, 7% were strangers to the victim.

For these and more statistics see www.rainn.org

When I finally had the language to talk about sexual violence, I talked a lot.  Events from the past suddenly became clear and there was some relief in being able to clearly identify what had happen.  I loved working on a college campus that was taking a stance to prevent sexual violence on campus by having discussions about consent, bystander intervention, and how to support someone if they experience a sexual assault or rape.  When speaking with friends, I was shocked at how many others had experienced similar situations.  I would think to myself, “why don’t we talk about this more.” The answer is often because of the shame and victim blaming that can happen. 

We have all heard statements like – if you weren’t wearing that, if you didn’t drink, if you didn’t go to his apartment…. I think we try to make sense of events that don’t make sense.  We try to think of what could be done to prevent ourselves from ever being the victim of sexual violence.  We want to be in control.  The reality of sexual violence is that someone has taken away our control and our power.  We should be able to run around stark naked with a drink in hand and not have to worry about being sexually violated.  We would probably get arrested for public nudity and public intoxication.  BUT we should not have to worry about being raped.  

After the sexual misconduct story involving Aziz Ansari appeared in the news, one of my college roommates sent me a text asking what I thought.  She said she liked him as an actor/comedian and wasn’t sure what to think.  My response started with that I wasn’t there so I don’t know all the facts of what happened.  The articles that I read made it sound like Aziz thought his date was interested in sex because of non-verbal cues.  When he reached out to her later, he learned that was not what she wanted. Her experience of the night was very different than his.  He had no idea that was her experience and he expressed feeling awful.  I have compassion for Aziz.  It’s hard to read non-verbals.  This is why we need to have the conversation.  There needs to be verbal consent. 

Why don’t we always have these conversations?  I have heard some say that it will ruin the mood.  Please (insert eye roll emoji).  I remember instances of having the conversation with potential partners.  They went something like “Do you want to have sex?  I think we should maybe have sex. Do you want to?” Then when the answer was yes, hallelujah was there excitement and those clothes could not come off fast enough.  If anything knowing with certainty that a partner does want to have sex increases the thrill because we KNOW it’s going to happen.  See, we don’t want to operate on assumptions. To quote a former colleague, we want “an Enthusiastic HELL YES!!!” If you want to take your sexual experience to the next level, ask what exactly what your partner wants to do sexually.  You never know unless you ask AND you could be pleasantly surprised to know something is on the table that you wouldn’t have thought of.

Finally, we are having conversations about consent.  Thank you Joe Biden for champion the Obama administration’s “It’s on us” campaign to end sexual assault on campus and in the workplace.  Bystander intervention and consent is often a part of new student orientation at college campuses.  I hope more high schools and middle schools are having similar dialogues.  I hope more parents are having conversation with their children about sex and respect.  Abstinence only education does not work.  Yes teach your children about values whether they are influenced by your spiritual beliefs or family morals.  But also, teach them the facts, how to stay safe, and what consent is.  Let them make their own informed decisions and let them know that whatever happens they can come talk to you. 

A lot has happened since my first time.  I’m no longer meeting guys at parties or at the bar for one.  My typical Friday night includes pizza and a movie at home on the couch with my husband and our dogs.  There may be a look exchanged or a smile.  Then, I’ll say to my husband “wanna make out?” He’ll scoot over and I’ll giggle.  Then suddenly Marvin Gaye’s song Let’s Get It On will start playing in my head…. 

This is the second in my series of blogs for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. 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.