Support sexual assault survivors

Recent social media initiatives have shown how prevalent sexual harassment and assault are, and that’s left some men (and women) wondering how they can effectively be supportive of survivors.

The first thing to understand about violent crimes, and especially sex crimes, law enforcement and field experts told me this week, is survivors don’t respond in the same way. Some react defiantly, purposefully doing things that were part of the day they were attacked. Others become more cautious. Except for self-harm, there isn’t a necessarily “right” or “wrong” reaction to assault, even if the survivor later seeks counseling to modify reactive behavior.

Sexual assault, as hopefully most of us already realize, has more to do with assault and violence than sex. The FBI defines “rape” as any non-consentual insertion of an object or body part into the vagina, anus or mouth. Sexual assault includes attempted rape and other sexualized non-consentual acts. Harassment is generally repetitive, non-physical activity with a sexual component, and is treated quite differently from a legal standpoint.

In 1995, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 5 women out of 1,000 were sexually assaulted. By 2010, the rate had dropped significantly to roughly 2 out of every 1,000. So, in 1995, women had a 20 percent lifetime risk of being assaulted. Now it is less than 10 percent. But these promising statistics may not be accurate.

Last year, for instance, the annual National Crime Victimization Survey documented more than 430,000 sexual assaults — 90 percent against women, and 20 percent involving more than one attacker — many of which were not reported to police at the time of the assault, and some that will never be reported. When survivors don’t come forward, it skews statistics based on reported offenses.

If someone in your life has survived a violent sexual assault, the main thing you can do is not blame the crime victim. No one asks to be assaulted or raped by being in a certain location, or dressing a certain way, or interacting with others. Don’t waste time, and discourage the survivor from wasting time, on “what ifs.” Some attackers kill their victims, and many more threaten death. In no uncertain terms, the person survived a violent experience, and that is enough — whatever the person did to survive was the right thing.

Recognize that survivors get to decide what happens next as well as the timeline. They went through the attack; had their body and dignity violated. Point out the implications of actions — such as delaying a police report — but allow the survivor to make a final decision, even if you disagree.

Reassure the survivor that your feelings toward him or her haven’t changed, and encourage that person to seek help — even if he or she does so anonymously.

Finally, if you are an intimate partner to the survivor or a key support person, don’t be shocked if anger about the attack is directed at you, especially if your gender matches that of the attacker. Keep vigilant about your own behavioral health, and don’t worry about seeking help if and when you need it.

Several local options exist for those who are survivors. The Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault maintains a list of crisis centers that can be accessed on their website or by phoning (515) 244-7424. Transformative Healing in Iowa City offers services specific to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and similar Iowans who have experienced sexual violence. And the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline, 800-656-HOPE, (and its affiliated website) connects callers to trained staff at local providers, who provide confidential information and various services.

Iowans who are survivors of abuse, stalking or sexual abuse as well as those who support them can find online help through the Iowa Affirmation and Resources Chat website or by phoning the Iowa Victim Service Call Center at (800) 770-1650. Until recently, the online chat service operated from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. However, all state funding was stripped from the program as of July 1, which has forced the program to rely solely on volunteers and will likely result in a reduction of hours.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Nov. 4, 2017.