Trigger Warning: This blog post contains information regarding sexual assault and self harm.
About three weeks ago, someone told me that she felt angry hearing me talk about my sexual assault story because she was working through her own experience with rape. She felt my assault was “just a boy kissing me when I was sad and being a dick afterward.” I told her that I understood her feelings, but she could never say that to me again. She ended that conversation by telling me she needed a break from our friendship. I haven’t said anything to her since then.
I was assaulted in 10th grade, during a time in my life when I was desperate for attention and afraid of my own mental illness. In fact, I had just cut myself and my friend invited me over to his house to get homework done. Halfway through, he started awkwardly making me slow dance with him. Every time I told him we were supposed to be doing homework, he would look at me and whisper, “I am studying.”
He put on the movie Pirates of the Caribbean because I had never seen it. He started kissing me. He took off my glasses and told me that if I was uncomfortable to tell him and he would stop. I nodded. The entire situation made me uncomfortable, but someone wanted me and I was so desperate for attention that I couldn’t risk saying no. He shoved his hand down my pants, and then I told him no. He stopped. He straddled me against his middle and shoved my back against a pole in his basement. I was stuck there and he shoved his hand down again. I had already put forth so much effort saying no once that I let him feel around until he was satisfied. Afterward he told me that I couldn’t tell anyone.
It took me three years to realize that what he did wasn’t okay. It took me another year to come to terms with the fact that it was sexual assault. It became a reality when he did the same thing and worse to one of my close friends. It wasn’t rape, and I know that. But that doesn’t make the effects it has had on my life any less prevalent. The furthest I’ve ever gone sexually was when I was assaulted. I can’t go further without feeling him on me. That being said, there is guilt I feel for asking for support when I didn’t experience rape. It has taken me a lot of time to come to terms with my own feelings. The most effective thing I found was peer support. Surrounding myself with other people who had similar experiences allowed me to voice my story and gain insight to the full extent of what happened.
Since realizing my experience in high school was assault, I have been actively supporting campus programs and organizations that deal with sexual assault. I became a part of Students for Survivors and have been advocating for more support on campus. I wanted to turn the experience with my friend into activism, but I didn’t know how. The importance of a terrible situation is turning it around and making a change. Creating change is an exceptionally difficult concept to grasp, let alone master. Every time something like this happens, I ask myself, what steps can I take to enact change? What specifically am I trying to change? How do I stop people from feeling the way I feel? What is the most effective way to do that?
The change I wanted to make was for people like me; people who had been assaulted and struggled with guilt for their trauma when it wasn’t rape. The way I wanted to help was through educating my peers on how to respond to assault, and how to support each other rather than invalidate each other. If we take away each other’s experiences, positive change can never happen.
In this situation, activism was working through invalidation in order to write this blog post. Forcing myself to articulate everything I was feeling was the best way for me to make a difference in my life and in lives around me. It’s hard to be an activist when people invalidate your experience, but that’s when it’s most important. Standing up for yourself and others to educate intolerant or ignorant people is how positive change happens, but it’s easier said than done. It’s not always as simple as telling someone that their experience is valid. It’s not easy when you feel threatened by the people around you.
Being an activist is tiring. Being an activist for issues that directly affect you is particularly tiring because you also have to balance taking care of yourself within that space. In the vein of advocacy for survivors of sexual assault, change can be even harder because the line of trauma is harder to define. In other issues there is a clear line of privilege that can be quantified. Sexual assault is very much defined by the survivor. My personal experience makes me want to make change, but everyone has to define what they want to do for themselves and for their own self-care.
My own experience has helped me to compile a list of the best ways to support survivors as a friend and also for yourself:
- Validation: No part of trauma is too small. If it hurt you, it’s important and part of trauma.
Self-validation is harder than peer-validation. It’s easy to tell someone you care about that the things that hurt them are a part of their trauma. It’s a lot harder to tell yourself that feeling violated and hurt is okay. I have struggled a lot with personal validation of my experience because it wasn’t rape. I know that it hurt me and I can see the effects it has in every aspect of my life. Unfortunately, I struggle with feeling like I don’t have a space in sexual assault discussions because my experience ‘wasn’t as bad.’ The thing that keeps me there and keeps me fighting for change are my peers who tell me that it was valid and that I will always have a space. As a survivor, find those spaces where you are accepted no matter what the degree of trauma, and offer the support you wish to receive.
- Listen: Listen to the survivor. Let them tell their own story on their own time. Don’t interject or say anything, just listen.
By the time I understood that I had been assaulted, most of my close friends knew what happened. I just needed to admit to myself what it was. I don’t have trouble telling my story because it was five years ago and telling people is how I ask them to understand an important aspect of my life. Not everyone is ready for that, especially when it is something recent. Everyone needs their own time to tell their survivor story. If/when they open up, give them the time to speak. Offer support through physical presence rather than words. When they are done, ask what support they need.
- Ask how they need to be supported
Asking how they need support is something I have learned from my friends who asked me what I needed for support. It wasn’t something I realized was so important, or felt so validating.
It can be hard to know how you need to be supported. Getting asked that question forces the person to think. Do I need someone to listen? Do I need constructive advice? Do I need validation? Getting asked, “how can I best support you?” was the most incredible thing because it put the power back in my hands. Power is something that is frequently taken away from survivors, so allowing them to have that back, even in the smallest way, is important.
- Provide Resources
There are lots of resources for survivors of assault; the trouble is knowing where they are when you need them. At University of Cincinnati there are several resources for student support.
CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services): CAPS is a great source for anyone struggling with mental illness. They offer free group therapy sessions for UC students and group therapy for sexual assault survivors called Hope and Healing. Unfortunately, they only offer 10 personal sessions for students per year. This can be less helpful to some students who need more support than 10 personal sessions. However, if you have experienced sexual assault on campus you can ask for extenuating circumstances that allow you as much as you need. They also have a 24-hour crisis support helpline. To see their other services, you can go here: https://www.uc.edu/counseling/services.html
Women Helping Women: They “provides crisis intervention and support services for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking in Hamilton County”. They offer a 24-hour crisis hotline, accompaniment for survivors to hospitals and emergency rooms, court of law advocacy, support groups, and more. They are a great resource for people in Cincinnati specifically. There are also full-time advocates housed on UC’s campus in the Steger Student Life Center, room 559 .To find out more, visit: http://www.womenhelpingwomen.org/services/survivor-services/
The Women’s Center: The Women’s Center offers many resources for survivors of sexual assault. The people there are a great resource for support, and knowledge. One important thing to note is that the staff are mandatory reporters, so if you confide in them they are required to report it to Title IX. This can be beneficial in some instances, but it could also be a challenge if a survivor is not ready to come forward. For more information on their sexual assault resources, visit: https://www.uc.edu/ucwc/advocacy.html
Students for Survivors: Students for Survivors is a new program started by survivors of sexual assault on UC’s campus. While they are a fairly new organization, the two women leading the cause know more about advocacy and support on campus than anyone I have ever seen. For more information, visit: http://www.studentsforsurvivors.com or find them on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/studentsforsurvivors/
- Don’t push, but stress that you’re there for them
You can’t push or force the survivor to do anything. Be there and offer support, but recognize that the end result is ultimately up to the person.
If someone opens up to you about assault or rape, offer them resources. Unless the survivor is in immediate danger, let them report it. It’s important to let the survivor have the power of reporting, because power is so often taken away from survivors that letting them have it back in any way is helpful. The exception to that is when someone is in immediate danger.
All of these points are helpful from my own experience, and I am in no way a trained professional. There are more resources than the ones I listed to give you professional help and support. If you are experiencing sexual assault or violence, do not hesitate to go to the resources I offered, or to the Women’s Center to get a more extensive list. You are not alone in this.
Julia Draznin is a 2nd year Entrepreneurship & Marketing student and a 1st year WILLer