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Understanding Your Role as Secondary Survivor
Sexual Violence affects more than just the victim. It is difficult to know how to respond to a friend, college, peer, student, or loved one who discloses their experience with sexual violence with you. It can be difficult to navigate your own emotions regarding what has occurred in your loved one’s life, but it is important that you keep their needs in mind to provide meaningful support. Research shows that the first response a Survivor receives when they confide their experience with sexual violence with someone heavily influences their next steps towards healing. It is essential that your response is thoughtful, respectful, and gives Survivor’s control.
Providing Meaningful Support to a Survivor of Campus Sexual Violence
Be a Good Listener and Respond Thoughtfully
Listen and do not interrupt the Survivor with questions or comments while they are telling you their story. Allow the Survivor to have control of what information they disclose. It is not your responsibility to verify the violence occurred, and to “get to the bottom” of what happened.
Don’t feel as if you need to immediately respond with answers or a plan of action, simply provide a safe space for the Survivor to talk about what happened if they choose. Respond by recognizing the difficulty it takes to talk about the violence that occurred, and do not minimize what they have experienced. Confirm that what they are feeling is valid, that what happened is not their fault, and that they are supported.
It is very common to have strong feelings of anger and a desire to seek revenge against the person(s) who hurt your loved one. This is an understandable response, but it is important that you stay calm when the Survivor shares their story with you. Keep your response on their needs, rather than shifting the attention towards the person(s) who hurt the Survivor, or on your own needs in that situation.
Support without Agenda or Judgement
Remember that supporting your loved one does not always mean you can do something for them. It is natural to feel helpless or like you are not doing enough, however it is important to respect the Survivor’s needs from you, however seemingly small.
Remember there is no timeline for healing. Sexual violence can have a huge impact on the natural fluidity of one’s life; do not be alarmed or frustrated if the Survivor needs to take significant time off from school or work.
Trauma affects everyone differently, and there is no one way to heal. Some Survivors decide to report the violence immediately, some wait a while before reporting or telling anyone, and some choose to never tell anyone. Understand that each experience with sexual violence is unique and refrain from “comparative suffering” if you know of others who have experienced something similar. That being said, do remind Survivors that they are not alone in their pain, and that there are others who have some understanding of what they are feeling.
While it may be uncomfortable to watch someone you love go through the grieving process, it is not helpful to try and make the situation seemingly more comfortable through platitudes like “everything happens for a reason” or “if anyone can handle this, you can”. Sexual violence is not a comfortable issue, and offering platitudes can sometimes as if you are trivializing the impact the violence had on the Survivor. It can also feel as if the platitudes warrant the violence; sexual violence is never warranted no matter how strong the Survivor’s character may be.
No matter how you feel the Survivor should handle the violence, support their choices and let them decide how to proceed. Survivors get to choose if and when they seek counseling or if they want to report the violence to law enforcement officials. It is not your responsibility to “take control” of their healing process.
If you fear the Survivor may be in serious danger or harm click here for resources. (Go to resource page)
Respect the Survivor’s Boundaries
Respect any requests for confidentiality. Let the Survivor decide who they share their story with and honor their privacy requests. Sexual violence strips Survivors of their control, and it can be triggering if they feel they do not have control if information of the assault is shared with others
Be mindful that the Survivor might not want to process the event every time they see you, even if they confided in you. Some Survivors might feel triggered if the violence is the topic of every conversation you have with them. Continue to check in with the Survivor to remind them that you are thinking about them and care for their well-being, but allow them to further the conversation if they wish.
It is hard to balance wanting to protect and support a Survivor while honoring their need for self-agency. Be conscious that when you are offering support or resources that you are not diminishing their ability to make smart decisions for themselves. Understand that trauma affects Survivors in many different ways while respecting their judgement to make smart decisions for their healing.
As a Secondary Survivor or support person it is important that you educate yourself about the trauma Survivors of sexual violence experience. While each experience is different, there are similar trauma patterns that Survivors of sexual violence experience. Understanding what triggers are and having a thoughtful conversation with the Survivor about what their triggers might be, can help make their home, campus, or environment feel safer.
Educating yourself on common trauma responses will aid in communicating and interacting with the Survivor. This will also show Survivors that you care about their well-being and don’t expect them to walk through the healing process alone.
It is very beneficial to educate yourself about resources and options available for Survivors. Do not push an agenda of healing on them, but familiarizing yourself with support resources available is a great way to show your support. Remind them that they are not alone and that there are people who want to help carry the weight of the situation with them.
Seek the Support you Need
To best support your loved one, it is important that you take care of yourself as well. Contact your local Rape Crisis Center for resources on secondary survivor support groups. If you are a university student contact your campus health or safety office about counseling services available for secondary survivors. Here is a list of helpful resources as well (resource page)