November 6, 2020

How To: Be There For Survivors of Sexual Assault and Harassment

In June 2020, Netflix released the documentary, Athlete A, which delves into the decades of sexual abuse of young athletes by Dr. Larry Nassar. I watched it the day it came out and was barely able to catch my breath between sobs. The fact that so many adults ignored so many cries for help or didn’t believe them is appalling. If a young child or teenager cannot seek out adults to protect them, who else are they supposed to go to?

Watching this documentary made me relive my own experiences with sexual assault. In high school, I was filmed, without my knowledge or consent, while hooking up with a boy I trusted and liked. His friend was hiding and filmed it on snapchat. That snapchat was saved and sent to the entire lacrosse team and later seen by more of the 11th grade.

I remember I was in literature class when my friend waved for me to meet her in the hallway. I followed her to the girls room where she told me there was a video of me being passed around her grade. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so scared. My knees buckled and I couldn’t control the sobs that would come out of my mouth. She told me “Don’t freak out.” I made the incredibly difficult decision to come forward and was heavily persecuted, questioned, and victim-blamed because of it. I heard things like “How could she not know?” “It definitely looked like she knew what was happening.” “It’s her fault for going over to his house.” A boy on the team, who I thought was my friend, asked me, “Did you really not know he was filming you?” All I could do was scream at him, “Really? Are you kidding me?”

The school acted accordingly and expelled the boy who took the video. I could have pressed charges, but knowing that it could affect their futures swayed me not to. The school had them write me apology letters, but their “apology” letters were obviously written by their parents because they spelt my name wrong. This was 6 years ago in 2014.

5 years later in 2019, an acquaintance from high school came to me looking for some advice on how to be there for and give her friend the courage to come forward the way I did. I thought long and hard about what to say. But I realized the main thing that I needed at the time was someone to believe me and support me. I told her:

    1. Acknowledge: Coming forward with instance of sexual assault or harassment is difficult for several reasons. They may feel ashamed, worried they won’t be believed, or even be blamed. Let the person know that you believe them and acknowledge that it takes a lot of bravery to tell someone.
    2. Remind: Because of the way society has viewed survivors in the past they often blame themselves, especially if they know the person who did this to them. Remind them they’re not to blame and that is not their fault. Telling them that will mean the world.
    3. Comfort: Let them know that you’re here for them and are always willing to listen. Comfort them by reassuring them of your confidence and trust. Be there to listen, not judge. 
    4. Support: Provide them with the necessary support. The people that helped me the most supported me in whatever I decided to do. Coming forward with an incident is NOT easy; pressuring someone to come forward before they are ready is extremely traumatic.
    5. Check In: Continue to check in on them. Everyone’s healing process is different. Just because time has passed does not mean the pain is gone. Remind them that you care about and believe them.
    6. Educate: Be equipped by educating yourself and knowing your sources. In addition to Speak Your Silence, RAINN, the Crisis Text Line, Pave, and Noah Project are a few great ones.

 

It is heartbreaking to know that what was going on at USA gymnastics, MSU, and Twistars for was being overlooked for so long. Too often women who come forward are blamed and ridiculed, perpetuating the cycle of abuse. That is why Larry Nassar was able to continue abusing young girls for decades. What influences the culture of sexual assault isn’t just the people who do it, it’s the people who see it and draw a blind eye to it. The purpose of this article is not to shame anyone but to help us grow and learn from our past actions and come up with ways to respond differently.

Always know that one of the biggest things you can do is actually the easiest. Creating a space that is free of judgement is easy. Costs nothing. And makes a world of a difference.

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