I have a lot of experience with trauma. I have primary experience from being a survivor of multiple rapes (all different perpetrators but all known to me). I am a trained raped crisis counselor and have accompanied victims to the hospital to support them while they receive a forensic examination. I have worked as a victim advocate for juvenile victims of adult offenders. I have also been the supportive friend for those in my life who are also survivors. I have learned a lot. Here, I'd like to share some of that with you so that if a survivor ever chooses to disclose to you, you'll feel prepared to support them.
Common Reactions to Trauma
Different people react differently to trauma: There is no right or wrong way to react, but these are a few behaviors you may encounter.
Isolating vs. Socializing
After trauma, a survivor may crave alone time and step back from social situations. They may cancel plans and spend a lot of time in a place they feel safe, like their bedroom or home. In other cases, a survivor may seek out social interactions in an attempt to distract themselves from what they’re feeling. They may make lots of plans and always have friends over so that they don’t have to feel alone. Both reactions are OK - they're just different ways of coping.
Changes in Sexual Behavior
Reclaiming body autonomy can help a survivor feel in control again. This might manifest as a survivor having a lot of sexual encounters or completely withdrawing from sex. In the former instance, a survivor may be attempting to normalize their experience by having sex "on their terms." That was my response after my rape at age 13. I hooked up with partners indiscriminately because it made me feel like I was in control of my body and I could choose who touched it. I also devalued sex after my rape and didn’t feel any emotional connection to my partners. I’ve met other survivors who completely abstain from sexual contact because they cannot stand having someone touch them. Both of these reactions are totally normal. (You can read more on sex after trauma in Sex After Sexual Assault: How to Find Joy After Trauma.)
Losing or Gaining Weight
Another way to reclaim control over one’s body is to change one’s eating habits. Some survivors will cut down on their eating so severely that they develop an eating disorder, while others will "pad themselves" against the world by gaining weight. Researchers hypothesize that survivors may consciously or subconsciously choose to lose or gain weight in an attempt to make themselves less appealing to potential attackers.
Changes in Attitude
In her memoir, "After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back," Nancy Venable Raine describes her rape as a death. "[The anniversary of my rape] was more significant because it marked the death of the person I had been for 39 years … On October 11, 1985, she died. Another person was born that day."
To some, it may seem extreme to equate sexual assault to death, but speaking as a survivor, I think for some people this will ring true. I know it does for me. Everything I knew about life, relationships, trust and sex up to that point became irrelevant the instant he put his penis inside of me. I celebrate that date, March 3, 2000, every year because it is the day I survived.
It's why I got this tattoo on the 13th anniversary of my assault.
Check out more common reactions to trauma.
Supporting a Survivor
In the counseling field, there is a phenomenon called "vicarious trauma." It describes a condition where counselors who work with clients who have experienced trauma also begin to experience symptoms of trauma. It’s more colloquially known as "compassion fatigue." I’ve watched this happen to loved ones of survivors as well. If you’re going to be supporting a survivor, make sure you’re in the right head space to do it. If you’re not, it’s OK to say, "I don’t think I have the emotional bandwidth to process this with you right now. Would it be OK if I directed you to some other resources that are available to you?"
Whether or not you take on an active role of support, offering to help someone seek out other resources can be very useful.
The most important thing for any survivor is to be believed. Thank them for disclosing to you but don’t probe them for information they may not be ready to share. If you want to know more about trauma and recovery, do some further reading such as the book "Allies in Healing" by Laura Davis. (You should also read "10 Common Myths About Rape."
Ask questions like "how can I be helpful or supportive?" or "what can I do to support you?" Don’t assume that you know what another person needs. Let them decide and give them space to be where they are. Trust them to come to you when they’re ready.
Don't Assume They Should Get Over It
Don’t assume sexual trauma is something a person can simply get over. Healing is a life-long process and not one that travels in a straight line. Suggesting to a survivor that they should be over it by now or shaming them for having certain reactions to stimuli (a startled response when someone comes up behind them or a fear of people or situations that remind them of their trauma) is damaging. I vividly remember disclosing my second rape to my mother and having her reply, "you were drinking, what did you expect to happen?" That statement made me feel like the rape was my fault and that I could have prevented it. In reality, I couldn’t have prevented it and it definitely wasn’t my fault. It is never the survivor’s fault. The blame lies solely on the perpetrator.
Don't Insist on Reporting
Don’t insist that someone report the incident to police. This goes along with empowering them to make their own choices, but it’s worth going into in detail. Some people choose to report rape or sexual assault and that is fine. However, it should always be the survivor’s choice. The criminal justice system can further traumatize survivors, forcing them to repeat their story over and over and submit to questions from police, attorneys and judges. Prosecution is also a lengthy process that requires multiple court appearances. Some survivors may decide that is not the right path for them.
Listen, Support, Empower
Overall, the key to supporting a survivor is to listen to them, empower them to find their own healing path, and support them in whatever way they request.