Sexual Violence: How to Help When You’re Needed the Most

by Jennifer Weaver

In the 2022-2023 academic year, I have had the luxury and privilege of presenting the topics of sexual  assault and consent to more collegians than any previous academic year. To my very pleasant surprise,  both sororities and fraternities are reaching out and setting up programming for their chapters on these  wildly important, yet sometimes overlooked, topics. Unfortunately, chapters continue to report a steady stream of sexual violence disclosures and often report feeling unprepared to correctly and safely  respond.

While I realize not every point during a presentation resonates with each and every participant, I  hope everyone leaves with a list of take-aways – a list of concrete and tangible action steps that allow the participant to positively and effectively impact change within their chapter. Here I have included my top 6 take-aways I hope programming participants take with them after my workshops.

How To Respond When Sexual Violence is Disclosed to You:

  1. Believe Them.

Research has shown us time and time again that possible trauma following sexual violence is  dramatically reduced when the survivor feels believed by those with whom the incident is disclosed. In my career, sexual violence is the only crime in which I’ve continually seen this occur with survivors. We believe survivors of muggings and identity theft without a second thought, but are quick to question the survivors of sexual  violence.

  1. Remind Them It Isn’t Their Fault.

My go-to line on the therapy couch following a sexual violence disclosure is ALWAYS, “there is absolutely nothing you did to contribute to this happening to you. Nothing.” If my patients don’t remember anything else from our session together, my hope is they will remember that statement. And it’s true. Sexual assaults do not happen for any reason other than the assailant deciding to commit an assault. That’s it.

  1. Understand the Possible Trauma of Reporting.

It’s not unusual for survivors to be met with victim shaming and skepticism when speaking with first responders, campus administration, peers, and medical staff following an assault. Unfortunately, there are a handful of reasons this occurs, but a major factor is the lack of appropriate training for individuals on the topic and the false narrative that survivors contribute to their attacks. As a result, it is not unusual for therapists to hear that survivors wish they had chosen not to report. Before you can support someone and their decision to report or not, you need to know this reality.

  1. Follow Their Lead.

Regardless of your past and what you bring to the table, this moment isn’t about you. This moment is  about the individual disclosing their experience with sexual violence. It does not matter if you want to  report it. Do they? It does not matter if you think they should tell more people or face their assailant. Do they? Your role as their trusted confidant is to simply follow their lead.

  1. Ask “What do you need? What can I do?”

This is a great way to practice taking a backseat. Do not assume you know what the other person needs. Some of us can guess, but we are not mind readers and it is not our job to be. Asking these simple questions puts the control back in the hands of the person who was just stripped of their autonomy.

  1. Take Care of Yourself

Here is the moment where this potentially becomes about you. Check in with yourself. How are  you feeling – both physically and emotionally? Did this disclosure bring anything to the surface for you? If so, lean into taking care of yourself and self-soothing behaviors. Need more than that? This might be a  great time to consider speaking with a professional to be sure you’re not negatively impacted by this  disclosure.

Remember, it is a luxury and privilege to be on the receiving end of a sexual violence disclosure. You are  being trusted with potentially the most traumatic incident in a person’s lifetime. These six tips may increase your effectiveness, but more importantly, reduce any additional negative impact on the survivor.


About the author

Jennifer Weaver, MA, CAGS, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist and speaker based out of Rhode  Island. Jennifer travels the country during the academic year speaking with fraternities and sororities regarding collegiate mental health, substance use in college, and sexual violence & consent. When she isn’t traveling, you’ll find Jennifer seeing individual patients in her private  practice, Polaris Counseling & Consulting, or consulting privately with fraternity and sorority chapters.

Jennifer received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Providence College in 2006, her master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling from Salve Regina University in 2010, and her Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) in Mental Health Counseling from Salve Regina University in 2013.

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