Helping sexual assault survivors: It’s their story, not ours

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the consequences of rape. How, if we’re not survivors ourselves, we all have people in our lives who were sexually assaulted, even if we don’t know who or what happened or when. The world of newspapers revolves around details: a name, age, place of residence. Reporters and editors write often about what can be quantified. The world of sexual assault is different. It’s harder to directly show its effect. A recount of an attack or statistics don’t express enough. The story of rape lasts forever and can never be told in full.

At the same time, shedding light on sexual assault and all its impacts is important. Because when one person is raped or molested, the suffering spreads to family, friends, caregivers. If we don’t see the problem for what it is, we can’t begin to change it, to start to heal. I knew a woman with six children who was frequently beaten and likely raped by her husband. One night, he broke her jaw. When I cried, she wrapped an arm around my shoulder. If I think about it, I can still feel her arm there, even though she died of complications from the beatings. She has been dead five years.

I thought of her on Tuesday when BDN Newsroom Administrator Natalie Feulner and I had our first session of a 40-hour course to learn how to be advocates with Rape Response Services, a subsidiary of Penquis in Bangor. We will write about our training over the next six weeks, fittingly starting during April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. “Awareness” is an overused word, but that is the purpose. You never know what impact you will have when you let your words go.

In some respects, that is the point of being an advocate, we learned Tuesday. We are there, yes, to study the effects of trauma, how to respond to disclosures of sexual violence and gain an understanding of how to help victims learn strategies for coping and being safe. When we’re done with training, we will be available to meet victims at the hospital and accompany them through an examination of their physical injuries and any evidence collection. But, more broadly speaking, our purpose is to just be present.

There will be cases when you are frustrated, Angel Shaw, an advocate, told the nine of us in training. Sometimes you don’t know if you helped. And that’s OK. In the future, she said, victims might remember someone told them they are important, their story is important, and that they didn’t deserve what happened to them. One hopes you plant enough of that idea, she said, that it carries forward and stays with them.

After all, she said, you are there not to do things for them or to give advice. You’re there to present options. You’re not there to question why, for instance, victims don’t file a report with police. You’re there to give control back to the victims and support their choices. It’s their story, not ours, she said. If they don’t want to talk about what happened, it’s OK. If they do, that’s fine, too.

To be fully present and supportive, advocates have to understand their own tendencies and biases, she and Alex Turallo, another advocate, explained to us. Know: Sexual violence is not about sexuality. It’s about control. It does not matter what a victim was wearing, drinking or doing. Sexual assault is a crime. Since 1985 in Maine, it has been a crime for a spouse to rape his or her partner. Victims are never responsible for their rape.

One question was posed to us as part of a worksheet: Do you agree or disagree that all men are potential rapists? I weighed the words “all” and “potential” and removed “men.” Could all people potentially commit a rape? Could all people potentially commit a crime or be violent? The answer is no. Not everyone is a potential criminal. But then look at the implication within the sentence, which focuses on males. It assumes an inherent bias against all men, which is unfair. All males are not potential rapists, but some people believe that’s true, just as some people still think that if a woman “leads a man on,” she is obligated to have sex with him.

Examining our assumptions is part of our preparation. Angel and Alex also had us complete an exercise, to make us aware of our need to “rescue” people. I fit some of the “rescuer” characteristics. For example, I am better described as “feeling uneasy unless I’m being useful” than “I choose, am not driven, to be useful.” But I also fit some of the “helper” traits. I “want others to stand on their own feet” and don’t “require people in need of help in order to feel good about myself.” The point is that, as advocates, our role will be to help, not rescue. Someone’s eagerness to assist can be overwhelming for a victim and unproductive. My job will be to focus on adopting the role of “helper.”

As a group, we also talked about how we take care of ourselves — because we can only be there for others if we are healthy emotionally. Angel and Alex told us there may be triggering moments for us during our training and as advocates, and we should take breaks when we need them.

I had prepared myself for gruesome stories but not for so much self-reflection. Little did I know, going into the training, that I would gain a different take on what it means to be “aware” of the issue of sexual violence. Before we can respond to someone who has been assaulted, we have to be aware of our own behavior and beliefs. Only then can we be effective. A story about the world of rape begins with ourselves.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.