About a month ago I listened to NPR’s Podcast Believed. It fundamentally changed the way I thought about sexual assault victims and survivors, and the systems we have in place to prevent it (or lack thereof). To be frank, I was ignorant, in all honesty I still have a lot to learn. We all think we know how we would act in a situation, and that we’d do the right thing, but the truth is more complicated than that. The Me Too movement has created a dialogue and awareness around sexual assault and abuse like never before, but the reality is it’s still happening every day. Every 92 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. Rape is the most under-reported crime. The statistics are staggering.
When I shared that I wanted to get more involved in helping sexual assault victims and survivors a few weeks ago on Instagram, I was blown away by how many of you are already volunteering and active in organizations both locally and nationally. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised because you guys are amazing! In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month I asked my friend Aerial (@aeriallynn), currently finishing her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, to share some of her knowledge and advice on how we can best provide support and advocacy. Read on for more from Aerial and please feel free to share any additional resources in the comments below.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about what you do and how you got into this line of work?
Aerial: I’m currently finishing up my full-time internship for graduate school working with college students at a university counseling center. I’ll be graduating next month with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and will be working in a private practice as a psychologist. In the past few years practicing as a therapist in various communities, I realized that almost all of my clients who identify as female and several male clients have experienced past sexual abuse or sexual assault. I found myself hearing a lot of “I’ve never told anyone this before.” A handful of them held in their trauma due to feelings of shame, self-blame and isolation. When I got to my internship I decided I wanted to focus on working with survivors of sexual assault, as I found it highly rewarding to watch individuals go from feeling victim to feeling empowered and resilient as they take back their power. I just recently finished up leading a 7-week group workshop for sexual assault survivors based off of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and it was the most rewarding experience seeing a group of women come together, be vulnerable and support and empower one another.
Q. What’s the number one thing you wish people knew about sexual assault?
Aerial: So many important things to know! One big factor that creates stigma around those who have experienced sexual assault is the question “Why didn’t you run or fight?” In these moments, we forget that when we’re in a traumatic situation, our brain sends a message in our body to fight, flight or freeze and most times for individuals in a traumatizing situation, freezing is the only response available. Freezing does not mean consent. Also, being in a relationship doesn’t give you automatic consent- you can be sexually assaulted by your partner.
Q. What can we do as individuals to help prevent sexual assault and support survivors?
Aerial: I think the most challenging thing about this work is supporting my clients during their process of reporting their perpetrators, only for their charges to be dropped. It’s so frustrating when survivors decide to be courageous and report what happened to them and then the system fails them. I think advocating for policy changes around the ways in which sexual assault survivors are supported is needed. NSVRC.org and RAINN.org are great online resources for more information. A highly recommended documentary regarding sexual assault on college campuses is The Hunting Ground. When it comes to preventing sexual assault, I think it’s really important to educate people on what consent looks like. When it comes to supporting survivors, validating the way that they feel can go a long way. It may also be helpful to be aware of PTSD symptoms, as they are often experienced by survivors.
Illustration above by @shorecreative