This April, honoring sexual assault survivors’ experiences and celebrating their healing is at the forefront of a number of Sexual Assault Awareness events at UNC. Another important component of sexual assault awareness is assisting those who have a loved one or intimate partner who has experienced sexual assault, also known as secondary survivors.
Survivors of sexual assault may tell a friend or significant other with whom they feel safe and comfortable before they talk to a professional. Even if the assault or abuse happened a long time ago, you could be the first person they have told and your reaction can have a big impact.
Often secondary survivors go through many of the same feelings that survivor’s experience. You can feel powerless, guilty, shocked, angry, or scared. It is natural to have these feelings when you learn that someone important to you has been assaulted or abused, but try not to let these feelings get in the way of focusing on what the survivor may need.
It is important to not deny the assault, blame the survivor or compare their situation to your own or that of another loved one. Every situation and person are different and may react to experiencing a sexual assault in different ways. Asking too many specific questions of your loved one may end up feeling like an interrogation. Think to yourself before asking a question, “Am I asking this for the survivor’s benefit or for myself? Do I really need to know this in order to be a support for them?”
Positive things you can do to support your loved one involve believing, comforting and listening to them, affirming that what happened to them was wrong, checking in with them to make sure they currently feel safe, and educating yourself on interpersonal violence. If the survivor is an intimate partner, do not shy away from conversations about sexual acts or positions they don’t feel comfortable engaging in, and respect their boundaries.
The emotions of being a secondary survivor can be overwhelming. If your feelings become too intense, the survivor may begin to comfort you. Thankfully, there are people that you can talk to, without compromising the privacy of your loved one. Consider joining a support group. If you are a survivor as well this may bring up latent feelings for you. You can visit UNC’s Counseling and Wellness on the third floor of Taylor Student Health or check out online support for primary and secondary survivors on the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s website.
Check out http://safe.unc.edu to learn more tips for supporting survivors of sexual assault and about Haven, a 4-hour training offered at UNC to equip members of the UNC community with tools to be effective and supportive allies to survivors of interpersonal violence.