Whether in reports from colleges across the country, on social media or in a speech given by activist and actress Emma Watson before the United Nations General Assembly, sexual assault is a topic receiving more attention than ever.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives, and 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college.
Although the act of sexual assault is traumatic, a victim’s reluctance to report the assault can perpetuate their feelings of shame, embarrassment, confusion and unjustified guilt or responsibility. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that 63 percent of rapes are not reported for these very reasons. Too often, victims fear the assault was not “serious enough,” that they won’t be believed or that the process of reporting will be too difficult.
Jennifer McWaters, PsyD, a psychologist with the Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital Adolescent Partial Hospitalization Program, took the time to answer some questions about this challenging topic so that young women and men become aware of how to care for themselves and others in their communities.
How should we talk to teens and young adults about sexual assault?
I think that being transparent and honest about the prevalence of sexual assault is important, so that teens and young adults are aware of how to both protect themselves and their friends. Empower them to reach out for help when it does happen, talk through what they could do, and identify whom they could go to for support if they were to experience sexual assault or learn of an assault. Many schools and colleges have designated staff members that are trained on how to counsel a student through that process.
What might be the signs of someone who was assaulted?
Each person responds differently to trauma; some might begin to isolate more, avoid class or work, or exhibit signs of depression or anxiety. For others, there might be increased irritability or agitation. It is not uncommon for the victim to experience sleep problems or other issues with daily functioning.
What are some of the issues victims will face post-assault?
It is not uncommon for victims to feel unjustified guilt or a sense of responsibility for the perpetrator’s actions, particularly if the victimizer is an acquaintance or if substance use was involved. Some victims may experience flashbacks or memories of the incident, which can be addressed in psychotherapy and, sometimes, in conjunction with medication.
How can friends and loved ones help a victim of sexual assault?
Be available as a support, but also respect the person’s boundaries and whether or not they feel ready to talk about how they are doing. Asking, “What can I do to support you right now?” is a great place to start. It is best to not ask for the details of the assault, and, most importantly, to not blame the victim for what happened. Express your concern, offer support and connect them to resources and a trusted professional who can navigate how to best process the actual assault with the person.
Sharp Mesa Vista provides inpatient and outpatient programs for children, adolescents and adults. Information and resources to help survivors of sexual assault in San Diego and to educate others who want to learn more can be found on the City of San Diego Sexual Assault Victim Resources webpage.