Starting the conversation about sexual assault

By The Health News Team | August 13, 2019
Help after sexual assault

As a new class of freshmen head into their first year of college and other young adults start their first job or move into their first apartments, the subject of sexual assault is one parents and their children must discuss.
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. More than 40% of rape survivors report being raped by someone they know.
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% 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.
Dr. Kelsey Bradshaw, a clinical psychologist at Sharp Mesa Vista’s Child and Adolescent Unit, answers some questions about this challenging topic so that young women and men can 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?

First, we should consider context. It is important to talk to young people preventively, but we may also have to have these difficult conversations after an assault has occurred.
Regarding prevention, I would begin by asking them what they have heard or learned about sexual assault. I would listen carefully and allow this to help guide the conversation while finding opportunities to correct misinformation and to help them to understand potential risk.
Most sexual assaults will occur by someone they know. You can inquire about how they currently keep themselves safe and encourage them to talk with you if they or anyone they know ever are assaulted.

What might be the signs a loved one was assaulted?

It is important to be aware of signs, but also to recognize that there may be no signs and to not jump to conclusions if you do see something that could be considered a red flag.
Some signs of assault include the following:

  • Nightmares or other sleep problems

  • Skittish or overly concerned about potential danger

  • Becoming more withdrawn

  • Irritability and other shifts in mood

  • Increased anxiety

  • Becoming more easily startled

  • Being more “spacey” or distracted

Again, each survivor may respond differently and may not show signs for weeks, or at all.

What are some of the issues survivors will face after an assault?

Depending on circumstance, survivors may face blame from others or may even blame themselves and feel an unjustified sense of guilt or shame. Many will feel less safe, especially around individuals of the same sex as the perpetrator or in situations that may have been related to the assault.
Some survivors may develop symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and others may exhibit changes in the way they see themselves and the world. If the survivor pursues legal action, there may be a lot of emotional stress along with hurtful reactions from others, including victim blaming or the assumption the survivor is not being truthful.

How can friends and loved ones help a survivor of sexual assault?

First and foremost, it is important to listen and validate the survivor’s emotions. It is often not helpful — and can be potentially invalidating — to ask a lot of questions. Friends and loved ones may feel infuriated and want justice, but it is crucial to be aware of your own emotional reactions, as this can lead to pressing the individual on details that could be re-traumatizing and missed opportunities to connect with the survivor.
Be someone who can listen and offer support and guidance when it is requested. When the individual is showing significant challenges, you can work to show love and concern, and to empower them to seek help when they are ready.

Should a survivor or their loved ones report a sexual assault?

Sexual assault takes an enormous toll on a survivor and they may not be ready to handle retelling their story. It is more important to empower your friend or loved one to make the choice, so as to not take away any power and to ensure they are ready. A survivor is not obligated to report their assault; however, care providers or professionals will be mandated reporters for minors and must report it.
When talking to your children, it is important to convey that safety is most important and to not get overly concerned about the circumstances surrounding an assault, such as drinking alcohol at a party. The repercussions of not reporting may be ongoing risk to the survivor or other young people. However, these are not things to pressure the survivor to consider, especially during initial conversations. If the survivor is telling a loved one about their experience, that is of most importance.

Sharp Mesa Vista provides inpatient and outpatient programs for children, adolescents and adults. For information and resources related to sexual assault, visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) website.


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