#WLC Toolbox Series: Supporting Sexual Violence Survivors
As much as we wish it weren’t true, sexual violence IS a problem in nightlife, EDM, music, and festival community. Based on your responses to our recent Instagram story poll, 60% of you have experienced sexual harassment or assault in festival or nightlife settings and 74% of you have witnessed someone being sexual harassed, touched without consent, or dosed. This means that if you are not a survivor of sexual violence yourself, you likely know someone who is. If we believe in consent culture and are connected to our sense of compassion and empathy, we should want to support survivors — but for many, this may feel like a daunting task. It’s common to want to support survivors, but feel uncertain as to how. We’re here to help: This toolbox contains essential, specific information about how to best uplift the people in your life (and community at large) who are survivors of sexual assault.
Special note: We are using the word “survivor” to refer to individuals who have experienced sexual violence because it implies a continued fight against abuse, with emphasis on making progress, surviving and thriving, and taking an active role in recovery. The term “victim” may be received by some as pitying or implying helplessness, but for others this term fits their experience better — or they use both terms interchangeably. You should defer to the person you are providing support to about what, if either of those, they prefer.
Put health and safety first. Make sure that you and the survivor are not currently in danger. If you are, prioritize getting to a safe space. Check to see if there are any physical needs or health concerns that should be tended to.
ALWAYS ASK the survivor if they would like to speak about what occurred, where it occurred, and who was involved. Always respect their choices! NEVER pressure a survivor to speak about what just happened! It can be re-traumatizing to do so, and the survivor may not know how they feel and/or may not feel safe talking with you. It is not your place to say if and when a survivor should talk about what happened to them.
- Ask the survivor if they want to stay somewhere public or need somewhere more private to process and feel safe. Don’t take the survivor to a place where they feel that they cannot easily leave.
- Ask the survivor if they want to speak with you or if you can find someone else for them to talk with, like a person of another gender or one of their friends. If a friend is unavailable, offer to stay with them while they call someone.
Practice active listening. This involves being fully present and concentrating on what is being said with the intent to understand, rather than passively listening, listening with an agenda, or attempting to steer the conversation.
Believe them! Survivors may question or doubt their experience and may blame themselves for it. Never shame or victim-blame the survivor! No matter what the survivor said or wore, how they danced, etc, it is NEVER the survivor’s fault! Consent is ALWAYS mandatory! Make it clear that you believe them and that it was not their fault.
- “I believe you. / It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.”
Do not ask about details of the assault. Even if you are curious about what happened and want to fully understand, avoid asking for details of how the assault occurred. If a survivor chooses to share those details with you, try your best to listen in a supportive and non-judgemental way.
Maintain confidentiality. Protect their privacy and assure them that what they share will be kept confidential.
Always ask the survivor how they would like you to refer to them, including their name and pronouns, and if they prefer survivor, victim, target, or no reference to assault, etc. Be careful when discussing the event to avoid victimizing the survivor, minimizing what occurred, or re-traumatizing the survivor.
Respect the survivor’s choices. A survivor has autonomy and the right to choose what they do with their body, including what they decide to do after an experience of sexual violence. It is only your job to intervene, if possible, support the survivor, respect their responses, and provide resources for getting help.
- This could also include respecting the survivor’s desire to address the perpetrator on their own if they choose to do so! Make sure that they have a plan in place for safety, and step in to help if their safety becomes compromised and you are able to do so.
Restore choice & agency: Sexual violence is about taking agency/autonomy away from the survivor. It is healing to allow survivors to make choices for themselves, including deciding what they share and when. Your role is to sit back, support, and follow their lead.
Do not be offended if a survivor of violence does not respond as you expect them to. Listen to and validate their feelings, regardless of what they may be. Experiencing sexual violence is traumatic and emotional. The target may not even know how they are feeling, and you have no place to tell them how to feel (or to project your feelings onto them). The goal is simply to support victims/survivors by making them feel safe and heard.
Allow them to feel and express their full range of emotions. Let them know that you are emotionally open to whatever they share, and that you are listening. Encourage them to speak openly about the feelings coming up for them, regardless of what they may be. Recognize that all emotional responses to trauma are valid.
Offer compassion and loving support. It’s our goal to show empathy and concern for, listen to, and validate the survivor’s experience and emotions. Acknowledge their pain without catastrophizing or minimizing it. Express admiration for their courage in opening up and recognize how difficult this experience must have been for them, while also sharing that they are not alone and that they have your support. This can sound like:
- “It’s not your fault. / You didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
- “I’m sorry this happened. / This should never have happened to you.”
- “You are not alone. / I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.”
- “I can’t imagine how difficult it has been to carry this, thank you for sharing this with me.”
Express anger and sadness at the injustice they have experienced. Keep it genuine and remember that survivors may respond to this differently, and may not be in a place to hear sadness or anger in response to their experience. Make sure that you are sharing to help validate the survivor’s experience and not for your own needs.
Notice & acknowledge your internal experience during support and distance yourself from the desire to fix the situation. When providing support it’s important to contain your reactions to what you are hearing and avoid the urge to provide perceived solutions to their problems. Our desire to respond or fix things can come from discomfort, so try to mindfully note any of these feelings.
Stay flexible, & check in! Recovery from sexual assault won’t happen in a day and every person’s process of recovery is unique. Be available to adjust the style of support that you offer based on the survivor’s needs.
- Encourage them to get support, and help them if they need assistance. Some potential resources to use:
- Filing a report to law enforcement
- National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online.rainn.org
- If the survivor wants support in confronting the perpetrator, you need to factor in your safety and emotional and physical capacity when considering if this is within your means.
Practice self-care. You can better support others when you take good care of yourself. You can be traumatized by being exposed to the trauma of others, so it is especially important to practice self-care and self-compassion when providing support for survivors of sexual violence.
Amplify survivor voices. Break the silence and become an advocate for sexual violence awareness and prevention, whether online or in person. Center and amplify the voices of survivors and if possible, provide them with space to share their stories.
Volunteer or donate. If you would like to get more involved, volunteer for an organization providing support for sexual violence survivors, receive training in crisis support and volunteer for a support hotline, or consider donating to an organization supporting survivors and prevention efforts. Join the #WeLoveConsent movement and promote consent in our spaces, and consider becoming a DanceSafe volunteer to provide consent education at events!
- Community – Pandora’s Project (pandys.org) – online support chat
- AORTA | Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault
- Supporting a Survivor: The Basics – Know Your IX
- Supporting Survivors – NOMORE.org | Together we can end domestic violence and sexual assault.
- 6 Steps to Supporting a Survivor | Joyful Heart Foundation
- For Family, Friends, and Supporters | Joyful Heart Foundation
- How to Support a Victim of Sexual Assault (verywellmind.com)