Sexual Trauma is a Family Matter
● “Hello, are you accepting new patients? My son was sexually assaulted last Friday. I’m out of my mind. What am I supposed to do now? Can you help us?”
● “Hi, I had to go through my SART exam yesterday and the nurse mentioned that I should look for an EMDR Therapy treatment. Do you have any openings?”
● “…Yeah, I was raped 18 years ago and I don’t want to live as a victim anymore. I heard a lot about EMDR Therapy and I think I want to try it.”
This type of content is something therapists hear often in the initial consultations with their prospective clients. As a therapist specializing in trauma, my hope is that service I provide will help survivors to bounce back into their resilience mode, regain their integrity, and help them feel empowered to move through their healing journey. I hope that our work together will help them establish themselves as thriving after feeling humiliated, powerless, and hopeless. At the same time, I understand that it’s a long journey and not everyone is ready to take those steps right after an incident.
Sexual assault is much more prevalent than we would expect and yet far underreported. The myth of the perpetrator jumping out of the bushes is exactly that, a myth. Most sexual assault survivors knew the perpetrator to some level. This adds a sense of betrayal to the already unexpected pain and shame. Sexual trauma does not discriminate by age, gender, sexual orientation, education level, relationship or socio-economic status.
What is often neglected, is that sexual assault is a family matter as well. The fact that a loved one experienced such an event, affects the whole family. It is a family matter also in the sense that the way a family responds to one’s sexual trauma may have a crucial role in the survivors’ healing process. Very often, without any intention to ‘add salt to injury’ family members respond to information about rape in a way that is not productive and useful to a survivor’s recovery.
Trauma profoundly affects the person, their worldview, their relationships with others and with themselves. After the attack, survivors might continue experiencing high levels of anxiety, dissociation, confusion, denial, physical pain (and other somatic reactions), PTSD-like symptoms, a fear of STDs and ongoing stress, self-blame, guilt, shame, low self-esteem, an urge to self-harm, suicidal thoughts, etc. The survivor’s family members might also experience “secondary trauma” which might have a long-lasting influence on their relationship with an assault survivor and might reshape the family culture.
Many people don’t know how to respond to another person’s pain, grief, and trauma. As I mentioned, sometimes without doing it intentionally, family members might have negative reactions to the disclosure of a sexual assault. Experiencing the shock and denial personally, they might dismiss and minimize the incident; they might not be able to believe and accept the reality of what happened; they might engage in survivor blaming and questioning; they might encourage secrecy or engage in patronizing behavior. Even so, a positive response is invaluable to the survivor.
How can family members support sexual assault survivors?
● Believe- When your sibling, child, partner, or parent disclose that they were raped or sexually assaulted in any way, please believe that they are telling the truth. Chances are likely that they are very uncomfortable and careful when sharing in order to protect your feelings. Appreciate their bravery to share. Many rape survivors keep it as a life-long secret and suffer in silence for fear of not being believed.
● Offer practical help- Immediately post-assault survivors need to feel safe. Although you might not be able to express particular needs at the moment due to disbelief and shock, providing access to a blanket, water, clean clothes, and medical attention are always helpful. Offer your support to reach out to authorities, accompany them to appointments, find access to sexual assault advocates, crisis counseling, and other resources.
● Listen- What trauma survivors need is non-judgmental support. Listen carefully and provide congruent, genuine even non-verbal support. Let the survivor be in control of how much, when, and how they want to share about the incident.
● Respect- Please respect their needs and their decisions. They have had another’s will imposed on them already. It’s vital to let them decide what actions they want to take post-assault. The hope is that medical staff and authorities become more trauma informed, and will include and inform survivors in their processes and protocols.
● Be patient with their healing process- So many feelings are involved in trauma recovery. Remember that trauma is all about the survivor’s interpretation and personal experience of the event. A person whose basic assumptions about themselves, others, and the world got shuttered due to a violent disempowering act, needs time to rebuild their functioning. Every trauma survivor recovers at their own pace.
● Educate yourself and seek support- Please be gentle with yourself. I am sure you are providing the best care that you can. You should inform yourself about the possible effects of trauma. Sexual assault affects the whole family and each family member will recover differently. Please seek professional help. A therapist providing trauma informed care and specializing in trauma treatment, such as EMDR Therapy, would be the best choice to support your healing process.
EMDR Therapy (stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is one of the recommended treatments for trauma, and may show results faster than traditional talk-therapy. Whether you are seeking therapy for yourself or a family member, I hope that you will find a therapist that suits your needs and follows your pace. Allow yourself to take your time when healing those invisible wounds. I hope that you will see and feel your strength, resilience, and power again very soon.