By Amanda LaMorte, LCSW
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and here at Graceful Therapy, we want to lift the voices of all those who have SURVIVED sexual violence. We also want to honor those who support and advocate for survivors, and those who heartbreakingly lost their lives to this unspeakable horror.
The frequency of sexual assault is horrifying; 1 in every 4 women are survivors, and 1 in every 6 are male survivors. So many of these survivors are also children. So what do you need to know to help keep yourself and your loved ones safe? What exactly is consent? How do you respond with love and grace when someone you care about has experienced sexual violence? Furthermore, how can you support this movement and help raise awareness around sexual violence?
Sexual violence is one of the most psychologically harmful experiences a person could endure. The shame, blame, and guilt are inexplicable, and often survivors do not feel comfortable or safe coming forward about what they’ve experienced. With these helpful guidelines, you can help prevent, respond to, and advocate for increased awareness and implementation of necessary laws to keep all beings
safe and free from harm.
1. How can I talk to my children about sexual assault?
Though it can feel difficult and/or uncomfortable, talking about safety when it comes to child sexual abuse can be integrated into your everyday conversations with your children. Discussing aspects of safety and speaking up when something feels “off” or uncomfortable is a good way to broach these discussions. But remember, children do not necessarily process information the same way adults do, so honing in on these key factors are great ways to ensure your children are able to talk to you or another trusted adult about something that may be happening (or have happened) to them:
Teach your children the language to be able to talk about their own bodies:
Teach them anatomical names of body parts (i.e. penis, vagina, mouth, and breasts). It’s the same tactic as talking about your foot, nose, or arm. It’s just a body part.
When children have the language, they may feel more comfortable and confident talking to you or asking questions about their body parts.
Teach your children about boundaries so they know what is and isn’t allowed/appropriate:
Explain to them that other people are NOT allowed to touch OR look at private parts of their bodies. This includes taking pictures of their private parts as well.
If you have certain caregivers (grandparents, etc.) that help with bathing/changing clothes, etc., it’s ok to reinforce that only these people can see their parts when they are changing, etc. Doctors or other health care providers may also have to look and/or touch private body parts for health and safety, but it is important that you as the parent, are present in the room when this is taking place. Asking for permission to look at/touch private areas is also good practice for teaching children the importance of consent.
One way to practice this is by teaching “The Personal Body Safety Rule.” This rule teaches children that “no one should touch your private parts except to keep you clean and healthy.” One of our local organizations, Mutual Ground, explains that if children are not taught this rule in some fashion, they will not know to resist.
Nobody should touch us in an unsafe way and we should not touch others either.
Teach your children that it’s ok to say “No” to certain touches.
It’s important that children know they can say “No” to touches that make them feel uncomfortable. Oftentimes, children are taught to follow the rules and “be respectful,” however as parents/guardians, it is crucial that we show support for our children in said situations, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable. If your child does not want to hug a certain person, or give a high five/fist bump, etc., they do not have to do so. It is imperative that they know it’s ok to say “No” and that they will continue to be loved and supported by you.
Provide opportunities for your children to practice saying “No.” Help them find language to let the person that their touch is unwelcomed.
Talk to your children about secrets.
Perpetrators often try to convince children to “keep their secret” as a means of manipulation. Be sure your children know they can ALWAYS talk to you–especially if they’ve been told to keep a secret. Reassure them that they will not be in trouble for talking to you about their experiences or for asking questions. Be a safe place for your child to come if and when they want to talk. Give them your undivided attention and make sure they know you are taking what they say seriously. It’s important to create open lines of communication from a young age. They will be more likely to come to you in the future when they know their voices will be heard.
**For age-appropriate resources on talking to your children about sexual abuse and safety, check out the following:
Whereas talking with your teen can be a bit more challenging during their adolescent years, being able to create space for talking about safety and sexual assault is crucial. Take a look at these conversation starters to help engage them in conversation:
Use the media to make it relevant.
Ask your teen’s opinion on something happening on social media, in the news, in a new movie, or on a popular tv show. You could watch a show (or even just an episode) with them and engage them in discussion and/or ask follow up questions. When your teen feels seen and heard by you, it opens the door for more conversation.
Use your own experience to tell a safety story.
Talking with your teen and sharing your own experiences with them can help make these conversations more real and relevant to your children. If you don’t have a personal experience that you feel comfortable sharing, you can tell a story about someone you know.
Talk about caring for their friends too.
Talking with your teen about their friends in a kind and caring way can be a powerful way of expressing your care and concern for them too. Modeling appropriate and trusting behavior is helpful, and also gives you the chance to communicate safety practices that they may not otherwise be receptive to.
Talk about sexual assault directly.
For some adolescents, safety issues like sexual assault may not be on their radar. For others, they may have misconceptions about sexual assault that they’ve picked up from friends or from the media. Talk with them about the statistics that relate to them, such as the fact that “93% of victims who are minors know the perpetrator. Explain that no one looks like a rapist, and that 8/10 instances of sexual assault are committed by someone known to the victim.”
**For additional information or support, here are resources you can utilize:
The National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.
Mutual Ground, Inc. is a local center for treatment for sexual violence survivors. They have free counseling services and offer a 24-hour hotline.
Your local police department or the new 211 service. This 24/7 service connects people during times of crisis and everyday needs.
For additional information on talking with your child about safety from sexual abuse, visit Darkness to Light.
2. What is consent? How do I know if it has been violated? And what can I do about it?
WHAT IT IS:
“Consent is an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity. When you’re engaging in sexual activity, consent is about communication. It should happen every time and for every type of activity.”
Boundaries and expectations that are communicated with your partner before engaging in any type of sexual behavior
The ability to change your mind at any point in time if you are feeling uncomfortable. This can be done verbally by using direct language or non-verbally by shaking your head no, pushing someone away, etc.
Verbal confirmation that you are comfortable with the sexual activity that is going to occur. *Enthusiastic consent such as smiling and other positive body language, maintaining eye contact and nodding are not enough to be considered full consent.
WHAT IT IS NOT:
Consent does not count when an individual is underage, intoxicated with drugs and/or alcohol, asleep, or unconscious.
Feeling pressured or threatened to engage in sexual activity
Giving permission for one type of sexual activity (i.e. kissing someone) to occur and then having that translate to permission being granted for ALL types of sexual activities—past or present. Consent needs to be received for each and every type of sexual encounter.
Assuming that because someone is wearing a certain kind of clothes or is flirting, that it is an invitation for more.
3. What can I do If I am feeling pressured to engage in sexual activity that I am not comfortable with?
Oftentimes, people use manipulation tactics such as guilt or intimidation to pressure someone into something they don’t want to do. This can create feelings of fear, worry, and discomfort, but it is important to recognize that THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT. People are responsible for their own actions and it is NOT YOUR FAULT if another person is acting this way. Here are some tips that can help you get out of the situation safely:
Trust your gut.
Don’t feel pressured to do anything you do not want to do. You don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why you don’t want to do something either. Simply saying no or not being interested is enough. Follow your instincts and only do what you are comfortable with.
Have a code word.
Talk with your family and closest friends about creating a code word that means “I’m uncomfortable or I need help.” These can be in the form of a number/s, or a phrase to be said aloud. These are great ways to communicate your need for help/support without the perpetrator knowing.
It’s ok to lie.
If you are worried about upsetting this person, you can always make an excuse to help remove yourself from the situation. You can say you need to take care of a friend/family member, you’re not feeling well, or that you have to be somewhere at a certain time. Even going to the bathroom can be a good way to get out of the situation and creates an opportunity for seeking help.
Have an escape route in mind.
If you had to get out of a situation quickly, how would you do that? Look around the space for doors, windows, or any other ways to get out. Notice if there are others around that could help you in the event you needed it. How could you get their attention? Where can you go when you leave?
**Please remember that if you find yourself in a situation where you feel pressured, have to get out of a situation quickly, or if something happens to you, IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. You can refer to this page on rainn.org for ways to take care of yourself. Please know you are not alone.
How can I support someone who disclosed that they have experienced sexual violence? What should I say? More importantly, what should I NOT say?
The RAINN Organization (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) is an amazing resource to help provide guidance around sexual assault prevention and response. One of the ways they suggest to show support for a loved one who has been affected by sexual violence is by using the “TALK” acronym to respond with empathy.
T: Thank them for telling you
A: Ask how you can help
L: Listen without judgment
K: Keep supporting
Thank them for telling you.
You can say something like: “Thank you for telling me this. It means a lot to me that you feel you can share this with me.”
Ask how you can help.
Many times we want to offer advice as to what to do regarding a situation that has occurred. It is important however, to allow the survivor to make their own choices on “next steps.” You don’t have to have all the answers. Sometimes just listening and letting them know you are there for them is just what they need.
Listen Without Judgment
This can be one of the most healing things you can do for someone. Provide your undivided attention, focus on the person’s feelings, and use supportive and non-judgmental phrases.
It’s important to remember that healing takes time. Every person’s healing journey can look different, and the ways in which you offer ongoing support can be life-changing for a survivor of sexual violence. Ongoing support might sound like a simple check-in, offering normalcy and including them, letting them know you’re thinking about them, and offering them empathy if they exhibit changes in behavior or trauma reactions.
Here is an additional resource to help support this process:
What can I do to support this movement to raise awareness and educate others around sexual violence?
There are many, many ways to help support this movement to raise awareness and educate others on sexual violence. Given that many people are tapped into social media, that can be a great place to start! Visit the RAINN website to spread the word on social media to check out the various ways to get involved! By connecting others to help, educating your friends and family, and advocating for survivors, you are well on your way to supporting this movement! Follow the hashtag #let’sHEALtogether for more ways to get involved!!!
Last, but not least, join us in recognizing Denim Day 2023 on Wednesday, April 26th. On this day, you are invited to join millions of people across the world that will wear jeans with a purpose, support survivors, and educate yourself and others about all forms of sexual violence.
**For increased inner peace and healing, please see this Loving Kindness Mediation-script and allow yourself the time, space, and grace to practice this without judgment.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. We support you and your healing journey here at Graceful Therapy.