How To Be A Good Partner To A Survivor Of Sexual Assault

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

The #MeToo movement has banded survivors of sexual assault together and forced a challenging discussion about how women and girls are treated in our society. But one of the toughest conversations still rarely seems to happen: how do you treat a romantic partner who is a survivor of sexual assault?

One in six women in the United States have experienced rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, so it is likely you may have dated, or are dating, a survivor. Still, few people, outside of trained professionals, are receiving an education about how to sensitively help their partners through the healing process. 

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"I think it can help to just normalize that [sexual assault] is something many people have experienced," Laura Palumbo, the communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), told A Plus.

January 20, 2018 San Francisco / CA / USA - "Me too" sign raised high by a Women's March participant; the City Hall building in the background. Sundry Photography / Shutterstock

The NSVRC, which provides resources and tools for people trying to prevent sexual violence and to help those living in the aftermath of it, also touches on best practices for being a partner to a survivor. Palumbo explained that for survivors of sexual assault, male of female, deciding whether to tell your partner is one of the hardest things to do. 

Survivors may fear being criticized for their stories, or simply not being believed. They may also find it difficult to find the right time to confide in a partner, especially if it is a new relationship.

"It's something that takes a lot of bravery and vulnerability to share," Palumbo said. "That's something for someone on the receiving end to consider: how you respond to someone who shares their experience of sexual assault makes a huge impact in how comfortable they are and their perceptions of whether or not you're a safe person to talk about this with."

The first step, Palumbo said, is simply believing what your partner is telling you. Do your best to make it clear that you trust their story, that you believe the assault happened, and that you know it wasn't their fault. 

"They may not want to talk about it in great detail either, and those are all normal ways for a survivor to feel," Palumbo said. "You should follow their cue about what they are comfortable sharing and not press them for any more info or detail than what they have felt comfortable sharing already."

If you're in a new relationship, Palumbo says there are no tried-and-true telltale signs that a partner may have been the victim of an assault in the past. Some victims may have visceral reactions to scenes of sexual assault in movies or on television, but plenty of people who aren't survivors have those reactions, too. The key is doing your best to pick up on certain signals that may repeat themselves, and adjusting your behavior accordingly. If a partner has a strong negative reaction like that to a scene of sexual violence, you should normalize the reaction and make it clear you noticed it — and then do your best to communicate to your partner that you're happy to avoid that kind of content in the future.

National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)

Ultimately, being a supportive partner is about listening with care and focus. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape says you should avoid threatening the suspect who may have hurt your partner, maintain confidentiality no matter what, and — if the survivor hasn't yet already — encourage them to seek counseling.

"The other step we can't emphasize enough is really just about being a good listener," Palumbo said. "What a good listener means in this context is just listening actively and listening to what your loved one is sharing without thinking about how you're going to respond to them, if you're going to be able to say the right thing or if you are going to have advice, because they really don't need to hear that from you."

There is no one way to approach this conversation, but the NSVRC's guidelines provide a general rulebook. Palumbo says it's also important to consider the misconceptions and stereotypes about sexual assault survivors and move past them, focusing on the individual you're in a relationship with. Because of these misconceptions, many people believe survivors of sexual violence don't want touch or physical contact and end up being less sexual. On the contrary, research shows that's not the case. While some survivors do withdraw from sexual activity, most "continue to be sexual beings," Palumbo said.

National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)

"People who experience sexual violence are just like the rest of us in terms of having different sexual preferences and needs and their level of sex and frequency," she added.

One way to be sure about what your partner is comfortable with is asking for consent to physical touch, particularly during conversations about the their past assault. 

"There are going to be times where they may be really receptive to being asked for physical support, such as a hug or other physical intimacy, and there are going to be other times where that is not their preference," Palumbo said. "By asking and always checking in with the person and being aware of their needs, you can make sure you're respecting their preferences and re-establishing their preferences of security, safety and control."

Finally, Palumbo said, be aware that a lot of survivors remain sex positive after their assaults. Some are into consensual alternative forms of sexuality like BDSM, others are comedians who joke about their experiences on stage, and some remain angry or upset about their experience for a long time. Some studies have found that certain rape survivors even have sexual fantasies about rape later in life. 

All of these, Palumbo said, are normal and common reactions.

"Survivors are, even after they experienced some form of sexual harm, still going to move forward in their life as a human being," Palumbo said. "There really is no script. That is something that comes up when a person is talking about their values or expectations for a relationship." 

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