What do you do when someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted? Sometimes, we demand answers. We ask how, when, why and for all the details. Deep down we feel like if we can get the right answer, we will know the victim asked for it and we won’t make the same mistake so we will be safe. Sometimes, we dismiss it. After all, sexual violence is a normal part of life, right? It’s just what happens, especially at college where 1 in 5 young women will experience sexual violence. Sometimes, we deny it. We just know that this person is lying to gain attention, or perhaps money if the accused has status. The problem is, all of these responses are wrong and they can do serious damage to someone who is already traumatized. So what is the right way to respond? Start by believing…it is really very simple. Believing and supporting can provide empowerment, comfort, strength and encouragement, rather than the isolation caused by disbelief. As friends, teachers, coaches, colleagues, family members and a community, we need to suspend our need to investigate or for justice. In that moment, the best and most positive thing we can do is simply believe. This part is not about the perpetrator(s) or the investigation. Other highly trained officials handle that part; it is not our job to determine guilt. Our focus is supporting a person who has just experiences a life-changing trauma. Start with this statement: “I believe you. I am here to support you in any way I can when you are ready.” After that, listen without judgment and leave all decisions up to them. Remember to be patient, they may not feel like talking yet. It is also helpful to know where to find resources; the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) website,sart.unm.edu, is a good place to begin. As community members, we can go a step further. We can call out victim blaming when we see it in the press or hear it from others. We can educate ourselves about being good allies and active bystanders who can appropriately and safely intervene in person and online. We can gather to build intolerance towards and create a more supportive community for victims of sexual violence. We can honor and protect victims from being known in the media or in our communities, even though it sometimes feels like we need to know all the details. But allowing them privacy to heal and move on is a gift we can give them. Together we can make our campus safer, join us. In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the Women’s Resource Center and the FMLA will hosting the Handprint Project on Monday, April 28, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Smith Plaza. Remember that the Women’s Resource Center is a resource for information, referrals and support, and we are open to everyone.
Director, Women’s Resource Center and SART Co-Chair
Graduate Assistant, Gendered Violence Prevention Program