Monday, April 6, 2015

Supporting Survivors in Community Settings

Supporting Survivors in Community Settings
This resource is based on Sarah Ullman’s (2010) research regarding social reactions to survivors who disclose sexual assault.  Ullman determined that negative social reactions have a harmful impact on survivors who disclose sexual violence (pp.74-76), and that commonly-held attitudes, such as rape myths and stereotypes, constitute “social phenomenon that maintain a rape-supportive environment” (p. 14).  Further, she concluded that anticipation of “receiving negative reactions,” such as victim-blaming, harms survivors considering disclosure (p. 19).
            Sexual violence is so epidemic that the presence of survivors can be assumed in every gathering. To support survivors in community settings, negative social reactions should be avoided proactively in every discussion of sexual violence.
ESD instructors have utilized these communication skills for many years to support survivors in our classes and to model speech that disrupts “rape-supportive” culture.  The recommended behaviors are consistent with trauma-aware and survivor-centered practices endorsed by experts such as the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA), UN Women and Know Your IX (  These practice behaviors are appropriate to many public settings and may have particular relevance for educators, religious congregations, policy-makers and journalists.
Negative social reactions[ii]:
Victim blaming: Suggests that assault result from a survivor’s behavior or character.
Incorporate a philosophical statement in written and spoken communication repudiating victim-blaming.  For example: “Women do not ask for, cause, invite, or deserve to be assaulted.”[iii]
Avoid questioning any survivor’s choices, even in the abstract.

Avoid “why” questions, which “can sound accusatory and might bring out defensive and/or self-blaming responses.”[iv]

Egocentric response: Prioritizes concern about the effect of the victim’s assault upon the listener.   
Utilize clinical interviewing skills, such as open-ended questions and active- and passive- listening.
Avoid asking too many questions or imposing your values.

Be sensitive to the possibility of triggering, the experience by which trauma symptoms are evoked by experiences reminiscent of the original injury. 

Do not unnecessarily introduce lurid or potentially challenging topics.

Stigmatizing response: Treat survivors of sexual violence as different than others/different than they were before the assault.
Anticipate the likelihood that survivors are present in every setting.

Utilize the principle of “pre-emptive radical inclusion,” which assumes representatives of any population we might discuss are present in the conversation.[v]

Avoid assuming that survivors are not present.

Avoid speaking about survivors as somehow different from those who are present, or from people who have not experienced sexual violence.
Distraction: Discouraging discussion of the details of assault.
Model empathic responses.

If facilitating a group within which a disclosure is made, skillfully moderate the survivor’s needs, the group’s needs, and your own emotional response.
Avoid rapid change of subject.

Avoid off-topic inquiries.

Avoid extremes of either sensationalizing or dismissing the details of an assault.

Controlling response: Trying to control the victim or the situation.
Validate survivors’ choices and support their decisions.

Be prepared to share information about resources to support survivors of sexual violence.

Avoid suggesting what a survivor “should” do/have done.

Rape myths: Repeat rape-promoting social attitudes.  
In written and verbal communication, explicitly reject correlation of dress, behavior, location or character with deserving or inviting assault.

Avoid questions or statements that “imply that women invite rape, enjoy it, and are responsible for rape because of their dress or behavior.”[vi]
Trust violation: Betrayal of trust.
Arrange for privacy in meetings and interviews.
Maintain confidentiality.

Establish norms for confidentiality in groups.

Avoid compromising privacy or confidentiality.
Minimizing response: Minimize the trauma of rape and/or pathologize survivors’ coping reactions.
In written and verbal communication, acknowledge sexual violence as significantly injurious.

Reflect understanding that survivors recover from sexual violence along individual trajectories and that the negative impact of sexual violence can be longstanding and idiosyncratic. 

Avoid comparing one type of violation or injury to another.

Never apologize for or defend the act of perpetration.

Disbelief/denial: Indicate that the listener does not believe the survivor.

In written and verbal communication, express belief in survivors’ lived experience.
Avoid expressions of surprise or disbelief.

[i] Specific practice behaviors derived from the feminist practice wisdom of ESD instructors and adopted from/informed by these published sources: CALCASA. (1999). Support for survivors, p. 139-145. Retrieved from; UN Women. (2012). Survivor-centred approach.  Retrieved from; Wanamaker, L.M. & Safe Passage. (2013). Say something superhero field guide:  A manual for eliminating interpersonal violence, p. 54.  Retrieved from
[ii]  Identified and defined by Ullman, S. (2010).  Talking about sexual assault: Society’s response to survivors.  (1st ed.)  [Electronic edition].  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, p. 59-82.  Retrieved from  
[iii] National Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Ad Hoc Committee on Self Defense, Cited by CALCASA, 1999, p. 401.
[iv] CALCASA, 1999, p. 141.
[v] Cindy Beal, Justice and Peace Consulting,
[vi] Ullman, 2010, p. 73.

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