The silence of apprehension. The tears of relief. The breathless sobs of pain. These emotions ring clearly through a phone. These also are some—but by no means all—of the ways that a conversation with a sexual assault survivor can start. There is no right or wrong way to go through a sexual assault.
This call starts matter-of-factly.
I’m reaching out because I was assaulted, and, well, I want to know what my options are. I wasn’t really planning on this, but I’ve been kinda thinking about it awhile. I want to do something, but sometimes I’m not even sure what happened.
As an advocate, in that moment I am there to honor this person’s experience and whatever she has to say.
“What matters is how the experience felt to you. It’s okay if you aren’t sure how to feel about what happened or if how you think about it changes over time. There is no right or wrong way to go through this. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy process but know that I am here for you. I trust you. I believe you,” I tell her.
We want survivors to do what helps them establish a sense of control and wellbeing. That may or may not involve reporting to law enforcement. It may or may not involve counseling. It may or may not mean applying for an Order of Protection. It may mean blocking the perpetrator from any form of contact such as texting or social media. Or it may mean knowing where the perpetrator works or goes to school so the survivor can know what places will feel safe. What a survivor needs may change over time, too. I’m here to help this survivor with where she’s at right now.
I’m thinking about reporting to the police, but I’m just not sure yet.
“That’s okay,” I say. “It’s not a decision you have to make right now. If you decide to report to law enforcement, I can work with you on that. You can talk to a detective here at our office and I can be there with you if you want. You will be in control of the situation.”
A heavy silence follows. We are honoring that it’s okay to be unsure. It’s okay to take time to figure this out. I trust her.
“Take as much time as you need or let me know if you need a break. We can pick this conversation up at any time,” I assure her.
Her voice wavers and breaks, her sentence turning to tears. The calm determination she held gives way to uncertainty. It is common for someone to experience a wide range of emotions during a conversation about a traumatic event and this can be the case for long periods of time. One day someone feels confused, the next day they may feel confident, the next day may come with a wave of grief.
I don’t understand why I didn’t fight, why I didn’t leave. But I didn’t know what was happening. I was confused. I just froze. Was it really an assault if I froze like that?
“I can’t define your experience for you, but what I do know is that the way it felt to you is the reality of it,” I say. “I believe you.” I explain that, along with fight or flight, freeze is a very common response during a sexual assault. This response comes from a part of the brain that overrides our ability to make decisions and move. It is our system’s way of trying to protect us. Freezing does not imply consent and it does not mean that what happened was okay.
Most rapes are committed by someone known to the victim (eight out of 10 according to RAINN). I ask the survivor if this was someone she knew.
Yeah, we had been kind of dating. We’ve even had sex before. But this wasn’t the same.
Her determination seems to have returned.
“Just because you dated or had sex before doesn’t mean he had any right to do what he did,” I say. I tell her that under Montana state law, a previous dating or sexual relationship does NOT constitute consent. “Saying yes to something in the past doesn’t mean you’re saying yes to anything in the future,” I say. “Consent can also be withdrawn at any time.”
When he put his hand on my chest, I pushed it away.
“It sounds like you made a very clear show that you weren’t okay with that. State law also defines consent or lack of consent as something that can be verbal or through conduct. Do you feel like his actions showed he was respecting the message you were giving him?”
I pushed his hands away multiple times.
“You aren’t responsible for what he did. He is responsible for his actions no matter what. You were making a choice and he was taking that away from you.
“How do you feel about your safety and wellbeing right now?’ I ask. “Is he contacting you? Is there anything that you want to focus on for your safety?” I tell her that can mean mental as well as physical safety.
He hasn’t reached out to me. I blocked his number and removed him from social media. I feel okay for now.
“If that ever changes, I’m available to talk through ideas for helping you feel safe,” I offer.
I wasn’t really sure what I wanted when I called you. I wasn’t really planning it. It just sort of happened. I talked to my sister and she was supportive. She said she believed me and knew that it wasn’t my fault. But it really helps to hear that from you too.
“It can be difficult to go through this alone and a lot of people find it helpful to talk to someone. I don’t expect you to have all the answers. We aren’t born knowing exactly what to do in these situations and we often aren’t taught. It can take time to figure these things out.
I ask if she would like info on counseling services, reporting to the police, safety planning, or anything else. “You can take your time to think about any of these things,” I assure her. “I will be here for you whether that’s tomorrow, next month, or a year from now.”
I’m going to think some more about reporting the assault to police. I might talk to my sister about it again.
“You have time to think about reporting. For the majority of sexual assaults that are reported, there is a delay in reporting to law enforcement. That is 100% okay,” I say. “That doesn’t mean that what happened wasn’t a big deal or that you aren’t taking it seriously.”
I saw a therapist a few years ago who I really liked. I might see if she is available.
“It sounds like you know what feels like the next step. Well, we’ve been talking for quite a while about something pretty intense. To me that shows a lot of power. That doesn’t mean it should feel easy, but please just know I see a lot of power in you. Is there something that you would want to do when we get off the phone that will bring some comfort or help your body work through any tension you might be feeling?” I ask.
I might just watch a movie. I need to give my brain a break.
“That makes a lot of sense. Do what you need to and know that you can reach out to me at any time,” I say.
We exchange goodbyes and hang up the phone. I don’t know if I’ll talk to her again. Some people reach back out for something; others don’t. Either way is okay because there is no right or wrong way to go through a sexual assault.
Although this story involves a woman, sexual violence can happen to anyone, and The Friendship Center is here to serve you regardless of your gender identity.