Protecting Your Friends and How to Respond to a Survivor

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You have a crucial role to play in keeping your friends safe. No matter what the setting, if you see something that doesn’t feel quite right or see someone who might be in trouble, there are some simple things you can do to help out a friend.

Distract. If you see a friend in a situation that doesn’t feel quite right, create a distraction
to get your friend to safety. This can be as simple as joining or redirecting the conversation: suggest to your friend that you leave the party, or ask them to walk you home. Try asking questions like: “Do you want to head to the bathroom with me?” or “Do you want to head to another party – or grab pizza?”

Step in. If you see someone who looks uncomfortable or is at risk, step in. If you feel
safe, find a way to de-escalate the situation and separate all parties involved. Don’t be shy
about directly asking the person if they need help or if they feel uncomfortable.

Enlist others. You don’t have to go it alone. Call in friends or other people in the area
as reinforcements to help defuse a dangerous situation and get the at-risk person home safely. There is safety in numbers.

Keep an eye out. Use your eyes and ears to observe your surroundings. If you
see someone who has had too much to drink or could be vulnerable, try to get them to a safe place. Enlist friends to help you. Even if you weren’t around when the assault occurred, you can still support a friend in the aftermath.

How to Respond to a Survivor

When someone you care about tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted or abused, it can be a lot to handle. A supportive reaction can make all the difference, but that doesn’t mean it comes easy. Encouraging words and phrases avoid judgment and show support for the survivor. Consider these phrases:

  1. “I’m sorry this happened.” Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” help to communicate empathy.
  2. “It’s not your fault.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame.
  3. “I believe you.” It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts—your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur—everyone responds differently. The best thing you can do is to believe them.
  4. “You are not alone.” Remind the survivor that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story. Remind them there are other people in their life who care and that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they recover from the experience.
  5. “Are you open to seeking medical attention?” The survivor might need medical attention, even if the event happened a while ago. You can support the survivor by offering to accompany them or find more information. It’s ok to ask directly, “Are you open to seeking medical care?”
  6. “You can trust me.” If a survivor opens up to you, it means they trust you. Reassure them that you can be trusted and will respect their privacy. Always ask the survivor before you share their story with others. If a minor discloses a situation of sexual abuse, you are required in most situations to report the crime. Let the minor know that you have to tell another adult, and ask them if they’d like to be involved.
  7. “This doesn’t change how I think of you.” Some survivors are concerned that sharing what happened will change the way other people see them, especially a partner. Reassure the survivor that surviving sexual violence doesn’t change the way you think or feel about them.

Continued Support
There’s no timetable when it comes to recovering from sexual violence. If someone trusted you enough to disclose the event, consider the following ways to show your continued support.

  • Check in periodically. The event may have happened a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean the pain is gone. Check in with the survivor to remind them you still care about their well-being and believe their story.
  • Avoid judgment. It can be difficult to watch a survivor struggle with the effects of sexual assault for an extended period of time. Avoid phrases that suggest they’re taking too long to recover such as, “You’ve been acting like this for a while now,” or “How much longer will you feel this way?”
  • Remember that the healing process is fluid. Everyone has bad days. Don’t interpret flashbacks, bad days, or silent spells as “setbacks.” It’s all part of the process.
  • Know your resources You’re a strong supporter, but that doesn’t mean you’re equipped to manage someone else’s health. Become familiar with resources you can recommend to a survivor, like the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online.rainn.org.

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Stalking

Discovering that you are being stalked, either in person, online, or via technology, can be unnerving. Learning more about stalking behaviors can help you notice them before they escalate and help you protect yourself.

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What is stalking?
“Stalking is a pattern of repeated and unwanted attention, harassment, contact, or any other course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear,” according to the Department of Justice. Similar to crimes of sexual violence, stalking is about power and control.

Stalking laws and definitions differ from state to state. You can read more about your state’s laws by visiting the Stalking Resource Center. Stalking behavior can take many forms including:

  • Non-consensual communication, such as repeated phone calls, emails, text messages, and unwanted gifts
  • Repeated physical or visual closeness, like waiting for an someone to arrive at certain locations, following someone, or watching someone from a distance
  • Making threats against someone, or that person’s family or friends
  • Any other behavior used to contact, harass, track, or threaten someone

What is “the use of technology to stalk”?
One of the ways perpetrators stalk victims is through the use of technology. You may have heard the term cyberstalking to refer to these types of interactions. “Use of technology to stalk” is a broad term that is used to cover all forms stalking that rely on technology.

Some uses of technology to stalk include:

  • Using someone’s computer and/or spyware to track their computer activity
  • Posting threatening or personal information about someone on public internet forums
  • Persistently sending unwanted communication through the internet, such as spamming someone’s email inbox or social media platform
  • Video-voyeurism, or installing video cameras that give the stalker access someone’s personal life
  • Using GPS or other software tracking systems to monitor someone without their knowledge or consent

What are some common reactions to being stalked?
The DOJ uses “fear” to define the experience of being stalked, but there are other reactions that are just as important to consider. You might feel anxious, nervous, isolated, become stressed, or develop signs of depression.

How common is stalking?
Each year in the United States approximately 3.3 million people ages 18 and older are victims of stalking1. The majority of victims are young, between 18 and 24 years old, and know their stalker.

As technology and digital platforms continue to grow, so do the chances that someone could interact with you in an unwanted, sexual manner. Not all of these behaviors are considered stalking, but they can be violating and make you feel uncomfortable. Learn more about the different ways people can use technology to hurt others.

What should I do if I’m being stalked?
If you think you are being stalked, please know you are right to be concerned. Stalking may escalate in behavior. Consider the following tips to increase your safety and effectively report the crime.

  • Try to avoid the person stalking you. This can be difficult at times, especially if the person stalking you is close to you or your family.
  • If you are being stalked through communication technology, like email or text messaging, make it clear that you wish to stop contact. Once you’ve made it clear, do not respond to further communication.
  • Keep any evidence received from the stalker such as text messages, voicemails, letters, packages, emails, etc., but do not respond. You can do this by taking screenshots of conversations or even printing out email exchanges.
  • Inform family, friends, supervisors, and co-workers of the situation.
  • If you have children, create a code word that lets them know they need to leave the house or call the police.
  • Consider reporting the stalking to local law enforcement.
  • Keeping an accurate journal or log of all incidents connected to the stalking.
  • Become familiar with computer safety and ways to stay safe online

To learn more about stalking and safety planning visit the Stalking Resource Center.

 

  1. Shannan, C. (2012, September 1). Stalking Victims in the United States – Revised.http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/svus_rev.pdf

Protecting Yourself from Sexual Assault

Contrary to popular belief, most sexual assaults are planned. The assailant may not plan to sexually assault or rape a specific individual, but they usually do plan to assault someone. This plan may range from a specific plan to find someone to rape to a general intention of “scoring.” Although this fact can be disheartening, it also gives us an edge in protecting ourselves from sexual assault. Because assaults are usually planned, there are typical behaviors and patterns that you can be aware of and watch out for. This section will outline some of these typical patterns and suggest various things you can do to keep yourself safe. There are three areas to consider in thinking about personal safety – the environment, the assailant, and yourself.

Awareness: The Environment The environment consists of the people and things around you, as well as the place you are in, all of which can contribute to the level of safety or danger at any given moment.

  • The People around you can help keep you safe or increase the level of danger, depending on who they are and what your relationship with them is. If you are in a group of your friends, they are more likely to contribute to your safety. If you are among a group of the assailant’s friends, you may not be able to turn to them for help. If you are among strangers, it may be harder to tell. If you find yourself in a position where you are in danger of sexual assault, pay attention to the people around you – can you turn to them for help or are they increasing the level of danger?
  • The Things around you can also be used in your defense. Pens and pencils, keys, chairs, books, and other furniture can all be used as weapons. You can put large objects between you and the assailant; smaller objects can be used to hit or stab the assailant or to block strikes against you.
  • The Place that you are in will affect the level of danger and how you choose to defend yourself. Since most sexual assaults occur between people who know each other, they are more likely to happen indoors. The stereotype of the stranger in the bushes does happen, but is much more rare than sexual assault in your home, someone else’s home, at a party or a bar.
  • If you are in your home, you have an advantage in that you know the layout much better than the assailant. It will be easier for you to move around, to put furniture or doors between you, to get to the phone. You might try turning out the lights, because it will be easier for you to move around in the dark. In addition, common safety tips for preventing stranger assault in your home include strong locks on the doors and windows and secure entry into apartment buildings.
  • If you are in the assailant’s home, the advantage goes the other way. Generally speaking, it is better to avoid being alone with dates until you know them well enough to trust them, and to inform friends or family of your whereabouts and when you are likely to return. However, even long-term, trusted friends or partners commit sexual assault. If you feel you are in danger, look around for things you can use to defend yourself, be aware of the exits and the location of a telephone.
  • If you are at a party or a bar, the people around you are likely to be your best resource, particularly if they are friends of yours. Try not to be left alone with someone you don’t know or do not feel safe with.
  • If you are in a deserted area, look for a more populated or well-lit area that you can go to if you feel you are in danger.

The Assailant
Unfortunately, there are few obvious distinguishing characteristics of assailants that can be used to identify and avoid them – rapists can be of almost any group. However, there are some people who are more likely to commit sexual assault. General Characteristics

Men are considerably more likely to commit sexual assaults than are women.

  • The myth of the black rapist is exactly that – a myth. African-American men are no more likely to commit sexual assault than men of any other ethnic group. Most sexual assaults tend to be intraracial rather than interracial, and when it does occur across ethnic groups, it is usually the case of a white man assaulting a woman of color.
  • Men who hold strong beliefs in traditional gender roles are more likely to sexually assault a woman because they are less likely to believe that she has the right to say no or that she means it.
  • People who do not take “no” for an answer or listen to your opinion in smaller areas, such as where to eat dinner, who will drive, etc., are unlikely to do so in more important areas, such as when, where, how, and whether you will have sex.

Specific Characteristics
Along with these general aspects of a potential assailant, there are important specific factors to be aware of. First, pay attention to details that might help you in deciding the best way to handle the situation, examples include:

  • Is the assailant drunk or high? If he/she is intoxicated, he/she may be less likely to respond to either assertiveness or physical self-defense techniques.
  • Is the assailant someone you know? Sometimes, if you know the assailant, it may be easier to defuse the situation using verbal defense skills and assertiveness. However, using physical self-defense techniques may be necessary to use.
  • Is the assailant considerably bigger or stronger than you? If he/she is, it may be harder to defend yourself physically and you may need to rely more upon the two most important skills, running and yelling.

Identification
Finally, you may want to pay attention to details about the assailant that will help you describe him/her to the police, if you choose to contact them. If you know the assailant, this is obviously easier, as you may be able to give the police his/her name, address, or phone number. If you do not know the assailant, however, you will have to pay attention to physical details. The rule for describing an assailant is to go from general to specific and to try to note those details that the assailant cannot easily change. For example, height and weight are not easily changed and are larger details. Then go on to note race or ethnicity, followed by eye and hair color. Any distinguishing characteristics, such as tattoos, scars, moles, odd facial characteristics, piercings, or unique jewelry are also useful. Clothing should be the one of the last characteristics to note, as it can be changed easily.

Yourself
The third factor that will be present in an assault situation, and the only one you truly have control over, is yourself. It is important to remember that no one is to blame for a sexual assault except for the assailant – the survivor is never responsible for the assault. However, there are things that you can do to protect yourself and try to keep yourself safe. Unfortunately, there are no safety guarantees; you can only try to improve our chances of escaping an assault safely. Furthermore, if you do not take particular safety precautions, that does not mean that you deserved to be sexually assaulted. It is impossible to follow every safety tip all the time, and safety must be balanced with living a relatively free and unencumbered life. Given that, there are a number of areas in which awareness about yourself can help you to avoid or escape an assault. These include internal factors such as state of mind and level of intoxication, as well as external factors, such as how easily you can run in the clothes and shoes you are wearing. Other important factors include your verbal and physical self-defense skills, which will be further discussed below. When thinking about this third factor – yourself – there are two important areas to consider: Availability and Vulnerability.

  • Availability simply refers to how accessible you are to an assailant. For example, if you are in a room alone with a date or partner, you are available to him/her. If you are in a deserted parking lot, you are available.
  • Vulnerability has to do with more internal factors and how prepared you are to defend yourself. Vulnerability concerns physical, emotional, or mental disability and level of awareness.
  • Injured people are vulnerable because it may be harder for them to fight back.
  • Developmentally delayed individuals are vulnerable because they may lack the cognitive skills to defend themselves.
  • People who are depressed, sick, or preoccupied are often vulnerable because they are less likely to pay attention to the environment around them.
  • People who are drunk, high, or drugged (particularly with “rape drugs”, such as Rohypnol or GHB) are especially vulnerable because their judgment is impaired and they are not able to think clearly.
  • People wearing tight clothing, high-heeled shoes, or who are burdened with bags or packages are vulnerable because it is harder for them to run away.
  • Dates, spouses, and partners are also vulnerable because they generally do not expect their partner to attack them and are less likely to report the assault.

We are all vulnerable sometimes- everyone gets sick, has to walk to their car at night, or becomes preoccupied. The goal here is to try to minimize your availability and vulnerability as much as is reasonably possible.

Your feelings about sexual assault and self-defense
It is also helpful if you pay attention to your own feelings about sexual assault and self-defense. If you are worried that you will freeze up and not be able to defend yourself in an assault situation, you might find it helpful to take a self-defense course and learn some skills. If you are a survivor of a previous sexual assault or sexual abuse, it may be helpful for you to talk to someone about your experiences and how they have affected your life. If you do know some self-defense skills, are you prepared to use them? Are there things you feel you just cannot do, even in your own defense? If so, learn some different skills – don’t try to make yourself do something you’re not comfortable with.

Possible signs of an impending assault
Assailants, whether they are a stranger or someone you know, tend to “test the waters” before they actually begin the attack. A sign that you are being tested is when someone invades your personal space and keeps asking personal questions, even after you have asked him/her to leave you alone. They may try to touch you or get too close or ask questions or make comments that make you feel uncomfortable. Remember, if you feel unsafe, pay attention to your gut feelings. Don’t feel that you have to be nice or that you must be imagining things. If the person is truly innocent, they will understand. If they get offended when you ask them to leave you alone, to stop touching you or to move further away, then they are probably testing you. These are reasonable requests and reasonable people who are not trying to harm you will have no problem complying.