Guiding principles when working with survivors
Sexual assault is a traumatic experience for victim/survivors. It is an act that is totally controlled by the perpetrator and which completely denies the survivors right to be in control of their own physical and sexual experiencing. Sexual assault inflicts intense and sustained pain in its capacity to violate an individual in many ways which seem absolute and enduring. Beyond the physical mechanics of the assault, its criminality, and the consequent physical injury, is the violation of what makes us distinctly 'ourselves'. Sexual assault targets not only the physical self but also the emotional and socially defined self. It attacks a survivor's inner emotional life in terms of dignity, confidence, esteem and sexuality and also violates the survivor's sense of masculinity or femininity, attractiveness and social usefulness or capability.
As workers, we all have our own sets of beliefs, values and experiences which we bring to our different helping roles. Obviously, the types of services we all provide are different, but in providing support for sexual assault survivors on any level, there are common elements to be considered.
The challenge of effective support is to be as unlike an offender as one can - to behave in a way that does not further assault the survivor. For example, particular care should be taken to ensure that our practice does not reinforce the myths pertaining to sexual assault. This may involve an analysis of our own personal assumptions about the conditions of relationships between men and women and children and adults.
It is essential, as workers, to be guided by an accurate understanding of the social context of sexual assault. It also requires us to be sensitive to our own personal perceptions and specific reactions to sexual assault and here our gender as workers is an issue. Given the high incidence of sexual assault in the female population, female workers may:
- over-identify with survivors;
- feel enraged on their behalf;
- or even, as a mechanism of self-protection, feel distant or superior.
These subjective reactions can be a barrier to effective support.
Male workers may:
- wish to compensate for the pain inflicted on the survivor and to convince them that some men can be gentle, empathic and trustworthy. This can place pressure on a survivor to display liking for or trust in the worker;
- focus on the sexual aspects of the assault rather than the violence which negates a survivor's primary experiencing; that of threat to life or personal integrity;
- have greater difficulty in identifying with female clients and may find they can more readily identify with the survivor's father, boyfriend, male partner, or even the plight of the offender. This can lead to trivialisation of the survivor's experiencing.
As sexual assault involves the total denial of a survivor's right to self-determination, the task of effective support regardless of the particular responsibilities, statutory obligations or formal duties of the worker, requires:
- the provision of information;
- the creation of options for the survivor;
- the acceptance of and respect for the survivors decisions.
Beliefs which need to be reinforced by the counsellor to a recent/past victim/survivor of sexual assault, are that:
- you believe her; by validating her experience you validate her sense of self;
- she is not responsible for being sexually assaulted and you do not know any view which locates responsibility with her;
- you do not equate her assault with an act of infidelity or promiscuity and that you do not see her as any less moral because of the assault;
- she has the opportunity to make decisions about events which effect her life (e.g. whether to report the crime, tell family and friends);
- it is important to discuss any beliefs or assumptions about sexual assault that are contributing to her distress;
- you do not demand or expect vivid details of the assault/s.
The most important principal to remember is effective support requires all workers to ensure a survivors' active choices are made BY the survivor, not FOR the survivor.