I was checking out the shirts on our campus quad with two girlfriends and a guy friend of ours, when we learned the statistic that one in every three women will experience sexual assault at some point in her life. It was chilling. I was overwhelmed, shocked, nauseated, and angry. One in three?! Our guy friend pointed around the circle and said, “That means one of you.” And well, it didn’t just happen to one of three, it happened to two of three. The odds were never in our favor.
In college, I got involved with my campus’s Women’s Center, helped organize our annual Take Back the Night march twice, and was president of our Sexual Assault Task Force. Later, I became more directly involved by becoming a rape crisis counselor for a hotline.
Yes, it would have been more fun to volunteer at the animal shelter, but this work was and is so important to me that it was worthwhile. Working the hotline was serious business, and I was incredibly nervous when I started. Not only was it my duty to answer the hotline, but we were also contracted with local police departments, who would call us when they had a new assault victim; I would meet them at the hospital to support the survivor (a word more empowering than “victim”), give information, talk to families, or do whatever the survivor needed me to, including being in the medical exam room.My first hotline call came in around dawn one weekday morning: it was a woman whose assault had happened years earlier, but who was feeling really badly about herself and was stressed. We talked about what had happened in her past, what she thought was getting to her now, and then she listed her strengths and accomplishments. She ended the call sounding much better, and thanked me for my time.
I felt like I’d done something important. Helped someone.
I received a variety of calls: a mother wanting recommendations for counseling centers for her daughter, who had been raped; a woman who was ritually abused by a cult as a girl and who couldn’t remember all of it; a husband who wanted to know how to help his wife after her rape; and a man who blamed himself for his childhood molestation and was still afraid to talk about it.
The hospital calls were harder. I never knew what sort of assault I’d be facing or how the survivor was handling it. These were the times I had to act confident no matter how unprepared I felt, and to focus myself completely on helping the survivor, however was needed, and put aside my own heartbreak at knowing what happened. This could be hard; some of the attacks were especially brutal, and it would take me hours or days to recover. The supervisors of the hotline were available 24/7 if we needed to talk, and I sometimes really did.One of the most important parts about helping rape survivors was that sometimes I was, or would be, the only person who supported the person unconditionally. There are a lot of rape myths out there: that it was the survivor’s fault, that it’s easy to avoid, that the clothes we wear “cause” rape, that women, especially, should know better than to go to a party/club/out with friends/out after dark/on dates/anywhere, ever. That men who are assaulted are weak and/or gay. We–-even toward people we love–-blame survivors, without considering that the attacker chose to commit the assault.
If you want to get involved, you can volunteer at a hotline in your area; check out RAINN’s volunteer webpage for hotlines in your area or domestic violence shelters; domestic violence shelters frequently have a variety of volunteer opportunities (including less-intense stuff like helping with mailings or collecting pledges). You can also help spread awareness about sexual assault at school, your religious organization, clubs you’re in, and more. Make fliers to pass out or posters, or see if you can get your local Clothesline Project to hang their shirts at your school.
The most important thing you can do if someone you know was assaulted is be supportive. Be there. Listen. If the assault just happened, encourage your friend to go to the ER to get a medical checkup (there may be injuries you can’t see); samples can also be collected as evidence to catch the attacker. Having support will make the biggest difference to her or him, and you can be the one to provide that help.