What if Someone Confides in Me?
by Teresia Smith
Each year we set aside the month of April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, as a time to share information with as many as possible. We give out statistics and share stories from survivors. We offer events to raise awareness that sexual assault is happening in every community. We raise money to help provide services and we hand out brochures offering resources. All these things are great, but sexual assault happens all year long and we need to continue to have conversations to make sure everyone is comfortable knowing what to say or do if they suspect abuse or someone discloses sexual assault. I want to share simple, basic information that’s easy to remember.
I am often asked how to identify a sexual assault victim. It’s not always easy and signs vary by age group. There may or may not be physical signs of abuse so we need to consider behaviors also.
In children, some red flags to be concerned about may be sexual knowledge that is not age appropriate, suddenly keeping secrets and not talking as freely as usual, uncomfortable being left alone with certain people, regressive behaviors such as thumb-sucking or bedwetting that they had outgrown, reluctance bathing or changing clothing, sudden changes in eating habits, excessive worry or fear, change in personality, loss of interest in things they used to love, and of course, any self-harming behaviors. This is not an exhaustive list and just because something appears on this list does not mean it has to be related to abuse.
In teens and adults, signs of assault may include unusual weight gain or loss, persistent sadness or depression, changes in sleep and eating patterns, withdrawal from friends and normal activities, excessive anxiety or worry, falling grades, less attention to hygiene and appearance, STI’s, self-harming behaviors and drug or alcohol use. Again, this is not an exhaustive list and just because something appears on this list does not mean it is always to be related to abuse.
So if you find yourself recognizing some of the red flags in someone you know, what should you do? First we must recognize that we cannot force someone to talk about how they feel or what has happened to them. It is their choice. Our task is to be available and approachable. In conversation, you may ask, “Hey, is everything okay? Are you okay? Would you like to talk?” Being available may open the door of conversation.
If that person decides to confide in you that they have been sexually assaulted, what should you say? The first and most important thing you can say to support them is, “I believe you!” Acknowledge the strength and courage it took for them to confide in you. Listen without judgment, provide encouragement and tell them this is not their fault. You can provide comfort and even cry with them, but most of all, do not question them. Refrain from offering advice and trying to “fix” them. Listening is the biggest gift you can offer. And be knowledgeable of resources in your area to which you can refer.
Many communities have services available for assault victims. In Jackson County, Crisis Services of North Alabama has a satellite office to provide services for residents of Jackson County. We offer crisis counseling, safe shelter, support groups, advocacy, forensic nurse exams, assistance obtaining protection orders, safety planning and more for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. We also offer a 24/7 HELPline (256.716.1000) where you can speak with a trained crisis counselor or you may reach our Jackson County office at 256.574.5826. There is comfort in knowing you are not alone.