The Centers for Disease Control estimates one in three women and one in six men have been victims of contact sexual violence where consent is not freely given. However, only a small percentage of survivors report such incidences to the criminal justice system or to a formal support system. Instead, the overwhelming majority of survivors confide in their friends, their family members, and their informal support networks, according to Gillian Pinchevsky, a professor in UNLV's criminal justice department.
“What that means is that any of us can experience a disclosure from a friend or a family member, or maybe a colleague or an employee,” Pinchevsky said. “As a friend, you can be there for someone who has experienced issues related to violence. Sometimes, unexpectedly, any one of us can be called upon to help a friend in need.”
Pinchevsky presented a workshop on helping to support survivors of sexual violence at the 2018 MGM Resorts International Women’s Leadership Conference. Here’s what she shared.
On why our responses matter to survivors
Our responses can impact the personal and work lives of those who disclose their experiences. By equipping ourselves with the knowledge about how to best support others and with the motivation to make a difference, our responses can have a profound impact on the people around us. The unfortunate reality is that harassment and sexual and physical violence are very real parts of our lives.
On taking the role of an advocate
I study violence against women. I learned a lot in graduate school, but I can confidently say I have never learned as much about being an advocate as when someone first disclosed to me about their victimization. What to do when someone discloses to you was not part of the course curriculum in graduate school. No one ever taught me how to appropriately respond to avoid re-traumatizing anyone. And, as I am quickly learning, very few people are taught how to appropriately respond to disclosures.
On the responsibility of listening
Without knowledge about how to respond, there’s a good chance we may end up dismissing survivors and not listening to their stories. I think this is one the many reasons people don’t come forward in the first place. I focus on being a good listener and responding appropriately because I don’t want the fear of the response to be one of the reasons that someone does not disclose to me.
On supportive techniques to help survivors
Here’s what we know from research: become trauma-informed and victim-centered. When we are both victim-centered and trauma-informed, we are concerned about the emotional well-being and safety of a victim of interpersonal violence. We provide support and resources for one’s recovery. We understand the impact that experiencing a traumatic incident plays on someone’s actions or inactions. And we empower someone to make the decisions that are best for them.
When having these conversations, it’s important to focus more on the survivor’s needs. If you can’t provide support and resources for recovery, or feel uncomfortable doing so in the moment, you can get back to the person and you can help them find colleagues or friends who may have the information.
Supportive things to say
- Can I connect you with someone to help provide resources and support?
- Thank you for sharing your experiences with me.
- Can I provide you with some resources for support that might be helpful?
On being prepared for a difficult conversation
Someone is sharing with you something that happened that was unwelcomed; something that may be traumatic. Understandably, it takes a lot of courage for someone to disclose these experiences. It’s undoubtedly not an easy conversation for either of you to have; but it is an extremely important conversation to have. It is even a hard topic for me to talk about or to listen to. It can be especially hard to have with people you love. Accept that it’s hard and have the conversation anyway.
On changing the discourse regarding sexual violence
We have to be committed to doing our part to help change the tide in societal responses to issues such as sexual harassment, sexual violence, and domestic violence. In my experience, many people feel helpless when approached by a friend, family member, co-worker, employee, or student who has experienced sexual harassment, sexual violence, or domestic violence.
Everyone – survivors and supporters can be part of the solution together.