Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month: Intervention and Prevention

AUTHOR: ASHLEY BENEDICT

Everyone has a role to play in preventing sexual assault. There are many different ways that you can step in or make a difference if you see someone at risk. This approach to preventing sexual assault is referred to as “bystander intervention.”

Warning Signs for Sexual Assault in College Age Adults

If you notice these warning signs in a college-age adult, it’s worth reaching out to them:

  • Signs of depression, such as persistent sadness, lack of energy, changes in sleep or appetite, withdrawing from normal activities, or feeling “down”
  • Self-harming behaviors, thoughts of suicide, or suicidal behaviors
  • Low self-esteem
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Anxiety or worry about situations that did not seem to cause anxiety in the past
  • Avoiding specific situations or places
  • Falling grades or withdrawing from classes
  • Increase in drug or alcohol use

Warning signs that could lead to a sexual assault

The majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, such as a friend, family member, acquaintance, or partner. Often, abusive partners will try to cut the victim off from their support system. As someone outside of the relationship, you have the potential to notice warning signs that someone may be in an abusive relationship or at risk for sexual assault.

Some warning signs include:

  • Withdrawing from other relationships or activities, for example, spending less time with friends, leaving sports teams, or dropping classes
  • Saying that their partner doesn’t want them to engage in social activities or is limiting their contact with others
  • Disclosing that sexual assault has happened before
  • Any mention of a partner trying to limit their contraceptive options or refusing to use safer sexual practices, such as refusing to use condoms or not wanting them to use birth control
  • Mentioning that their partner is pressuring them to do things that make them uncomfortable
  • Signs that a partner controlling their means of communication, such as answering their phone or text messages or intruding into private conversations
  • Visible signs of physical abuse, such as bruises or black eyes

Using technology to hurt others

College-age adults may also experience sexual harassment or other unwanted behaviors through technology and online interactions. Some people use technology—such as digital photos, videos, apps, and social media—to engage in harassing, unsolicited, or non-consensual sexual interactions. It can leave the person on the other end feeling manipulated, unsafe, and exposed, like when someone forwards a text, photo, or “sext” intended only for the original recipient. The laws pertaining to these situations vary from state to state and platform to platform, and they are evolving rapidly. Learn more about the ways people use technology to hurt others.

How can I play a role in preventing sexual assault?

The key to keeping your friends safe is learning how to intervene in a way that fits the situation and your comfort level. Having this knowledge on hand can give you the confidence to step in when something isn’t right. Stepping in can make all the difference, but it should never put your own safety at risk. The below techniques are create the acronym C.A.R.E:

Create a distraction

Do what you can to interrupt the situation. A distraction can give the person at risk a chance to get to a safe place.
  • Cut off the conversation with a diversion like, “Let’s get pizza, I’m starving,” or “This party is lame. Let’s try somewhere else.”
  • Bring out fresh food or drinks and offer them to everyone at the party, including the people you are concerned about.
  • Start an activity that is draws other people in, like a game, a debate, or a dance party.

Ask directly

Talk directly to the person who might be in trouble.

  • Ask questions like “Who did you come here with?” or “Would you like me to stay with you?”

Refer to an authority

Sometimes the safest way to intervene is to refer to a neutral party with the authority to change the situation, like an RA or security guard.

  • Talk to a security guard, bartender, or another employee about your concerns. It’s in their best interest to ensure that their patrons are safe, and they will usually be willing to step in.
  • Don’t hesitate to call 911 if you are concerned for someone else’s safety.

Enlist others

It can be intimidating to approach a situation alone. Enlist another person to support you.

  • Ask someone to come with you to approach the person at risk. When it comes to expressing concern, sometimes there is power in numbers.
  • Ask someone to intervene in your place. For example, you could ask someone who knows the person at risk to escort them to the bathroom.
  • Enlist the friend of the person you’re concerned about. “Your friend looks like they’ve had a lot to drink. Can you check on them?”

Your actions matter. 

Whether or not you were able to change the outcome, by stepping in you are helping to change the way people think about their role in preventing sexual assault. If you suspect that someone you know has been sexually assaulted, there are steps you can take to support that person and show you care.

Whether you’re taking home a friend who has had too much to drink, explaining that a rape joke isn’t funny, or getting security involved when someone is behaving aggressively, choosing to step in can affect the way those around you think about and respond to sexual violence.

How to Respond to a Victim/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 can avoid judgment and show support for the survivor.

Consider these phrases:

  • “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.
  • “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.
  • “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.
  • “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.
  • “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 okay to ask directly, “Are you open to seeking medical care?”
  • “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.
  • “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 to you, consider the following ways to show your continued support.

  • 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?”
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Other things you can do to help include:

  • If the survivor seeks medical attention or plans to report, offer to be there. Your presence can offer the support they need.
  • Encourage the survivor to get support. Share resources like the National Sexual Assault Hotline and online.rainn.org, but realize that only they can make the decision to get help.
  • Be patient. Remember, there is no timetable for recovering from trauma. Avoid putting pressure on them to engage in activities they aren’t ready to do yet.
  • Encourage them to practice good self-care during this difficult time.
  • If someone you care about is considering suicide, learn the warning signs, and offer help and support. For more information about suicide prevention please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 800.273.TALK (8255) any time, day or night.
  • To search for your local sexual assault service provider, click here.

Why don’t people help more often?

It’s not always easy to step in, even if you know it’s the right thing to do. Some common reasons bystanders remain on the sidelines include:

  • “I don’t know what to do or what to say.”
  • “I don’t want to cause a scene.”
  • “It’s not my business.”
  • “I don’t want my friend to be mad at me.”
  • “I’m sure someone else will step in.”

It’s okay to have these thoughts, but it’s important to realize that your actions can have a big impact. In many situations, bystanders have the opportunity to prevent crimes like sexual assault from happening in the first place. Chances are, everyone else in the area are having the same thoughts as you, and if you’re all having these thoughts, then the likelihood of someone else intervening can be small. If you acknowledge these shared thoughts, it’s more likely that you will be the one who takes action and encourages others to help as well.

Feeling safe after an assault 

  • Make use of on-campus resources. Colleges often provide a host of services to students for free, including security escorts, health centers, psychological services, and sexual assault services.
  • Request a schedule or housing change. If you have classes with the perpetrator or live in the same building, you can request a change from your college administration. Federal laws, such as the Campus SaVE Act, require colleges to honor these requests. It’s also important to remember that you should not be the one who is forced to change your schedule or housing–since they are the perpetrator, authorities should do their best to ensure that you get to maintain normalcy.
  • Access off-campus support services. If you are concerned about anonymity, you can seek out resources located off campus in the community, like a local sexual assault service provider or domestic violence shelter.
  • Seek a civil protection order (CPO). A CPO, sometimes also referred to as a temporary restraining order (TPO), is a legal document that bars an individual from certain types of contact with the person who is awarded the order. An individual who violates the terms of the restraining order can face criminal charges. Each state has its own rules and regulations for Sexual Assault CPOs that you can learn more about through the American Bar Association.
  • Create a safety plan. If you are concerned for your ongoing safety, it can be worthwhile to create a safety plan. Safety planning is about finding ways to be safe in the present while planning for your future safety as well.If you have experienced sexual assault, there are steps you can take to feel safer.

Additional Resources

  • Learn ways to get involved on your campus and share important information about sexual violence.
  • The laws about consent vary by state and situation. It can make the topic confusing, but you don’t have to be a legal expert to understand how consent plays out in real life.
  • Learn about ways to protect your friends and take steps to prevent sexual assault.
  • Rate your college’s prevention program.
  • Believe and support victims/survivors of rape and sexual assault
  • Attend the Bystander Intervention Training put on by the Women’s Center various times throughout the year
  • Sign up for a P.E.P Talks presentation for your sorority, fraternity, club, or campus organization!
  • Be an Active Bystander!!

For more in-depth information on how to be an active bystander, visit this previously published post on the topic.

All information retrieved from rainn.org

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Do you see yourself as an active bystander? Have you acted as a (passive) bystander in the past? What do you think you could have done to intervene in the situation? What can college campuses do to intervene and prevent more instances of sexual assault? Let us know by sending in any work, comments, or questions to gvsufeministvoices@gmail.com!

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