The Right Thing to Say: Answering Difficult Questions
By Ruthie Kolb, Training Manager
April 13, 2017
In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2017, all of Colorado Youth Matter's blogs in the month of April will be focused on issues surrounding sexual assault, including personal stories and insights from our staff. In this week's blog, Ruthie Kolb addresses how to answer questions from students and youth about sexual assault.
CONTENT WARNING: This blog discusses sexual assault and rape.
I remember having a conversation years ago in which someone was pointing out how touchy people are around the subject of rape. “For example,” he had said, “we use the phrase ‘get away with murder’ but would never say ‘get away with rape.' Isn’t that odd since rape is arguably a less serious crime?” I’ve found myself pondering this conversation for years, wondering why it disturbed me so deeply. I’ve come to the conclusion that my unease has something to do with how drastically his questions misunderstood the state of sexual assault. The truth is there are more than 320,000 sexual assaults in the US each year; 63% of those are not reported.
So, really, the ugly truth is that lots of people get away with rape.
That person I talked to years ago isn't the only one who deeply misunderstands rape. It's a difficult subject to talk about – and that's why it's so important that we, as educators, are extremely intentional and clear when talking about rape with students. So in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I want to address how to answer questions about sexual violence.
Not Knowing the Right Thing to Say
Many educators are rightfully very worried when they receive questions like this one:
“I was with my partner and said ‘yes’ to the first thing they did, but they kept going and I didn’t want them to. We had sex. Was I raped?”
I often observe that educators are very hesitant and uneasy when answering questions like this about rape. For some reason, if a student asks a question like the one above, adults sometimes default to asking questions like “How drunk were you?” “Was the other person drunk too?” “Were you all-the-way passed out?” They don’t want to call the situation what it is: an assault, a violation, a rape.
Here’s the deal – if a teen is worried about themselves or a friend having been raped, you’re not a forensic interviewer, a judge, or a prosecutor. You don’t have to figure out the details and come to a conclusion. All you know is that you have a teen who is traumatized and upset standing before you. You’re their trusted adult, and they are extremely vulnerable at that moment.
So, what do you do?
Here are some tips on how to be trauma-informed if a student is disclosing a rape to you:
Act calm and accepting. Sometimes, the immediate reaction to hearing of a teen being assaulted is to say something about how it’s “awful," “horrible,” or “not okay,” or to swing into action mode to try and make things alright. While every survivor copes with sexual assault differently, some common responses are self-blame, feeling dirty or tainted, and fear that others will reject or blame them. Reacting to their disclosure with horror may actually unintentionally communicate to them that they are horrible, that they should feel awful, that they are defined by what has happened to them. Allow the teen to define what their experience is and just be open and present with them. Reflect back to them what you hear them saying, but do not make any assumptions about how they are feeling or what should be done.
Remind the student of your position as a mandatory reporter. This is tricky. You don’t want to say “Thanks for sharing openly with me, but now I am going to tell other people.” This is why it's important to be extremely clear from the very beginning of your class about what it means to be a mandatory reporter.
But if you're in a situation where that isn’t clear to your student, try something like “as a teacher/social worker/etc., I have to report if I know of anyone hurting you. While I am here to listen to you, just know that I will have to report what you’ve told me.” One of the hallmarks of trauma is an experience of helplessness – that things are happening to a victim against their wishes and there is nothing they can do about it. Giving the victim as much voice and choice in this process as possible is a more trauma-informed approach.
Connect student to services. Remember that you are not their therapist, and the teen will have to tell their story again with someone else. Consider yourself more of a first responder than a surgeon. You are trying to “keep them alive” until they get to professional services who know how to help them. Be present and listening to what they have to say, but don’t ask them “then what happened next?” and get them to share their whole story. You may be getting in the way of their recovery.
In the spirit of being a first-responder, you do want to connect them to the many services that are available to victims of sexual assault. Giving your student voice and choice about where they go and what happens next is another opportunity to be trauma-informed. Colorado services include The Blue Bench in the Denver area; Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA) in Boulder; and Sexual Assault Response Advocates (SARA) in Ft. Morgan. You can find more Colorado rape crisis centers here.
Affirm. Show up for your student in a way that affirms who they are, how they feel, and that they are not to blame – that everyone has the right to say who touches their body and how.
Work to Prevent
As an educator in sexuality and relationships, you have the powerful opportunity to do more than respond to sexual violence: you can also work toward prevention. Here are some ways that you can work toward sexual violence prevention:
Avoid stereotypes about sexual violence - Because, like most stereotypes, they are actually not true. Most people are not grabbed by a violent stranger behind a dumpster as they walk down the street. So, as Jessica bravely pointed out in her blog last week , this undermines a victim’s ability to recognize what has been done to them and begin the process that moves them from victim to survivor. 70% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows – 25% are a current or former significant other.
Teach affirmative consent. We have to move our culture away from saying "no means no" to understand that only a sober and excited "yes" is consent. If a person isn't able to say "no" because they are being coerced or manipulated in some way, they are not consenting. They are only consenting if they are excited to say "yes".
Carefully monitor victim-blaming. Our society so often subtly (or not so subtly) doubts and shames victims of sexual assault. We try to figure out what they did wrong that caused them to be raped. Let's be clear: No one ever deserves to have their trust broken or to be violated, and we need to consistently reaffirm this to young people and to ourselves. Similarly, many attempts at sexual violence prevention actually perpetuate victim-blaming by focusing on victim prevention instead of addressing perpetrators. Carefully monitor your conversations around sexual assault to support survivors by holding up clear standards of respect, consent, and pleasure for all sexual encounters.
Talk and educate about rape. We can’t be shy. We can’t make sexual assault “unspeakable”. Being silent on an issue has never been an effective prevention strategy. Be clear with students when you're talking about sexuality that people should only engage in sexual activity that they want and that they say an excited "yes!" to.
So, with these points in mind, here's one way you can answer the question listed at the beginning of the blog:
I want to thank whoever submitted this question, because this is a really hard, scary thing to talk about. Thank you for your bravery in asking this. I need to remind everyone that if I am suspicious that someone is hurting or has hurt you, I am required to report that. The person who wrote this question may tell me who you are after class or at a later time if you are ready to tell people.
Everyone has the right to say who touches their body and how. Consent means that both people are saying a sober and excited "yes" to every sexual act they engage in. If a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they are not consenting. If a person isn't saying "yes," they are not consenting. If a person is saying "yes" but isn't excited because they are being coerced or manipulated, they are not consenting.
If a person agreed to do one thing with a sexual partner, it doesn't mean that they are consenting to other sexual acts. Both partners have the right to get to say whether or not they want to continue. And everyone deserves to say if and when they have sex.
Sex without consent is considered sexual assault or rape. I want the person who asked this and everyone in the class to know that when someone touches you or engages in sex acts with you without your consent, that is never your fault. I am always available to talk more about these topics, and I also want you to know that there are free services you can reach out to that can help you work more through an experience like this.