April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and because sexual assault unfortunately affects so many people it is we wanted to take this opportunity to share some information on the topic, especially as it relates to the clients we see at La Familia.
Figures from various sources estimate that 1 in 4 women in the U.S. are assaulted in their lifetimes (1 in 6 for men), but many experts agree that this number may be an underestimate since so many people face barriers to reporting their assault either to law enforcement or even to anyone at all. Campaigns in recent years have worked to reduce these barriers, marking visibility as an important element in de-shrouding sexual assault of its stigma and shame. International estimates show that sexual violence varies greatly from country to country, with countries such as Costa Rica and Uganda reporting that 41% and 39% of girls/women experiencing sexual violence at some time in their lives (along with 10 other countries reporting rates of at least 25%).
What these numbers do not tell us, however, is the impact of sexual assault and especially the psychological impact of sexual assault.
26% of women who have been sexually assaulted reported major psychiatric problems and 81% reported having current psychological difficulties – regardless of time since assault (Sarkar and Sarkar, 2005) and approximately 30% of rape survivors qualify for a PTSD diagnosis as a result of the rape compared to 9% of people who experience any other type of trauma will qualify for PTSD at some time (Resnick, Kilpatrick, and Dansky, 1993).
These numbers are important because they tell the story that not only is sexual assault far more prevalent than we would wish, but that its psychological impacts are more profound than any other traumatic experience save for combat (and incidences of PTSD among combat veterans are roughly equivalent to individuals who experience sexual assault).
Here at La Familia, we know that many of our clients are vulnerable to assault for any number of reasons. And up to 68% of individuals who seek and receive outpatient mental health treatment have a history of either physical or sexual assault; a rate much higher than the general population. As a result, we have made extra efforts in recent years to incorporate trauma-informed interventions in our mental health work. This includes training staff in the use of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy and the opening of the Trauma Recovery Center program in partnership with the Alameda County Family Justice Center.
For both mental health workers and others who simply wish to support individuals who have experienced sexual assault, here are some recommendations:
First: believe them. So often sexual assault survivors are disbelieved, ignored, or interrogated. False reporting of sexual assault happens no more often than for any other crime and victims face so much adversity when sharing their experience that there is little to gain from lying about it.
Second: let them know that you know it is NEVER their fault. Sexual assault is never the fault of the victim, and many victims struggle with feeling guilty or responsible for the assault.
Third: drop disempowering words such as “but” or “should.” These words take choice away from the victim, something they already lost during the assault.
Fourth: they may not want to talk about it, and that’s ok. Even for mental health providers, if a client is not currently experiencing any needs around their sexual assault, forcing them to talk about it is unhelpful to anyone. Even if they are, they may not be ready to talk about the assault just yet, and that’s just fine.
All in all, what survivors of sexual assault need is validation and support. They need to know that you care about them and that you are on their side. The more you can demonstrate this, the more likely you are to be a true support for that person, be they friend, family, or client.
One of the best ways to get information about sexual assault, its impacts, and ways to combat it can be found with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network also offers tremendous information and support for survivors.
Local to La Familia is also Bay Area Women Against Rape which offers a 24-hour hotline - (510) 845-7273 - for survivors and their supporters (in both English and Spanish).