What to do as a Secondary Survivor
By Zoe Waters
Secondary survivors can be anyone from a partner, friend, family member, or anyone affected by the sexual assault of someone they know or care about. It can be difficult when someone discloses to you that they’ve been assaulted, and you might not know what to do. You may feel guilty, fearful, or even shameful. There is no feeling that is abnormal, and there is no set way that a secondary survivor may respond with.
On average, a survivor discloses to about three people. If someone has told you they’ve been assaulted, believe them and support them. A negative response can change the entirety of their healing process.
Sexual violence is about power and control, not about what a survivor is wearing, how many people they have slept with in their life, what their job position is (sex workers can be assaulted too), who they were with, or where they were. By asking questions such as, “what were you wearing?” or “how much did you drink?” we are inhibiting rape culture, and placing the blame on the survivor. Refrain from these questions and ask questions like “is there anything I could get you?” or “how are you feeling about this?”
Most sexual assault advocacy agencies support everyone affected by sexual violence, including secondary survivors. Check with a local agency (https://centers.rainn.org) to find a center near you. A sexual assault advocate can help a secondary survivor process the assault, through therapy or peer counseling. The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline is an option, especially for those who do not yet feel comfortable talking to someone face-to-face, (800-656-HOPE). If you are neither comfortable speaking about it on the phone or face-to-face, RAINN offers a National Sexual Assault Online Hotline.
Know your own limits. Supporting someone who has been assaulted can be difficult, and it can be more difficult as a secondary survivor. Knowing how much you can handle will save you from burn-out. If you find yourself triggered by a survivor’s story, it can be helpful to step back, and share with the survivor that you are uncomfortable.
For children who disclose, it is important to remember to stay calm. Remind the child that it was not their fault, and that you will do everything if your power to keep them safe moving forward. If it was a caregiver, move them out of the care immediately, if possible. The child will may experience a variety of responses, from talking about the abuse often, to not at all, or even being upset with the caregiver or parent for not protecting them - these are all normal responses. If you need support in moving forward with reporting, contact the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline (800-4-A-CHILD).
If a partner discloses, it is important to know that it was not cheating if the assault occurred during the relationship. While most sexual acts outside of a relationship can be considered cheating, sexual assault is not consensual, and the person who caused harm is the one to blame. Give your partner resources if they want them, and believe what they are telling you. If you and your partner are sexually active, it might be a good idea to talk about what their preference in moving forward with sexual activity.
There is no normal way to respond to an abnormal situation. As a secondary survivor, it can be hard to process through your own feelings while supporting the survivor. Remember resources, offer support, and keep in mind what your boundaries are. It can be easy to burn out when offering support to someone who has been assaulted, but through time and coping strategies, healing is possible.