WYD?: Sexual Assault

Once a month, Smash Talks columnist Ashera Buhite addresses a difficult life situation and highlights some local agencies that can help you navigate what to do.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, where many organizations, agencies, and activists raise awareness about the realities of sexual violence. In solidarity with this movement, it’s timely to address how to help someone who has been assaulted. I spoke with Cameron Balon, the training specialist for the Advocate Program at Crisis Services, whose work brings her into direct contact with those affected by this issue.

So, what the heck is the advocate program? In short, the Advocate Program of Crisis Services is the New York State Department of Health designated Erie County Rape Crisis Center. Trained staff and volunteer Advocates respond to all Erie County hospitals to assist survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse, and family violence 24/7/365.

Advocates arrive to the hospital and deal with people in the midst of trauma. Besides providing immediate crisis counseling, they advocate for the survivor of violence. Additionally, the survivor can be linked with a case manager who will assist them in many of the other areas they may need help with, including linkages to counseling, support in court, and assistance in communicating with law enforcement. They also provide free counseling to survivors of sexual violence, no matter how long ago the assault occurred.

They’re not just in the hospital, though. Advocates run trainings for college campuses and other groups in how to respond, in an effort to reach the entire community. These trainings include an overview of sexual assault, domestic and family violence and/or elder abuse, consent, healthy relationships, disclosure and response, primary prevention, and best practices for working with youth and adults around these sensitive issues. In this way, the Advocate Program specifically addresses various members of the community on how they can stop sexual and domestic violence before it starts.

Here’s the skinny on why it’s important to know what to do if this situation arises: due to the frequency and traumatizing nature of sexual violence, people respond in all sorts of different ways. Someone who has been assaulted may bury their experience down and try and regain some normalcy, but many times they will reach out to at least one person. If the person they reach out to treats them poorly, it’s unlikely that they will ever disclose again. Instead of having people suffer alone and in silence, it’s imperative to give people a framework of how to help. Armed with that knowledge, communities can not only help survivors, but also identify predatory behaviors and put a stop to it.

Disclosure is tricky. Some people can come right out and say, “Hey, this fucked up thing just happened to me,” and tell a friend. Other people need to wait and process what happened, and then there’s a breaking point where they reach out. It is unlikely they will say, “Hello, friend. I have just been sexually assaulted and now I need help.” They may give you pieces of information slowly. People don’t tell or they tell the story slowly in pieces because they’re not sure how others will react. When a person’s trust is shattered, it’s natural that they will want to take their time when speaking out again.

So, if someone reaches out to you, here’s a quick list of what NOT to do:

— Pressure to know all the details of the story. If a survivor decides to press charges, they’re going to have to repeat their story a lot. Doing that more than is absolutely necessary is exhausting and can be retraumatizing.

— Make it about you. This is their issue. They’ve chosen you for support but in the end it’s their call what they do.

— Asking questions like, “Won’t you feel bad if you don’t report and they do it again,” can be incredibly unhelpful. Their world has just been rocked in a big way. It’s not their job to protect the community while they’re renavigating their life.

— Accuse them of lying. If you’re not in a place to listen, support, and believe them, it’s probably best to hand them over to someone who can help them.

— Making promises you cannot keep is shitty in all situations, but especially here. No one can promise that they will receive the justice they seek, nor that they will never see their attacker again.

— Vigilante Justice. Seriously, this is not a comic book.

Instead, it’s much more helpful to listen, support, and believe a person in that situation. They may want to talk about it, they may just need someone to sit there while they cry. While it’s not cool to pressure someone into telling you about what they’ve been through, it’s important to remember your own boundaries. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by supporting them, it’s totally okay to say, “Hey, I want to be there for you in some capacity, but I don’t feel like I’m being helpful here. Instead of talking about it, how else can I help you?”

Cameron adds that it’s incredibly important to encourage them to seek medical care. She says, “Survivors have a LOT of options and rights. By going to the hospital, not only will a survivor get checked out medically to see if they have injuries that need attending to, but they can get so much more at no cost. Depending on how long ago the assault took place, the survivor may be able to get evidence collected for prosecution (i.e. a rape kit), may be able to get medication to protect them against getting STIs, Plan B to prevent pregnancy, and a blood test to find out if they were drugged.”

It’s important to restore a victim’s power in this situation. They may make choices you don’t agree with, like going or not going to the police or hospital. This ball really has to stay in their court. Their life is not an SVU episode, and we don’t have Olivia Benson in our corner at all times. People don’t report for many reasons, but it doesn’t make their pain less real. Those that do report, more power to them!

Cameron adds: “I also think it’s important for folks to remember that a survivor chose them to disclose to — they trusted you. Honor that, give them what they need, ask them how you can help them. Ask them what they WANT to do. Take care of yourself, too. Seek out support, but please do not put that on the survivor that just disclosed to you.”

Here’s the number to call if you’re ever stuck in this jam, straight from Cameron:

“Crisis Services Advocate Program is THE rape crisis center for Erie County. We will support you, no matter what. We are here for you. We can be called 24/7/365 at (716) 834-3131. Call us for support if you need it. If you’re helping a friend, offer to call with them. ‘Hey, I learned about Crisis Services, they help people for free all the time. Do you want to call them together?’ Or again, encourage them to get to the ER and we will be automatically called by the staff there so we can assist them in person.”

 You can help survivors in Erie County in numerous ways:

— Volunteer with Crisis Services. They require volunteers to help do the work, as they don’t have enough staff for the 24/7 hospital response. Trained volunteers are needed to respond to the hospitals, too. For more info on that you can visit www.crisisservices.org/volunteering or email [email protected]

— Come to Walk A Mile. Walk A Mile is the annual benefit to raise money for the program. Crisis Services is a non-profit, and, like many non-profits, faces budget cuts. Help them continue the hard work by coming to UB, raising money and walking on 4/29/18. You can get the whole scoop at https://crisisservices.org/walkamile/. Walk a Mile is inclusive to all survivors of violence, no matter age, race, creed, gender identity, or expression.

— If you are comfortable speaking out, do it. You may inspire someone who needs to hear your story.

Often, the best thing a person can do is just be there. Hold them if they’re okay being touched, treat them like a normal human, and keep their confidence if that’s what they desire. Sexual violence affects us all, whether we can see it or not. To combat it, we gotta stick together.