Learning to talk about sexual trauma after it happens

Although conversations on preventing sexual abuse have become more accepted, the conversation rarely involves what steps a survivor can take after trauma.

Former SIUE PEACe coordinator Samantha Dickens said the first step for sexual assault survivors is to seek help, particularly through a local hotline, shortly after the crime occurs to guide them through the steps in their healing process.

“Most folks will either seek out help because of other trauma impact symptoms or they will minimize their trauma and say, ‘No, it’s not a big deal, I can get back to my normal life,’” Dickens said. “So, this is what I tell anybody, the best thing they can do is reach out to their local crisis center … and the Madison County crisis center is Call For Help.”

Dickens said Call For Help provides free counseling and has offices in multiple locations. She said they will also provide help and support for partners of sexual assault survivors. This can be separate from their partner or through couples’ counseling. They also offer group therapy for those who want to speak to other survivors about their experience.

Director of Counseling Services Courtney Boddie said these early steps are vital because of the spiral effects sexual assault can cause in a survivor’s life later down the line.

“If you have kids in the mix, for many people prioritizing self, even though it happened to self, is hard because they need to be present for the child,” Boddie said. “That’s what I think can lead to a lot of people not getting the help that they need upfront and it being years later [after] things have fallen apart when people are trying to work on the [problem].”

Dickens said counselors take many different approaches to therapy; some counselors prefer to take a straightforward path when addressing trauma, whereas other counselors prefer a more gentle approach.

She said she believes the most effective method is very dependent on the survivor and it’s important for them to connect with a counselor who’s a good fit for them.

Boddie said he is not fond of starting counseling with addressing the trauma head-on in sexual trauma cases because he believes the survivor needs to develop a connection with their counselor before diving into the event that caused the trauma.

“To even think about the events is retraumatizing and part of a traumatic experience, because … if you’re having an experience where your capacity to feel and your capacity to think are dislocated and you have a struggle even forming that memory in a thoughtful sort of way, then part of what happens is that it becomes dislocated in time,” Boddie said. “Which is what can lead to … intrusion where the content of those experiences shows up in different parts of your life, like your dreams.”

However, Boddie said the problem occurs when the survivor and counselor never get to addressing the event, which is a necessary step in the healing process.

“The issue with never getting there is that the incomplete memory that you have won’t stop being triggered and dislocated in time until a process called memory reconsolidation takes place and there are lots of ways to do it,” Boddie said. “But that [step] does need to take place, otherwise the smell of the cologne, sounds that remind you of that night, if you were at a party, all of those could potentially be things that take you right back to that moment and send your physiology into a state of crisis.”

Boddie said on top of navigating therapy, the survivor can also seek assistance if they decide to take on the legal and medical routes as well.

Criminal Justice Professor Trish Oberweis said from a criminal justice prospective, the criminal justice system would encourage all sexual assault survivors to report the crime and get a medical examination for forensic evidence immediately after the event.

“The criminal justice system, while it’s trying to adapt and grow, is notoriously unkind to survivors,” Oberweis said. “So, you may get a police officer or a whole police department that’s committed to prosecuting sexual trauma and you might get one that doubts [survivors] from the beginning.”

Oberweis said while more police officers and departments are starting to follow the first route, such as the SIUE Police Department, historically, police departments have tended to follow the second one that often doubts survivors. She said from a survivor’s point of view, following the process prefered by the criminal justice system is not the best option in every case.

She said colleges and K-12 schools now require a confidential advisor via the Title IX revisions and that the confidential advisor is instrumental in how the survivor processes long-term trauma. This confidential advisor is not employed by the school in many cases, including for SIUE, but rather an outside agency. For SIUE, this is Call For Help.

“That confidential advisor will explain each decision,” Oberweis said. “‘Should I go to the hospital and have a rape kit done? Should I call the police and file a report? Should I contact my Title IX officer on campus?’ and will help the survivor who’s in very often the first hours of trying to comprehend this act of violence that’s happened and will help [them] to understand the pros and cons of each possible decision that they have to make.”

Boddie said survivors have a hard time trusting people after someone violates their very basic and simple boundaries.

“In the moment, things become murky, things really need to stop. I think what happens for folks is that would be a boundary. Me saying no would be a boundary, and I think the boundary between [people], even if [they’ve] been married and have been for 30 years, [they] can still say no.”

Dickens said there are exercises survivors can use to explore and discover what their own boundaries are. While there are more advanced exercises when it comes to sexual relationships, some are about getting comfortable with touch.

“There are exercises that people can walk through with friends and family and partners that have to do with just touch,” Dickens said. “And they can be exercises that include getting used to just touching hands and how long and where on your hands and being able to communicate, ‘It’s OK if you touch my fingertips, but I don’t want you to touch my wrists. This is how I feel when you touch my fingertips versus my wrist. I can handle the touch for this long, but I’m done now.’”

Boddie said it’s important for someone who has a partner who is a sexual assault survivor to allow them to lead the conversation and guide their hand to what makes them most comfortable.

“The more that healthy behaviors, healthy relationships, boundary, consent and mutually beneficial satisfying sex are discussed, the more that people will know what to look for and how to say, ‘I’m not getting my needs met in a relationship,’” Boddie said.

Dickens said it’s important to plan ahead in these conversations and work out what the survivor needs from their partner to address the specific nuances before the potential issues arise.

“That partner can ask them, ‘What do you need from me? What do you want from me right now? Do you want me to be a part of your therapy process? Do you want us to have regular check-ins? What are you okay with and what are you not okay with?’” Dickens said.

Dickens said while all survivors have barriers to support and services, men have a very unique barrier due to the masculinity narrative.

“Male survivors have that very unique barrier of ‘masculinity is having sex with a lot of women, women should want you,’” Dickens said. “And when you say, ‘I was sexually assaulted by a woman,’ that is a source of shame and … a source of laughter from oftentimes other men, but also women because that goes against that narrative of ‘this is what masculinity is supposed to be.’”

Dickens said it is important to have the conversation about why this stigma exists and that services for sexual assault survivors are for everyone, not just women, and no one of any gender should ever be turned down support.

Boddie said the stigma around sexual assault survivors is especially difficult for members of the transgender community due to underrepresentation that leads to a fear of not being believed or treated with respect if they ever decide to step forward.

The St. Louis Queer + Support Helpline (SQSH) practicum student Samara Lillioja said this stigma is in part due to the LGBTQ+ community having the unique obstacle of being left out of most sexual health conversations.

“A lot of queer people are left out of sexual health and relational health conversations … a lot of education around healthy relationships and also trauma and sexual assault … specifically queer relationships, so it can be a lot harder for queer people to recognize violence or to feel included in conversations of consent or spaces meant for survivors,” Lillioja said.

SQSH is a free helpline focused on supporting the LGBTQ+ community, particularly in the Missouri and Illinois areas. Anyone can call into from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday through Monday.

Lillioja said people outside the LGBTQ+ community will often call in for help on how to support people who are a part of this community as well. They said outside of the helpline, SQSH also gathers resources that will help the LGBTQ+ community and partners with other organizations to bring support to the community as well.

For more information on how to get help or how to support a survivor of sexual assault, go to the SIUE Getting Help as a Survivor page.

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