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The Importance of Starting by Believing

What would you say to a friend or family member if they told you they had been sexually assaulted?

For a survivor of sexual violence, disclosing what happened can be an extremely nerve-wracking experience. According to recent research published in the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, survivors of sexual violence who receive negative responses after disclosure are more likely to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder:

Almost 25 years ago, Mary Koss (1985) described rape as a hidden epidemic because it was so rarely recognized and reported. This statement is still valid. Sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence against women carry a stigma that deters disclosure to both formal and informal sources (Filipas & Ullman, 2001Fisher, Daigle, Cullen, & Turner, 2003Ullman, Starzynski, Long, Mason, & Long, 2008Wyatt, 1992). So many sexual assault survivors have provided anguished accounts of the blame and recrimination received from others that these negative responses to disclosure have been labeled “the second rape” (Ahrens, Campbell, Ternier-Thames, Wasco, & Sefl, 2007Campbell et al., 1999Starzynski, Ullman, Filipas, & Townsend, 2005).

Sexual assault is a major trauma that disrupts survivors’ lives in a myriad of ways. Survivors are at heightened risk for a variety of physical health problems, anxiety, depression, difficulty trusting others, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance use (Campbell, Greeson, Bybee, & Raja, 2008Golding, 1999Ullman, Townsend, Filipas, & Starzynski, 2007). When sexual assault survivors reach out to others for support and instead receive a negative response, they are likely to experience additional psychological trauma.

As friends, family members, professionals and even strangers, we have a critical responsibility in educating ourselves surrounding how to best respond to survivors of sexual violence in order to help prevent retraumatization or the increased likelihood of PTSD.

Start By Believing is a global campaign that was launched in April 2011 by End Violence Against Women International. More than a string of words, the campaign is "a philosophical stance that should guide our responses to sexual assault. It 'flips the script' on the message victims have historically received from professionals and support people, which is: 'How do I know you’re not lying?'" The campaign suggests the following phrases should you find yourself on the receiving end of someone disclosing what happened to them:

“I’m sorry this happened. I am here for you.”

“You can tell me as much, or as little as you want.”

“It’s not your fault.” 

“I’m glad you told me. I’m so proud of you.”

“What can I do to support you?”

“I can stay with you tonight. Would that help?” 

“Do you want me to go with you to the hospital or police station?”

(Even with the best of intentions, “why” questions can sound accusatory and make survivors blame themselves.)

Learn more about how to take action by signing the Start By Believing pledge, or by accessing one of the campaign's specially-designed kits for individuals, communities, victim advocates, health care professionals, law enforcement, prosecutors, campuses, military members and policy makers.

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