You might feel at a loss If someone comes to you for support after they’ve been sexually assaulted. What you do and say in the immediate aftermath can help, or make things worse. When podcast host Sammy Caiola asked survivors to interview the friends and partners that they turned to, the conversations revealed how their relationships were tested and strengthened. Being an ally takes patience, honesty and commitment.
Guide To Being An Ally
Sammy: I’m Sammy Caiola, and this is After The Assault: a podcast about sexual assault survivors and their paths to justice, and healing. This is Episode 6: Guide To Being An Ally.
Just to warn you, we’re going to talk about sexual violence in this episode and the mental health challenges that can occur in its aftermath.
Sammy: Last episode, we described what it’s like to live with the trauma of sexual assault. This time, we’re going to hear from people with a different perspective: survivors’ friends, spouses and family.
Aliyah: I wish that there was like, not a handbook, but the Do’s and Don'ts of what happens. If somebody comes to you and says that they’ve been sexually assaulted, what’s the first thing you should do? How to keep them safe, how to advocate for them, what they should be doing.
Sammy: If someone comes to you after they’ve been assaulted, you might feel at a loss about what to do. We’re going to talk about ways that you can give support to someone who’s experienced this.
And you’ll hear from survivors about what loved ones did that helped — and what made it worse — in the immediate aftermath and in the months and years that followed.
This is Monica — she asked that we identify her by her first name only.
Monica: It's nice when you can have other people be there for you. Not ones that necessarily who have been raped to know and be there for you. But the ones that are willing to learn and get the education and other friends say, you know, other relationships, all the ships, friendships, everything that you're going to have in your life in the future. Just education and that care.
Sammy: You probably know someone who’s experienced sexual violence. One in five U.S. women are victims of completed or attempted rape. And this affects people all over the gender and sexual orientation spectrums.
I asked survivors what they want people to understand about sexual assault.
Annie: I don’t think they get that they can approach you or talk to you about it or, I don’t know, offer a hug. I just feel like so many people are afraid. Even if you don’t say the right thing, if at least you try to say something or try to make some kind of overture that really means a lot.
Penny: When you tell your mother, when you tell your sister, when you tell your father, it's hard for them to hear that because they don't want to have believe, think that that has happened to you.
Sammy: This is After The Assault Episode 6: Guide To Being An Ally.
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Sammy: Before I started making this podcast, I definitely WOULDN’T have known how to react to this situation.
If you listened to Episode 1, you might remember Alison Jones-Lockwood from End Violence Against Women International. She talked about these THREE things that you should say to someone if they disclose an assault to you. I’m going to have her repeat it here, because I think it’s really important.
Alison: The first is “I’m sorry this happened to you.” The second thing is “how can I help you?” And the third is “I believe you.” We know that those three things are the most important thing that the survivor needs to hear. Because a lot of times loved ones want to fix the problem. They want to solve it, they want to take all the pain away or they want to take over almost so that the survivor doesn’t have to worry. But, we need to have the survivor drive the process.
Sammy: That’s an idea I’ve heard a lot while I’ve been working on this series: let survivors be in control. They may not be looking for somebody to tell them what to do.
Mandy: They didn't choose what happened to them. They didn't want what happened to them.
Sammy: Mandy Mount is a psychologist who works with assault survivors at the University of California Irvine.
Mandy: And so given that one of the most healing things we can do is give them power back to decide how to move forward with that experience, a lot of times people have beliefs about what somebody should do, what the right thing or the wrong thing is to do. And it is so powerful to recognize a survivor's ability to determine what is best for them and support them on that journey, whatever that may look like.
Sammy: Survivors told me that loved ones should just try to be patient, and not set expectations.
Maddie: Respecting my own timeline, respecting my own timeline of how I need to heal, and not pushing me to do things that they think is good for me.
Monica: People were, a lot of them were looking at me like, “you're still feeling this way?” And it's, it's in so many ways, which also has been said to me is when someone says “get over it,” or “it happened a year ago.” And that's not fair. And just respecting your timeline and honoring yourself, however long it takes you to heal. That's your time.
Penny: So, like, this kind of assumption that people have, like you're dragging this on unnecessarily.
Monica: And then you feel even more guilt, and you feel even more unwanted. And somehow you feel like you're a thorn in somebody's shoes who’s supposed to be your friend or ally or family.
Erin: So we don’t want to talk about it.
Sammy: You just heard a few survivors talking to each other in the CapRadio studio. I interviewed more than a dozen survivors for this project, but eight of them were part of this core group that helped us shape this work.
We’ll refer to them as the “survivor cohort.” We met with them monthly.Sometimes we recorded the conversations, sometimes we just talked.
The cohort members are all at different stages of their healing, and they all had different experiences when they told friends and family what happened.
I wanted to hear about what that was like, and how it’s affected their relationships. So I asked the cohort members if they would interview their own loved ones. I gave them some sample questions, but I also said that they should let the conversation go wherever it goes.
Erin Price-Dickson wanted to talk to her friend Aliyah Ireland.
Erin: OK, so I’m Erin Price-Dickson and I am sitting here with Aliyah who is my best friend. We’re in my living room on the couch after our workday.
Sammy: Erin says Aliyah was the one she turned to after her 2018 assault. Here’s some of their conversation about that night.
Erin: When I think back to it, it starts me driving in my car and I’m realizing what actually happened to me, and just being hysterically crying and talking to you. And I just remember you telling me “OK, you don’t need to be by yourself. Go home, shower, and you need to come over here.” And that’s what I remember about when I told you that night.”
Aliyah: It was morning.
Erin: It was very early in the morning, yes. the sun I think just, it like literally just came through the sky. It literally was like what? three or four in the morning or something like that.
Aliyah: It was dumbass early.
Sammy: Erin says Aliyah didn’t ask her about the incident, not at first. She started by just taking care of her.
Erin: She just was like “OK , do you want something to eat?”
Sammy: So when Erin woke up, Aliyah persuaded her to call the police, even though Erin didn’t want to at first. That’s important and we’re going to get back to it.
But first, here’s how Aliyah was feeling on the night that Erin told her about the assault.
Erin: Was it hard to respond to what I told you, or not, and why?
Aliyah: Well naturally yes, it’s hard to hear that someone that you love, someone that you care about, has been harmed in that fashion. So yes, it was hard to hear it. Again, I was extremely confused. And I think to hear something of that, there’s a certain level of digestion that has to happen in a very short amount of time, because at that point it’s not just the person who it happened to’s story at this point.
You automatically become a part of that story, because you’re being told this type of information. So I felt a certain level of responsibility to help you. I didn’t know if I was going to be equipped to do it.
Erin: What actions did you take to try to help me, and also did you feel they worked?
Aliyah: I don’t know if anything that I did worked, to be honest with you. I’m not the guru or knows knows of everything when it comes to trauma and things of that, I feel like we all have our trauma.
I feel like the one that did, was like hold you accountable. I feel like, and this is probably going to sound so douchey, but I don’t feel like I coddled you in any type of way. I feel like I kept it real with you the whole time. Obviously not trying to hurt your feelings in any type of way, but kind of showing you it’s OK to be sad, but it’s also OK to be tough. Like tough and sad. Like yeah, you're pissed right now, but so what are you going to do about it? You know, like you need to show yourself and prove to yourself that you don’t have to just be sad about something.
So I feel like if anything I was kind of like that person in the ring with you that is sitting in your corner talking shit to you in your ear like “Hey, you’re going to let that motherfucker sit there and do that shit to you?” I was that person making you spit in the bucket and get your ass back out there and do what you have to do. Because I know that you deserve more and you should know that you are worthy. So yeah, I was your hype man, maybe your raggedy hype man. And I do apologize if that did bring you some sort of discomfort sometimes and you really just needed a hug.
Sammy: Aliyah was the one who convinced Erin to go to the Sacramento Police Department, though her case was ultimately suspended and an arrest was never made.
Lots of survivors DON’T report their crimes. About three quarters of rape in the U.S. go unreported.
So if you’re the one trying to help a survivor figure out what to do, try to remember that not everybody’s healing involves going to law enforcement. If you are helping someone figure out the legal reporting process, we’ve got a guide for that online at CapRadio.org/after.
Erin says the tough love from Aliyah did help her get to a healthier headspace. She says Aliyah got her back into yoga and taught her other tips for self-care that she still uses.
But Erin says she still struggles — she’s moodier than she used to be. And Aliyah is pretty good at sensing that.
Erin: It’s still really really hot and cold with me. I mean yes, I’ve grown a lot. So I don’t know. I guess when I’m in that space though, I’m usually by myself, and I appreciate that space and I kind of just work through it. I feel like now sometimes I think you sense changes in my mood. I don’t know, I just enjoy our time together. I wish we would go hiking more.
Aliyah: That would be nice!
Erin: I wish we could go hang out and do other things —
Erin: Versus staying in the house. I do enjoy hanging out and watching movies and stuff like that is a plus because I also don’t feel like sometimes like “Ugh do I want to get up in the morning to go hiking?” But I do miss the outdoor activities. And it sucks, and I know for you it sucks, because I don’t like doing that with other people. Which is my problem, I don’t like hanging out with other people.
Aliyah: You do!
Erin: I don’t.
Aliyah: You do!
Erin: I don’t. No, just kidding. Outside of the house, I enjoy that space more around you, because I just feel like I can be myself. And if I do get in a quiet space you’re not gonna think I’m ruining the mood. You know like if you get in a quiet space, I feel like we can just sit and be a lot of times.
Sammy: So navigating friendships after an assault requires a lot of communication. If you’re a friend to an assault survivor, you may want to check in with them about their needs. And there might be some compromises you’ll have to make.
In Episode 5, we talked about all the symptoms of Rape Trauma Syndrome — mood swings, memory loss, social anxiety. Understanding the effect trauma has might help you be a better ally. So, if you missed it, go back and give it a listen.
Sammy: A lot of the survivors I interviewed said that being assaulted changed their social habits. Like Erin said, their moods can be up and down. They may not want to do all of the things that they used to enjoy doing.
Aurora: You should probably disclaim to your friends like “Hey, I might change my mind. I don't want you to take it personally.” But like, maybe I just don't feel like it that day or I was triggered earlier or whatever. Like we talked about Harvey Weinstein being in the media and literally I turn on Facebook today and first things his face again. And I’m like well, guess I’m staying off the internet today. It affects your whole life in every way. So just be sensitive to people and their healing process. It's not always the same.
Annie: That's right. I mean, I think especially in the beginning, it's, it feels like we're all trying to figure out who we are again or like sort of have people coming in that know you as a certain person that you don't feel like you are anymore. It's very difficult to even want to be faced with that. That's been my experience, which is why I feel like I've isolated from a lot of people or I had friends for the first couple months that, you know, “come out, let me come over, let's do this. Let's do that.” And I wasn’t interested because I was trying to, like, just process what had happened to me. And now maybe a year later, I'm ready for them to start coming around or, you know, being more supportive. But I think they have maybe taken it personally because I haven't been as responsive to their invites, you know, in the past.
Aurora: Try to imagine what it's like to be invited to a bar when that could have been the potential, you know, precursor to the assault. It's like you guys don't even understand just being in a bar. The smells, you know, like every sensation, even just drinking alcohol, for example, can trigger you and understanding the triggers and not, you know, requiring an explanation, just like, I'm sorry. I don't feel like it. And not feeling bad about it.
Sammy: So we’ve heard about what friends can do to be better allies to survivors: be patient, don’t give unsolicited advice and don’t expect them to want to engage in all of the social activities that they used to like. Be aware that they’re in this long process of healing and cut them a little slack if they act a little differently or turn down plans.
But what about sex and dating for sexual assault survivors?
The survivors I worked with were all at varying stages of readiness when it came to intimacy. When I invited them to ask each other questions in the recording studio, it’s one of the very first things they brought up.
This is Monica — she asked that we only use her first name — talking to Maddie Bernal.
Monica: One of the things I need in my life to feel complete and with purpose is knowing if I will ever be able to, to love again. And, you know, have a relationship. And I already do. When I have dated, I am different. I, I could be more guarded or, you know, get triggered. And I'm, you know, I want to learn like. So I want to ask specifically to you, like you just got married. Congratulations. And a part of learning. If I know or learning to love again and knowing like that I could have a partner that could love me as I am who I am.
Maddie: For me, I had a lot of difficulty identifying the things that I’m doing in my relationship that are directly related to my trauma. And you know, a couple different things. It’s difficult to identify sometimes. OK like it’s this trauma from this thing that made me behave this way. It is possible. it just means having to be extremely honest and vulnerable with a person. My husband, George. He has done a lot of research and like he’s talked to some of his family members… who have been through trauma and he’s talked to me in depth and he’s talked to counselors in depth to try and understand what I'm going through. And through trial and error, we've figured out different ways to, not prevent my triggers or my episodes, but ways that we can cope with it together. Not just me figuring out how am I going to deal with it at this time, because he's there with me. He has to deal with it too.
Monica: That's beautiful. Congratulations again. You know, he's also your ally.
Maddie: Very much so, very much so. And he's been a huge, huge part of my healing. And having that, that comfort of knowing OK this person is always going to believe me and that he's always going to respect when I tell him to stop doing something.
Monica: It's awesome.
Maddie: Thanks for asking that question.
Monica: Yeah, ‘cause with the triggers I get like. I can't even help myself sometimes. And then, you know, I want to be honest with who I am now.
Maddie: Girl, I have punched George before. There have been times where I have just gotten triggered and I've, I've punched him. I've pushed him off of me. I've turned around and darn near elbowed him. I mean, there's so many things that I have done.
Monica: Thank you for your honesty.
Maddie: Yeah, it's, it's rough, but it's doable.
Sammy: So Maddie and her husband have learned to communicate about what triggers her and they’ve got ways of handling her trauma.
But the aftermath of an assault can put a serious strain on relationships, and it can be hard for two people to figure out how to move forward.
I want you to meet survivor Annie Walker. She did an interview with her husband, Alvin Gittisriboongul.
Annie: OK this is Annie and Alvin, it’s Tuesday night, 8:30.
Alvin: We’re sitting here in our kitchen, leaving the dogs outside.
Annie: And we’re going to have a conversation.
Alvin: Yes, we are.
Sammy: Annie says that after her assault, she woke up with bruises on her arms, legs and back. She couldn’t remember exactly what happened. She’d been drinking, and the details were fuzzy. That’s pretty common for trauma survivors.
She says the details came back to her in the days and weeks that followed. And Alvin wasn’t sure how to interpret that.
Alvin: It was almost a week later when you told me you were assaulted. A week after the incident. I remember we were in a parking lot. We hadn’t been talking for a while. Or not in any meaningful way. I initially had thoughts that maybe something else happened, but when you did tell me, I believed you, that you were assaulted. At that point, even though I believed you, I still had thoughts in my mind like maybe you brought this on in some way? What was happening beforehand? It was hard to get past that initially.
Annie: That’s interesting, because you didn’t make me feel like you believed me. You made me feel like you were very uncertain.
Alvin: No, I believed you were assaulted. And that’s why I recall insisting that you need to call law enforcement. I insisted. If I didn’t believe it I wouldn’t have insisted you call law enforcement. But like I said, maybe what you sensed from me was initially [sighs] the frustration or anger or thought that you may have, like I said. And even saying it now makes me feel bad about it, brought it on.
Annie: Because of the drinking? Because I had drinks?
Alvin: Because of the drinking, but also, you know, you’re not able to recall immediately, you thought there was making out and I just assumed that it was voluntary and things got out of hand. And then, from there, it was about learning.
Sammy: After talking more to Annie and a lot of reading on sexual assault, Alvin says he eventually came around to understanding what happened — that it wasn’t her fault, and that it’s common for survivors to not remember everything.
But he had to do a lot of work to get there, including seeking counseling from WEAVE, Sacramento’s rape crisis center.
Annie: Knowing everything that you know now, what advice could you give others if your friend came up to you and was like hey, my girlfriend or wife, this happened to her?
Alvin: Go and seek help yourself. Try to understand what she’s going through. But also talk with somebody through your emotions and your fear. Because that’s important. I did it for a while definitely, with WEAVE, and that did help me. I had my own personal issues at the time, too, unrelated to this, and it helped me take a step back and pause. So I would say go talk to somebody for sure. Seek counseling, help and guidance of how to be there for somebody. How to be there for yourself.
Sammy: Being a good ally takes work. It takes patience. It takes learning.
And Alison Jones-Lockwood with End Violence Against Women International says it can also take a mental health toll.
Alison: We think of them as kind of a secondary victim. They could be immersed in that survivor’s trauma, so hearing about it, helping them with it, helping them cope, helping them access resources. So it’s important for our supporters to also be aware of the resources that are available to them when they need to reach out for support. So counseling, crisis lines, thinking of some of the same resources that that very survivor might be using could also benefit that secondary survivor.
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Sammy: If you want to be a better ally to a survivor in your life, start by getting informed. If you’re listening to this podcast, you’re already on the right track. We’ve got lots of resources that can help you at CapRadio.org/after.
But most of all, survivors say just being there, and listening without judgment, can be a huge help in the healing process.
This is Laura Bruce, and a survivor we’re calling Penny. We’ve altered her voice and omitted her full name, for safety reasons.
Laura: Some good ways that I appreciated, just friends coming over and just sitting with me and you know, not even me having to talk about it. Just having somebody physically present to sit there and help me take my mind off it, just watching movies and hanging out at home. Being in a safe place. Being with me in my safe place. That made me feel good.
Penny: One day I really needed to have someone come and be with me, and I couldn’t get anyone to come and be with me. And so my boss drove from Woodland and to come sit with me on my couch while I cried.
Sammy: Next episode, we’ll look at what it would take to prevent sexual assaults from happening in the first place, including what’s being done on the state and local levels to make change.
Brittany: It’s important to start talking about these issues as early as possible in an age appropriate way, and that means, you know, talking consent in kindergarten. And, you know, we’re not talking about consent in terms of sexual activity in kindergarten, but we are talking about respecting boundaries and learning to ask permission, talking about bodily autonomy and respect for one another. And it’s important because it sets the foundation for those later conversations and talking about specifically sexual assault, teen dating violence and sex trafficking.
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Marci: My name is Marci Bridgeford, and I am the director of community response at WEAVE — Sacramento County’s rape crisis center. We support survivors of domestic violence, sexual assualt and sex trafficking.
We have a 24-hour, seven day a week support and information line. You can call it anytime at 916-920-2952. You may also reach out to us via our message boards or chat features on our website at WEAVEinc.org.
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Sammy: After The Assault is a production of CapRadio in Sacramento, California.
Emily Zentner is our data reporter.
Catherine Stifter is our podcast editor.
Sally Schilling designed the sound.
Mark Jones is our audio engineer.
jesikah maria ross directed the project in collaboration with Nick Miller, CapRadio’s Managing News Editor.
Joe Barr is our Chief Content Officer.
Music is by Jay Urban. Audio chords from Pond5, Empyreal Glow and Anchor.
We want to hear from you. Go to CapRadio.org/feedback to tell us what you think about what you heard in this podcast. We welcome your comments and your questions. Visit CapRadio.org/feedback.
We’d like to thank Annie, Aurora, Erin, Jesa, Maddie, Monica, Laura and Penny for helping us shape this project.
Thanks also to Sacramento’s Sexual Assault Response Team and area advocacy groups for their ongoing consultation and participation.
After The Assault was produced with support from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fund.
I’m Sammy Caiola, thanks for listening to After The Assault.