How To Be a Better Advocate for Victims of Sexual Violence — Especially Yourself

A long view of healing from sexual violence is often left behind. Approaches to recovery understandably put emphasis on finding support and seeking therapy, but that’s not always in reach.

For those of us who’ve been sexually victimized, we’re often the first person we need to rely on for support. We’re the only ones present for the whole process. That’s why it’s imperative that we try to be our own best advocate against sexual violence.

Advocating for agency

When ‘advocacy’ comes to mind, we often think of protests and making contact with important people. It’s a valid and intensely important branch of sexual violence awareness. But I use the term differently in recovery spaces.

Sexual violence is an attack on someone’s agency. No matter its form, it imposes power over someone via sexual means. It’s why an effective mode of recovery focuses on restoring agency. Steps like rebuilding a sense of security, seeking justice, and managing traumatic memories exist to repair the harms left by the act.

Personal advocacy is an accessible way of doing just that. Most of us won’t march at the head of a sexual violence protest or speak at convention events. But advocacy isn’t limited to public gestures of solidarity. It always begins with ourselves and moves on to the people on our left and right.

Language and re-parenting

Reworking our mentality is a strong first step to addressing the culture of sexual violence we inhabit. Activism and awareness efforts have made clearer what rape culture in public looks like. That’s great. However, when we’re victimized, we have to confront rape culture’s most insidious form: the kind we internalize. Guilt and self-blame gnaw at us no matter how ‘educated’ we are on the topic.

Registered Clinical Counsellor Nilou Esmaeilpour points out that, “Language plays a huge role in the way that we perceive sexual violence survivors’ stories. The language we use to talk about them matters, and using sensitive, validating language helps victims of crime feel seen and heard, and therefore reinforced in their value and dignity.”

Whenever I’ve been sexually assaulted, the experience gets entangled with the worst parts of my personality. It’s an anxious voice shaped by my upbringing that belittles me despite the fact that I was victimized. My counter-argument is to be the voice I need in my situation and speak to myself as that person would.

It’s a re-parenting tactic used by many people who’ve suffered trauma. For those of us with abusive backgrounds, it might be the first dissenting and affirming opinion we’ve heard in years. It comes at great difficulty but is nevertheless worth it. We all deserve someone who looks out for us.

Changing how we think and speak to ourselves is often the first step in supporting a victim of sexual violence. Rape culture thrives on misinformation, and we can confront it inside us every day. This never loses its value whether the person we’re reassuring is within us or beside us.

Living with and against trauma memory

I’m not the only one who feels like they’re recovering from far too much simultaneously, right? Childhood trauma. Eating disorders. Anxiety. Sexual trauma. The list goes on. I wish they’d go away, but it’s never that simple. I’ve had to learn that once embedded, trauma is part of my life. It’s not easily excised.

Instead, my many recoveries tell me it’s sometimes better to build a new home around the intrusion. Our victimization and pain doesn’t end after the event. It won’t end when we disclose it to someone. Even people who make it through the justice system still have long roads to walk.

We all bear the burden of not feeling like the perfect victim long after the traumatic event. Our experiences are replayed to us as reminders of our worst moments. It’s trivially easy to forget our personhood when it happens. Nilous says that, “The tricky part is, rape culture perpetuates the idea that sexual violence occurs only with specific types of people: in specific scenarios, and the fact of the matter is that any person can become a victim of sexual violence, anywhere.”

Living with trauma feels loathsome because, naturally, we don’t want someone else’s violation against us to be part of our lives. The anger and despair that follows isn’t just rational, it’s righteous. But that won’t let us un-remember it. Advocating for people who’ve been victimized is the same. We need to take the view that recovery is a life-long effort.

Passing it on

Once we’re ready, advocacy can pass our lips into the real world. Anybody who has ever discussed an experience or lent a supportive word about sexual violence has been an advocate. Yes, rape culture is furthered by small acts like ‘jokes’ and off-hand remarks. By the same token, meaningful resistance can also start small.

Just as we can be the gentle voice we need at our worst, we can use it to help someone else. Nilou says, “If there is one item I can underscore for people who want to help survivors of sexual violence it is the fact that listening and not judging is so important.” Once you’re ready, she adds that, “Your job is to offer a sanctuary of love and acceptance where they can be seen and heard.”

It’s not a prerequisite of healing to talk about your experiences, but our lives are bettered by everyone who does. I write. My girlfriend listens and comforts her friends. My friends start online arguments while making it clear they’re arguing for the benefit of people who will read it in the future. Others educate loved ones and answer people in support groups. Every small act of kindness to ourselves and others is a crack against the foundations of rape culture.

The bar for advocacy is not set at podiums and public positions. It’s every supportive word and act we do for the two people in greatest need: Ourselves and the person beside us.

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Summer Tao

Summer Tao is a South Africa based writer. She has a fondness for queer relationships, sexuality and news. Her love for plush cats, and video games is only exceeded by the joy of being her bright, transgender self

Summer has written 40 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. remove autostraddles rape apology piece from the spring because you don’t believe israeli women who have been raped and murdered. because you hate a nation doesn’t mean horrible things didn’t happen. i personally know somebody raped at nova. it’s horrible what autostraddle says

  2. so it’s believe all women unless they are israeli middle eastern women of all descents https://www.autostraddle.com/where-is-the-outrage-about-palestinian-survivors-of-sexual-violence/

    this was a gotcha article that instead of advocating for palestinian women chose to spend a vast majority of it denying atrocities by women of Israeli descent. it’s one of the most horrible things autostraddle has published and shown how in the face of politics any progressive or feminist rhetoric is thrown away like nothing. #metoounlessyoureajew

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