6 Dos and 6 Don'ts For Helping Your Child Deal With a Sexual Assault

Sex assault is all over the news recently, and many survivors are getting triggered. As a parent or loved one of a survivor, it’s important to learn some strategies to help your child both immediately after their assault, and later in their life when their trauma can resurface due to unforeseen circumstances, like what’s happening in the current media. 

Here are 6 Do’s and Don’ts for Helping your Child Deal with a Sexual Assault:

Do:

  1. Believe them, even if what they say doesn't seem to make sense to you.

  2. Listen to them. It is usually much more helpful to listen than to ask questions.

  3. Be angry at the perpetrator, but keep your attention on your child and not on the perp.

  4. Support them while they make decisions, even if you disagree with what they decide.

  5. Help other loved ones respect their privacy and respond with respect.

  6. Understand that they will blame themselves for the assault. Don’t agree with their self blame. Assure them that the perpetrator is the one to blame.

Don’t:

  1. Seek revenge. This can re-traumatize them, and cause them to worry that you might make the situation worse.

  2. Blame them. While they may have taken some risks (as we all do, all the time), they did not decide or expect to be raped. 

  3. Disrespect their privacy by prying, inquiring or pressing them to tell you what happened. Let them tell you the details they want to bring up, when they're ready.

  4. Ask “why” about anything related to the assault. While it’s normal to want to understand why things happened, asking your child to come up with those answers can sound like you’re blaming them for their own assault. 

  5. Take charge of the situation. One of the most damaging things about being raped can be having control of one's body taken away. A natural response is to try to regain a sense of control, often by resisting decisions made by others.

  6. Assume that they don’t trust you or value your support if they don’t open up to you. It is much more likely that they don’t trust themselves to discuss the situation, or are not yet clear in their own mind about their feelings or thoughts.

Here are a couple of other important resources to help you support your young adult survivor. 

First, this article is a very good and thorough discussion of how to help a daughter who has been sexually assaulted: http://www.capefearpsych.org/documents/Rape-parentsguide.pdf

Second, here is a compilation of advice from advocates, doctors and legal experts for parents of a college student who has been sexually assaulted: https://grownandflown.com/rape-in-college-parents-need/

The most important thing to remember is that if your child has suffered a trauma of sexual assault, their feelings of fear, shame, guilt, sadness, anger, or other can get activated and resurface in unpredictable ways. For example, they may get triggered when engaging in or overhearing a conversation, seeing a story on the news, watching a movie, or scrolling through social media. Knowing these 6 do’s and don’ts for those occasions can help you prepare yourself for when that happens, so you can be a source of support in moments when they need it most. 

Rape Culture Is a Thing

Today I ran across a fabulous post about what rape culture looks like by Melissa McEwan at her blog Shakesville.  As she explains, “Rape culture involves the objectification of women, which is part of a dehumanizing process that renders consent irrelevant.”  Or another way that rape culture is commonly articulated is that our society tends to find violence sexy, and to accept that sex is often violent.  This attitude results in lots of women and men, children and adults, being raped.

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Men Can Stop Rape

"When men stand up to end violence against women, the world is going to change" 
- Eve Ensler

I know a fair number of really great men.  Among those are men who deeply care about violence against women, and who would never consider engaging in any kind of sexual activity without clear consent.  I’ve met many men who actively work to stop sexual violence.  And . . . even some of those men have a hard time accepting that men may have more responsibility than women to stop violence against women.  “Whoa . . .”, they’ll say, “I didn’t rape anyone!  I never even considered it!  Why do I have any responsibility for what other guys do?” 

Well, they don’t have responsibility for what other guys do, in that way.  But they do hold the privilege of being the less victimized gender.  Which means that they are in a better position to fight that victimization.  Because, for the most part, the basic problem of sexual violence is the attitudes that our culture promotes in men, about women and sex. 

People tend to be more open to suggestions from people who are like them. So, men are more open to input from other men.  And we can take it even further.  Frat boys are probably more open to input from other frat boys.  Tough guys are probably more open to input from other tough guys, etc.

Montana State University's Men Against Rape

I, for one, am willing to then make the leap from there to responsibility.  If you see something that’s wrong, and you’re in a better position to fix it, you have some responsibility to work on fixing it.  It’s similar to the logic that tells us that if we see child abuse, we have some responsibility to intervene.  Maybe not always a legal responsibility, but a moral one.  Because an abused kid doesn’t have nearly as much power as we grown adults do to stop the abuser. 

So, sure, the great guys I know aren’t responsible for the behavior of the rapists of the world. But if they stood up, and spoke out against misogynistic statements and behaviors, those rapists would be more likely to listen to them, than to us women.  Who are so easily dismissed as humorless feminazis or oversensitive whiners. 

And, yes, it does follow that as a white person, I carry some responsibility to speak out against racism.  Etc.  Easy as it is to hide my head in the sand and pretend that the civil rights movement is over, and took care of “all that”.  It doesn't take much investigation of that assumption to become aware that racism is alive and well.  And I can, and should, stand up against the racism I see.

Do you agree that the privileged class has a responsibility to fight oppression of the unprivileged class?  If you think I’m off base, leave a comment to let me know!

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Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for helping survivors of sexual violence.  

 

Is Texas Raping Women?

Here’s a scenario for you:  A woman very much wants to do something that will have an enormous impact on the rest of her life.  Someone is stopping her from doing it, unless she lets that person vaginally penetrate her.  Is that rape?  Let me put it another way:  Is she freely consenting to that vaginal penetration?  I’m not the only one who thinks that she is not.

Nikolas Kristof’s recent article for the New York Times, When States Abuse Women, argues that Texas is now raping women who seek abortions.   In other words, before a woman can receive an abortion in Texas, she must submit to a vaginal ultrasound, regardless of medical need or the patient’s preference.  If you would like the details, check out the text of the new law enacted a few weeks ago.  This vaginal penetration isn’t the end of the story, either. She also has to also listen to a doctor explain the body parts and internal organs of the fetus as they’re shown on the monitor, and list specific dangers of abortion, like “risks of infection and hemorrhage,” and “the possibility of increased risk of breast cancer.” She is then required to sign a document saying that she understands all this, and then wait 24 hours before returning to get the abortion.

As a woman, as an advocate for sexual assault survivors, and as a person who has had plenty of uncomfortable, yet consensual, medical procedures, my heart goes out to any woman in Texas considering an abortion. Research shows that women who receive abortions without these requirements often do not experience negative mental health effects.  But I doubt that many of the women currently seeking abortions in Texas will escape with their mental health unharmed.  Of course, that is probably part of the point of this legislation.  And yet, I cannot think that -- whatever your opinion about the ethics of abortion -- legislatively sanctioning sexual assault is an appropriate solution to any problem.

What do you think of the argument that Texas has mandated sexually assaulting women who seek abortions?

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Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for helping survivors of sexual violence.  

Was I raped?

So many of the women and men that I talk to struggle with the question of what really counts as rape.  It’s a tricky question to answer.  Legally, the definition of rape has varied with time and location.  And some parts of the definition can sound pretty subjective.

Here are some official definitions for rape, also often called sexual assault, that are in current use: 

  • The United Nations defines rape as "sexual intercourse without valid consent."
  • The World Health Organization defined rape in 2002 as "physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration – even if slight – of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object."
  • Just recently the FBI changed their definition from the wildly inadequate, "The carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will," to "The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim."
  • Many jurisdictions define rape as sexual intercourse, or other forms of sexual penetration, of one person by another person without the consent of the victim.

What I think is tricky about these definitions is that they tend to be heavy on detail about the specific act, but light on detail about what does and does not constitute consent.  

Photo by Richard Potts as cascade_of_rant.

For my purpose, which is helping victims of sexual aggression resolve their trauma, I like to use a definition that is more the opposite:  You’ve been raped if you feel like you’ve been raped.  That is, it was rape if it was a sexual experience that, at the time, you didn’t want to be having, and hadn't freely agreed to be having. 

Yes, I know this is completely unworkable as a legal definition.  And I know that the naysayers will have a lot of what if scenarios.  So, let me get that out of the way: “What if the alleged victim honestly did something that convinced the alleged perp that she wanted the sexual experience when she didn't?”  Well, OK, granted, none of us can be mind readers. But please grant me that there should be some real effort made on the part of the person who initiates the sexual contact to make sure that their partner is fully willing. OK?

I can tell you that I’ve spoken to plenty of people who may have “consented” in one way or another, for one reason or another, and nevertheless found the experience to be traumatic.  They feel like they’ve been raped, even if the official definitions don’t acknowledge that they were.  If that is you, then know that there is at least one person in the world who is willing to acknowledge that you’ve been raped.

What definition for rape, or sexual assault, do you think makes sense?

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Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence.  

Justice Department Updates Definition of Rape

It is always a treat to see society is moving in a positive, helpful direction in terms of handling sexual assault.  So I am pleased to report that the US Justice Department recently expanded its official definition of rape to be, "Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim."  This replaces the laughably (if one can stomach laughing about such things) archaic previous definition of rape, “The carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”

Thank you Justice Department for recognizing both that men can and are raped, and that physical force is not necessary to rape someone.  The key is lack of consent, and it just doesn’t matter who isn’t consenting, or what allows the perpetrator (force, drugs, threats, etc.) to get around their consent.

One of the major reasons for updating this definition is reportedly to make the FBI’s annual compilation of crime statistics more accurately reflect the scope and volume of crimes of sexual violence in the US.  I’ll be glad to see that happen as well.  Although, even more than that, I’ll be glad to see so many male survivors of sexual violence have their experiences validated.

Those of us who have worked closely with rape survivors for any length of time have long recognized the existence of male rape.  It’s high time that our government officially acknowledges the breadth of experiences that constitute rape.

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Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence.  

How Far We Are From Justice for Women in Afghanistan

Maybe you’ve heard about the 19-year-old Afgan woman who was raped by her cousin’s husband, and then when she became pregnant from that rape, was sentenced to prison, with her daughter, for 12 years for adultery.  The sentence was later reduced to three years.  Finally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai eventually ordered her pardon.

But, wait, how can you pardon someone who didn’t do anything wrong?  Oh, yeah, she was raped.  Her bad. 

Before being pardoned, a judge offered to free her if she would marry her rapist.  Apparently there are no such strings attached to the subsequent pardon.  But the pressure to marry her attacker is still intense.  Such a marriage would legitimize her daughter, “restore honor” to her brothers, and smooth the potentially violent rift between the two families.  It seems likely that, without marrying her rapist, her family won’t accept her and her daughter, and it is feasible that she could even become the victim of a so-called honor killing.  So, she still has some very difficult decisions to make.

According to CNN, her attorney, Kimberly Motley, in Kabul, says that she does not want to marry her attacker. She would like to marry an educated man.

Even if she should decide to marry her attacker, it may not be possible for some time.  He is still in jail for five more years.  Motley explains that, “as far as I know there has never been an Afghan wedding in jail.” 

I guess I’m blogging about this because it seems like many people think of the fight for women’s rights as something from the past.  Hey, this is happening in our world, right now, today.  Nevermind having the vote, these women don’t even have the “right” to be raped without being thrown in jail!  Or to then peacefully pursue a subsequent life that will promote their own healing.  Clearly, there is much work still to be done.

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Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence. 

I know that it can feel risky to make public comments about sexual violence.  You are welcome to comment anonymously here.  Just enter a non-identifying handle when asked to identify yourself.

Herman Cain: “It doesn’t matter” versus “It’s not true”

Herman Cain recently suspended” his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, in response to continuing allegations of sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and an extramarital affair.  Despicable conduct, if true.  What really bothers me about Mr Cain’s reponse to these allegations, though, is that he doesn’t ever say anything about how repulsive and inappropriate (not to mention illegal) the alleged behavior is.  He keeps saying that he didn’t do it.  And for a while he called for America to re -focus on the issues.  Which implies that a presidential candidate’s attitude and behavior toward women could not be a valid campaign issue.  Why can’t he say something about how sexual harassment and sexual assault are unacceptable?


I mean, even Joe Paterno was able to come up with, “The kids who were victims . . . I think we all ought to say a prayer for them. It’s a tough life when people do certain things to you." Inadequate, yes, but at least he acknowledged how awful child sexual abuse is.  With Herman Cain, the message seems to be more about how inconsequential the allegations are than about how untrue they are.  I find that as offensive as the allegations themselves.

What do you think about Herman Cain’s approach to this scandal?

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Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence and other traumas. 

What I Love About Slut Walks

See the first post in this series about the Slut Walk phenomenon

First of all, I think calling these protests Slut Walks was brilliant and natural, and is largely responsible for the massive amount of attention that the events have generated in the media.  Most of which has been good for the cause of eliminating sexual violence.  After all, the police officer that started this whole thing used the term slut in his statement. 

I also admire the chutzpah of the Slut Walk contingent which wishes to transform the word slut into something more positive for women.  Women who embrace their sexuality are so often denigrated as sluts, and that demeans all women.  I could talk about that for hours, but I’ll refrain in this instance.  I’ll only say here that I appreciate the empowerment that can be found in the process of claiming a word that others use to humiliate you.

I also love that the Slut Walk movement is pointing out what is wrong with the message that it is up to women to avoid being sexually assaulted.  This line of reasoning tends to go along with analogies like burglary.  For example, if I want to avoid being burgled, I put my valuables in a secure place, out of view, and I make sure my windows and doors are locked. 

I figure if you’re reading here, you probably get why this analogy doesn’t work.  But just in case, I’ll spell it out:  The problem with this analogy is that it is so far from exact.  For example, say that your home was broken into and your valuables stolen.  How likely is it, do you think, that the police will question you about why you didn’t have a security system installed?  If the burglar is caught and put on trial, do you think it will be part of his defense that you didn’t have deadbolt locks?  And that you had that flat screen TV system in full view of your living room window?  Which he says was not locked.  Can you prove that it was?  No?  Clearly you were giving signals that you expected it to be stolen.  You didn’t tell the burglar not to steal it.  It must have been consensual.  You can see how the analogy breaks down with just a little prodding.

And – maybe this is even more important – we all acknowledge that people with security systems and good locks have their homes broken into, too.  Moreover, we generally agree that often people have good reasons (cost, convenience, assuming they were relatively safe) for not implementing more security measures.  Do we say they these people had it coming to them?  How *do* we feel about these people.  Is our analogy holding up well in these areas?

Thank you, Slut Walks, for highlighting how convoluted our thinking is around women, sex, and violence. Anyone who can grab our attention long enough to make these points is walking in the right direction, in my opinion.

Stay tuned for a future post about what I don’t like so much about the Slut Walk phenomenon.  What is your take on Slut Walks?

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Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence and other traumas. 

Are We (Slut) Walking in the Right Direction?

I’ve been writing about sexual consent a lot recently, and it has landed me square in the territory of a recent phenomenon known as Slut Walks.  If you haven’t heard of the Slut Walk phenomenon, it was started in mid 2011, when over 3000 men and women marched in the streets of Toronto, protesting a statement by Toronto Police Officer Michael Sanguinetti that, “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

The Toronto SlutWalk was quickly followed by similar events in cities throughout the world.  Many of the signs shown at Slut Walk marches capture important concepts that seem to have eluded many people.  For example:

Enjoying sex does not invite violence.

The problem:  Society teaches “don’t get raped” rather than “don’t rape”

There is no woman you are allowed to rape.  Not even sluts.

Sex should be fun for everyone.

Despite the popularity of Slut Walks, they have also generated much controversy.  There seem to be two main objections to Slut Walks:

1.  Many Slut Walk participants state that one of their goals is to “reclaiming the word slut.”  The essential argument of those who oppose the Slut Walk movement on these grounds is that it confuses promiscuity with equality, and reinforces the concept of women as sex objects.  Moreover, those who are not comfortable embracing the term “slut” end up unnecessarily alienated from a movement that they might otherwise support.

2.  The idea of managing one’s risk of being sexually assaulted is seen as valid by many.  Just as it is valid to manage one’s risk of being burgled by making sure one’s doors and windows are closed and locked, and valuables stored in a secure place. 

I have so many thoughts about Slut Walks, that I’ve decided to write two more posts about it.  Watch here for my next post, “What I love about Slut Walks”, followed shortly by another post, “What I hate about Slut Walks.”

I can hardly wait to hear what you love and hate about Slut Walks!

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Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence and other traumas. 

Penn State

A lot has been said about the recent scandal at Penn State.  A lot that I hate, but some that I'm very glad to see in public discussions.  First of all, of course, I hate that it happened at all.  That people chose to protect a footall program from scandal over protecting children from sexual abuse.  And then also, I hate the pain that other survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience when they see how this went down.  

I appreciate, though, the people I’ve seen come forward in the past few weeks to publicly tell their own stories of childhood sexual abuse.  And to publicly state how this story has affected them, as survivors.  I am cheering for each and every one of them.  I believe that if we can start talking more about these stories, that can become a powerful step toward preventing sexual violence from happening in the first place.

For example, consider this:

Everyone gets hung up on the particular physical acts inflicted upon children. Here's some news: the root violation is boundary crossing by a trusted adult. This is an assault on the psyche as much as the body, on a kid's sense of trust and safety in the world. And while some acts obviously may cause more physical trauma, touching, kissing, or even simple propositioning are no less intrusive psychologically -- which is why all are illegal.  - Clay Evans

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Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence and other traumas.