Here's How Survivors Of Sexual Assault Can Make It Through The Coming Days

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Even before Donald Trump won the presidency, many women feared what life would look like if we elected someone who isn’t only facing accusations of sexual assault, but who also regularly denigrates women and scoffs it off as “locker room talk.” Now that he’s been elected, many women and assault survivors are feeling particularly anxious about the future, and what it might mean to be a woman under Trump’s leadership.

To get some tips on how to cope, we spoke to Karestan Koenen, PhD, an expert on trauma, PTSD and sexual violence, who is also a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. As a rape survivor herself, Dr. Koenen has both personal and professional insights on how survivors can make it through the coming days.

What effect does having a man accused of sexual assault as president have on survivors?
“Having someone elected president who’s been accused of sexual assault is very triggering. It's completely normal that people may be feeling distressed, scared, angry, and may even feel like they're having some intrusive thoughts and memories or feel unsafe. My sister said, ‘I'm worried that, if I go out, something will happen. This is a message that [assault] is okay.’ That’s normal to feel, and we’re not crazy to feel it.”

What can survivors do to take care of themselves?
“Do things that make you feel connected to other people, and reach out to [those people]. We need to do things that calm down our fight/flight response... We need to engage in meticulous self-care, so for me, that will be doing my own media blackout about this week. I will not watch TV. I will do yoga, meditation, and things that make me feel not alone.”

What are some easy forms of self-care people can do?
“The common things that will help are reducing media exposure, [doing] yoga or exercise, eating foods that will make you feel healthy and happy, and, as tempted as we all are [to drink], watching how much alcohol you drink, even if we want to drink more. There’s also taking a bath, getting a massage, reading, listening to music, going for a walk outside, and doing things that can calm your whole system down. It’s normal to feel distressed, but if the distress is continuing and interferes with your life — [you're] not going to work, avoiding friends, having a hard time sleeping, losing your appetite, etc. —‎ for more than two weeks, I might consider talking to a professional. I don’t think everyone necessarily needs that, but for some people, it can be helpful.”

What should survivors do if they want to talk about their assault experiences, but aren’t comfortable talking to people close to them?
“There are many resources online, such as the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), which has tips for safety and prevention and what to do after assault. There are also 800 numbers you can call to talk to a professional, if you don’t feel comfortable talking to a family member, like RAINN’s 1-800-656-HOPE.”

What if you suspect your friend is struggling, but you aren’t sure what to say?
“My recommendation is to be caring but direct. There are approaches you can take to try to normalize it. Like, ‘With everything going on and the negative talk about women, I’ve noticed it's really stressing a lot of people out. Is it bothering you?’ Or you can even talk about your own experience and how you’re feeling. You might also say something as simple as, ‘I’ve noticed you’ve seemed upset lately. Is everything okay?’ I've found that most people, whether in my personal life or research, when you ask how they’re doing, they welcome it. Often, they might not know how to bring it up themselves.”

What about activism? How can you as an individual help the cause of sexual assault awareness and prevention?
“My advice is to get active, and to find a way to get your voice heard, whether that’s sharing your own story or volunteering to listen to others. A lot of my friends are talking about getting involved in midterm elections, and it’s great to find and volunteer for a candidate, especially a female candidate, who supports your beliefs. There are also all sorts of ways to get involved helping survivors, including volunteering to take calls for rape crisis lines.”

We’re obviously going to be seeing a lot more of Trump in the coming years. What can survivors do after this week?
“We can’t let this go. It was amazing to me that after the first tape, there was so much outcry and sharing of stories, and it disappeared with the next big news cycle. We need to take action. I don’t know right now what that means for me. It means speaking my truth. But no matter what, we don’t let it end with feeling disempowered. We take it as a challenge to fight harder and be stronger. We’ve got to stand up for ourselves.”

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