April is recognized throughout the United States as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This annual campaign aims to raise awareness about sexual assault and to educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence.
The reality is that sexual assault affects everyone, no matter their gender, age or race. To take steps against sexual violence, it is important to be vigilant to its signs and symptoms, encouraging and supporting the persons who come forward to tell about their experience of sexual violence.
Persons who commit sex crimes often look for vulnerable individuals — both male and female — and research tells us that the individual who is assaulted usually knows the offender. Both of these factors, as well as many others, can make reporting more difficult for that person. Research also tells us that having a support system has many positive benefits, such as higher levels of well-being, better coping skills and a longer, healthier life. This is why listening and supporting the person who tries to tell about the experience of sexual violence, whether family or friend, can make a difference in that person’s recovery. According to research on sexual assault survivorship, immediate reactions and symptoms are typically muted. It is similar to how someone would react to a car crash — there is shock and disbelief. They might avoid processing what has happened and it might take some time before they have what society would deem a “normal reaction” to a very abnormal event.
Research also tells us that how others react is the often the determining factor for if a person will report their assault. For many, there is a fear that others will blame them for the assault. They fear rejection, the blame and shame, and all individuals who have been attacked hope for acceptance, support and safety throughout the process. When they have no one to trust with the intimate details and no opportunity to express their feelings, then they are much less likely to report. Instead, they will delay reporting as they try to sort out the experience on their own.
The normal reaction of closing off, something many individuals do after an assault, may cause friends to ask, “What’s wrong with you?” or “Where have you been?” If a close, trusted friend asks these questions, they may choose to share their assault experience. Unfortunately, the friends who hear about what happened are often unprepared for the horror, and the situation results in two victims – the actual and the vicarious victim. In these situations, the friend can offer support by connecting the individual with resources, such as the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) or a local organization. RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673) can connect individuals with the nearest forensic nursing program specializing in sexual assault care. There, they will find trauma-informed and patient-centered care in a safe and supportive environment with advocates, forensic nurses and support networks to speed recovery.
Connecting with these resources can also encourage prompt reporting. Delayed reporting is OK, but can sometimes impact an ability to gather evidence. It is now possible to seek help and medical treatment without reporting to police and there are tests for extended intervals between the event and the evidence collection. Most communities have forensic nursing programs that know this and support the choices of the individual who has come forward.
For persons experiencing the aftermath of sexual violence and the individuals they talk to, it is important to remember that there is life after sexual assault — research calls it “adversarial growth.” With social support and the appropriate professional coaching, a process occurs one step at a time throughout the recovery, and eventually, the person can place the sexual assault in their personal life’s journey and move forward.
For those hoping to make a difference and to support persons who have been assaulted, it is important to start conversations locally. Having organizations that collaborate to provide rape and domestic violence services in a safe location with understanding and support encourages reporting and can prevent further assaults. In Birmingham One Place has forensic nurses who specialize in sexual assault care and provide services 24/7/365 through the Crisis Center’s forensic nursing program.
There is plenty of work to do. If you are a nurse and want to join those working to change outcomes for all victims of crime, consider enrolling in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Nursing. The advanced forensic nursing graduate curriculum (https://www.uab.edu/nursing/home/msn/forensic-nursing-subspecialty) builds on advanced practice nursing skills, providing the resources necessary to make a difference in your community, whether rural or urban, when your patients intersect with legal systems. Join us by promoting the advanced forensic nursing profession.
Patricia Speck, DNSc, ARNP, APN, FNP-BC, DF-IAFN, FAAFS, DF-AFN, FAAN, is internationally recognized as a Board-Certified Family Nurse Practitioner and expert in advanced forensic nursing care. As a forensic nursing practice expert and researcher, she develops policy, evaluates programs and builds nursing workforce capacity through publication, education, and violence prevention initiatives.