Taking care of yourself should always take priority
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in eight out of 10 rape cases, on average, the victim knew the person who assaulted them. This statistic means that victims of sexual assault are likely to encounter their abuser again, whether in a scenario in which the abuser is being confronted, such as a court case, or, perhaps more likely, in an everyday setting, like school, or a workplace gathering. In the case of campus sexual violence, according to statistics from RAINN, only 20% of female students report incidents of rape or sexual violence to law enforcement, while victims outside of a school system are even less likely to report incidents.
When possible, reporting assault is important, but it can feel like the start of a very long battle, and everyday life is impossible to avoid when you’re deciding what to do in the aftermath of a sexual assault. Talking to friends and family is possible is a great solution, but in cases where someone in your circle or community is the abuser, it can sometimes feel inevitable that you’ll run into them again. The best action to take, Talkspace therapist Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., LPCC-S says, is to remove yourself from the situation entirely. Though it might feel unjust that you have to exit a room when they enter, taking care of yourself, emotionally and physically, should always take priority.
But in cases where a swift exit isn’t possible, such as a classroom setting, it’s possible to move around the unfortunate situation with strength.
The key is to remind yourself that you’re safe, your abuser can’t hurt you, and you have control over yourself,” says O’Neil, on incidents where you see your abuser in a normal setting. “I really recommend having a number of physical grounding techniques, like holding a stress ball or running cold water over your hands, and emotional/mental grounding skills, like saying the alphabet backwards or reciting your favorite poem to yourself, that are part of your daily routine (practice, practice, practice!) so that you can use them when you need them.”
Being prepared is key, TalkSpace’s Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S says. She recommends becoming intimately familiar with the setting where you’re likely to run into them so you can move around without issue, and having a friend or someone you trust with you when you’re assuming you’ll run into your abuser, and mentally reaching for visualizations of scenarios where you feel at ease. She also notes that you should never leave a place before your abuser leaves.
“Your safety comes first,” Catchings says. “If you need to leave first, find someone to go with you or have someone on the phone until you get to your car.”
If you have family or friends who you feel comfortable telling about the incident, Catchings says it’s a good idea to lay some ground rules for them, like asking that they make sure your abuser is not present at events where you’ll be, including work meetings and family reunions, or places that might seem to “belong” to both you and your abuser. She notes that it’s OK to tell them not to ask you questions if you’re not comfortable sharing details, and says it helps to tell to them “show your support by standing by me, even if it means in silence. “
“There’s no one way to get through an abuse situation,” O’Neill says, noting that it’s okay to ask for help without sharing explicit details. “If you don’t feel comfortable sharing the details of the abuse, but would like help having some space from the abuser, perhaps there’s a school counselor who might be able to help you determine ways to feel more comfortable with situation. If not, consider sharing simply that you’re not comfortable in the situation and ask for an accommodation.”
Catchings adds that it might be helpful to ask for specific changes in your routine, like asking your teacher to move your seat away an abuser in a shared class, or observe their behavior for actions that might further harm you.
“Being honest and direct is the best way, but sometimes it is impossible,” Catchings says. “It is not easy to disclose what happened. Let others know the person is not someone you like to spend time with or leave when the person arrives. That will let others know the presence of the individual is not something you care for.”
In a situation where none of these options are available, it’s also OK to use grounding techniques, like saying the alphabet backwards or counting to 100, to mentally leave the involvement entirely.
“Creative visualization is the best way to zone out,” Catchings says. “We select a place we like… one that brings good memories. We close our eyes and transport ourselves there when we need to. Hear the sounds, feel the breeze. Then come back and continue with daily activities.”
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). For more resources on sexual assault, visit SafeBae, RAINN, End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.