The recovery process for victims of sexual assault

Category:  News
Thursday, April 21st, 2016 at 7:45 AM

“It’s not your fault.”

That is all you want to hear. It’s all you need to hear. But instead you hear, “Did you lead him on,” “Were you drinking” and “Were your clothes provocative?”

Yes, you gave him your number. Yes, you drank… a lot. Yes, your shirt was low-cut, your skirt short. No, you didn’t want to be sexually assaulted. No, you didn’t want to be raped.

But suddenly, you’re blaming yourself.

Edinboro University’s Take a Stand against Sexual Violence (Take a Stand) presented the “Recovery in Action” panel discussion on Wednesday, April 13. The three panelists explained the recovery process for victims and perpetrators, but focused on how friends and family can aid the victim as they adapt to what the panelists called a “new normal.”

Executive director of the Women’s Services of Crawford County, Bruce Harlan, said that friends should help a victim regain a sense of control. He described it as possibly the most important part of the recovery. They can ask questions like: “Where should I sit” or “Do you want the door open or closed?”

“These are small things, but they are empowering to the victim,” Harlan said.

He also spoke about the importance of aiding the victim as they are identifying strengths and building coping skills. However, he said to really help them regain control, friends must help the victim realize who’s at fault.

“Probably the most comforting thing, the most empowering thing you can do as a friend, family member [or] classmate is to say first and foremost that it wasn’t your fault,” Harlan said.

The victim will guide it from there.

Edinboro University psychology professor, Dr. William Pithers, emphasized compassion. He recalls an encounter with a victim who had been interviewed 12 times by 12 different people. When she went into court to testify against her perpetrator, she didn’t cry.

The jury found her perpetrator “not guilty.” They cited her inability to cry on the stand as their reasoning. When the woman was asked why she didn’t cry, she said she had already cried 12 times when recounting her story.

“We need to be ready to listen,” Pithers said.

The victim will never be the same following an episode of sexual violence. Neither will the victim’s family and friends.

“A sexual assault has a ripple effect,” Edinboro University social work professor, Dr. Molly Wolf, said.

The victim’s significant other, parents, siblings, children and so many others will wonder how they could have prevented the incident. They might be confused, as the victim will often tell their story in segments. Sometimes they might gloss over details, or they simply aren’t able to recall certain details of the traumatic experience at first.

“You are likely to learn new details about the assault over the next few weeks and months,” Harlan said. “You also have a new normal you have to adjust to.”

In regards to the perpetrator’s family, Pithers said the reactions can greatly vary. Some family will cut ties with perpetrators, but others support them.

“There’s a forgotten victim in this, and that’s the family and friends of the perpetrator,” Harlan said.

But in the perpetrator’s recovery process, acknowledging the problem is where healing begins.

“Like for the victim, control is a critical piece of recovery. However, perpetrators must learn how to better control themselves and the decisions they make. They need to recognize the fault,” Pithers said.

As for the victims, it’s not their fault. It never was. It never is.

Tracy Geibel is the Executive Editor for The Spectator and she can be reached at

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