I originally wrote this guide for my Indivisible group so that we could participate in the #MeToo conversation in a trauma-informed way. This post was meant to be short, so it doesn’t touch on the realities of sexual assault as it impacts men and non-binary folks as much as I would like. At some point, I will write a longer version of this.
I’m not a mental health professional, but I am a survivor of sexual violence and a post-traumatic stress sufferer in long-term recovery, so much of this is gleaned from my own personal experience.
Post-traumatic stress occurs when a person has an experience or series of experiences of other people breaking the basic human social contract. It can also occur in the aftermath of a natural disaster, but for the purposes of this discussion, the former is where we’ll focus.
When a person suffers a post-traumatic stress injury, they sustain observable, lasting changes in their brain structure and functioning. Brain activity in areas responsible for memory, fight-flight responses, emotional regulation, and interpersonal relationships changes in ways that leave the sufferer with a severely limited toolkit for handling stressful situations, especially when those situations trigger (or evoke memories of) the original trauma.
These brain changes can be healed with trauma-informed therapy, but it takes a long time and is a lot of painful work. Loved ones and community members must be patient and validating with trauma sufferers as they go through their recovery process; and this is especially important because interpersonal trauma can only be healed interpersonally. That means that survivors need trustworthy relationships, both in therapy and in their lives, in which they can process what they have experienced.
Rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are part of a larger web of patriarchal barriers that make it harder for women to participate fully in the world. Childhood sexual abuse affects one in four American girls and often sets women up for confusion about boundaries and low self-worth, which can put them at greater risk for further rape and sexual assault as adults. The traumatic brain changes that take place after sexual violence also prevent survivors from taking risks in other areas of their lives, so their careers and prospects for healthy relationships can suffer as well.
When we discuss the issue of sexualized violence – as is happening with #MeToo – we will inevitably interact with those who have experienced it. Regardless of our own feelings or opinions about the specific case we are discussing, it is crucial that we validate and center the stories of those who are coming forward. Slut shaming, victim blaming, and “benefit of the doubt” postings can all re-traumatize survivors.
This does not mean we have to squash dialog about the issue or that we must immediately vilify the accused in the strongest possible terms, it just means that we have to prioritize having compassion for traumatized people over quickly arriving at a concrete, logical conclusion about the specifics of the story we are discussing.
My rule for conversations (online and off) about a trauma-related subject is: when in doubt, slow things down. If a conversation about this topic is getting heated or someone is getting triggered, invite the folks you’re talking with to return to the conversation in an hour so you can all do some self-care and let your nervous systems return to baseline. (This might take longer for some folks, so sometimes a longer cooling off period is appropriate.)
Finally, remember that text is a poor means of communication. We tend to read negative intention into neutral language when it is not accompanied by body language and other social cues. This will color how you experience online interactions, which is why slowing down is especially useful for online and other text-based conversations.
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