Talking to survivors: How to empower your peers

Students can use inclusive language to speak to survivors, experts and student leaders said.


Content warning: This story includes details of sexual assault that might be upsetting to some readers.

Temple Student Government’s second annual Sexual Assault Prevention Week concluded on Saturday, after sparking a conversation about sexual assault that continues to be at the forefront of students’ minds.

The observance was a collaboration of TSG, Student Activists Against Sexual Assault and Temple’s chapter of It’s on Us, a national campaign that works with more than 500 campuses to engage people in a conversation about ending sexual violence.

Shira Freiman, president of It’s On Us TU, stressed the importance of never pressuring survivors to share their stories and experiences with sexual assault.

“The biggest thing that I believe in is that no one should have to ‘out’ themselves as a survivor,” Freiman said.

She added to give survivors power to, “tell their own story at their own pace and with who they’d like to talk about [it with].”

The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, recommends using phrases like “I believe you,” and “It took a lot of courage to tell me about this,” when a survivor is ready to tell their story.

Freiman also said using gender-inclusive language, especially when talking to groups of people, can help all survivors feel validated.

“This is not only a female issue,” Freiman said. “It is essential to include men, trans people, gender-nonconforming people and other gender identities when discussing sexual assault.”

When speaking to survivors about sexual assault, Freiman said to be mindful of surroundings and pay special attention to signs of discomfort.

“Be understanding of people who might need an out from the conversation,” Freiman said. “Make sure there is opportunity for people to be involved but also provide opportunity to become uninvolved.”

Freiman encouraged getting to know each survivor as an individual and never coddling a survivor.

“Find out exactly what might help them feel empowered,” Freiman added. “Everyone’s experience and needs are different, so the best thing to do is to find out what the individual needs. Ensure them that everything is within their power. You can provide resources, but you can’t force anybody to utilize them.”

Ethan Levine, a gender, sexuality, and women’s studies instructor who advocates for sexual assault prevention, cautioned listeners to also look out for themselves when navigating this topic with a survivor.

“Sometimes on the listening end, we can experience vicarious trauma,” Levine said. “It is important to look out for the welfare of all parties in the discussion. If a close friend of yours discloses to you about sexual assault and you are having a difficult time knowing what to do, those resources are also open to you.”

To prevent sexual assault, help survivors and to foster a safe environment for everybody on campus, Freiman suggested getting involved in sexual assault prevention initiatives. These include on-campus organizations like Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault, SAASA, It’s On Us TU and TSG.

Mike Eible, the bystander intervention captain for It’s On Us TU and former president of Temple’s Alpha Tau Omega chapter, said he would like to create a series of required workshops and lectures to involve Greek life in these discussions. Sessions would teach members how to be aware of their surroundings and respond to signs of danger in situations involving a potential assault.

“The big idea would be to hit every fraternity, to have everybody be held accountable and to teach proper action to prevent things from taking place that shouldn’t be taking place,” he added. “It comes down to doing the right thing in these situations.”

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