For those who make an effort to stay informed, sexual assault has been an overbearing, glaring topic in the news this week.
The allegations against ousted Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have blared from TV screens, lit up alerts on cell phones, screamed from newspaper front pages and ignited discussion on social media. It started with an explosive report in the New York Times last Friday alleging three decades of harassment, and then was amplified by a New Yorker article alleging sexual assault, including three cases of rape, and an additional report in the Times.
And if you don’t like it, the common advice in most cases is just to ignore it. But it’s not that simple for survivors of sexual assault amid the Weinstein scandal.
Sheela Raja, a clinical psychologist and author of Overcoming Trauma and PTSD, said past the common human curiosity, survivors of sexual assault tend to be even more tempted to read every detail of assault stories in order to feel like they can protect themselves in the future and to show respect and empathy for other people’s stories of trauma.
But in many cases, that’s the opposite of what survivors really need, Raja said. Though the reports are important to raise awareness and discussion on the topic, it’s not important that survivors read every word.
“It can be very re-traumatizing. When you hear or read these stories, they can be incredibly graphic and difficult to hear,” Raja said. “For survivors, it can put you back in the place where you were victimized. That re-traumatizing is especially true when survivors see people expressing doubts about the woman’s story.”
Raja recommends that survivors need to feel out their own emotions and realize how much they can handle.
“You need to be able to say, ‘OK, I read the information I need to know, but I don’t need every detail. I can limit what I read and take care of myself, but still know what’s going on and be an advocate for change,’” she said.
Symptoms of that triggering varies between survivors, but common ones include feeling withdrawn, depressed, anxious, overly reactive or irritable.
If you aren’t a survivor yourself, but suspect someone around you has been a victim due to certain behavior, such as someone acting nervous or jumpy this week, Raja said it’s important to be gentle. She recommends making a general supportive statement and letting them know that you’re there for them, and if they want to talk about it they’ll engage with you.
Overall, the problem of media reports causing trauma to victims isn’t just limited to sexual assault, Raja said. But they can be helpful to causing a needed societal change.
“Not blaming victims is a really important thing, one that I think we as a society are getting better at,” Raja said. “For example, in a lot of ways we’ve had a huge cultural change in how we treat victims of childhood sexual abuse. We’ve started teaching children to talk more about their body parts, and have tried to remove some of the shame that victims of that abuse feel.”
The more sexual assault is talked about, the less shame will hopefully be associated with it. But that doesn’t mean survivors have to subject themselves to reliving their pain by reading every detail.