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Responding with compassion

Aparna Balakumar wishes she’d attended this workshop years ago

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Warning: this article deals with accounts of rape/sexual assault and may be triggering for survivors of abuse

I will never forget the moment one of my closest friends told me she was raped. We were sitting on a Timorese beach, watching the sunset, contemplating the various ways we planned to change the world. We were idealists in the way that teenagers only are. Then came the confession that bonded us forever.

My immediate response was blind rage; I didn’t know how to reconcile this with the matter-of-fact way in which she disclosed the assault to me. I held her and told her everything would be okay, despite having no way of knowing if this was true. I desperately wanted to seek justice on her behalf, but had to balance this with her insistence that she did not want to take her experience to the police.

In the years since I have often replayed this moment in my mind with deep regret. I was there for my mate in the best way I knew how to be at the time. There was no denying it though: 16-year-old me was hideously ill-equipped to deal with the gravity of what I had just been told.

It was this discomfort that spurred me to attend the “Responding with Compassion” workshop as part of the USU’s Radical Sex and Consent Week. In the space of an hour we debunked common myths— “it could never happen to me”, “sexual assault is about uncontrolled lust”, “women ask for it by the way they dress and behave”— and discussed coping strategies for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and their supporters.

As the con-done started to overflow it became glaringly evident: this was the kind of education students were crying out for, but weren’t able to find in the classroom. Rather than avoid the fact that one in four Australian women experience physical violence or sexual assault, every attendee was keen to learn.

A video comparing sexual assault to forcing a cup of tea upon someone — “it may be ‘annoying’ if someone doesn’t drink the tea after asking for it, but they remain under no obligation to” — was a highlight of the session.

As the subsequent question and answer session unfolded, students asked how to navigate social situations when a friend’s perpetrator was in the same room, how to tell a friend their partner was displaying emotionally abusive traits without meddling, and how to support those who stay in an abusive relationship, despite not agreeing with their decision to. While there was no one-size-fits all answer to these complex questions, the very fact they were being asked at all was heartening to see.

Mrs Guler Akkoc from Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia outlined three things to say when someone discloses sexual assault to you: (1) “I am sorry for what has happened”, which is heard as “I believe you” by the survivor; (2) “What happened is a crime”, which is heard as “this is not your fault” and (3) “I will do what I can to help”, which is heard as “you are not alone”.

As I learnt from Akkoc, your job as a friend is not to replace a counsellor or legal advisor, but to listen, let them express their feelings, allow them to cry, back their decision and not worry if the story does not add up, because that is usual for a trauma victim.

“Sometimes survivors tell their stories in bits and pieces or non-chronologically,“ Akkoc said. “If someone is traumatised their memories are impacted, so they may have access to some pieces of information but not others.”

Vitally, we must understand that seeking justice through the legal system is a process that not every survivor has the emotional energy or ability to pursue. Of the 10, 887 sexual and indecent assaults reported in NSW in 2015, only 788 were found guilty, and reliving the events repeatedly is known to re-traumatise survivors further.

“They have a right to report it but also understand that it is not easy and it needs to be their decision, as it’s a complex process for them to go through,” Akko said. “Ask the survivor to contact a legal service who can provide legal advice before the process.”

As the clock struck midday, I could not help thinking one hour was a small price to pay for the wisdom gained. Presentations like this should be mandatory before students are allowed to enrol at university. No-one had anything to lose from attending, but survivors and supporters alike had everything to gain.

I just wish I had been equipped with these tools a long time ago.

Long live Radical Sex and Consent Week.

If this post brings up any issues for you, if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call the NSW Rape Crisis Centre on 1800 RESPECT (1800 424 017). It doesn’t matter if you do not live in NSW, or even in Australia, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.