While the Nation Has a Conversation About Sexual Assault, Remember to Take Care of the People on the Front Lines

David S. Heineman
7 min readOct 1, 2018

The past few weeks have seen daily sexual assault-related headlines around a high-profile Supreme Court nominee, around the sentencing of a serial rapist who was once a widely-loved celebrity, and around the continued release of information in several high-profile #MeToo cases. There have been many high-quality think pieces written, investigative reports published, and impactful social media movements launched (e.g. #WhyIDidn’tReport, blackened profile pictures, etc.). Suffice to say, our current national reckoning with sexual assault, which arguably kicked off in the wake of the now infamous Access Hollywood tape and into high gear with last year’s MeToo movement, has reached fever pitch.

Regardless of your own level of interest in (or specific thoughts about) these national stories, one significant consequence of this recent wave of headlines has been that an increased number of sexual assault victims have come forward to publicly acknowledge their own past trauma. Subsequently, many of us have recently had the experience of reading confessional social media posts by coworkers and neighbors, having emotional conversations in the wake of revelations by friends and family, or of otherwise finding out that the problem of sexual assault affects more people in our own individual orbits than we previously knew. If we are good friends to these survivors, we listen to them, believe them, empathize or sympathize with them, and offer as much ongoing support as we can provide. As well-meaning as we may hope to be, however, most of us are ill-equipped to help someone move through the trauma of sexual assault, the separate trauma of reporting or publicizing it, or the frequently lifelong process of processing the fallout from these moments. That work, instead, falls to those professionals whose job it is to listen to, support, and council those survivors. These professionals are currently overwhelmed.

During Dr. Ford’s testimony last week, the National Sexual Assault Hotline saw a 201% increase in their call volume compared to a normal weekday. Additionally, Time reported, “Since Ford has come forward with her allegations, RAINN said it has seen a 45.6 percent increase compared to the same time period last year. And over this past weekend when a second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, came forward with an allegation of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh, RAINN’s hotline saw an increase of 57 percent compared to an average Friday through Sunday.” As might be expected, those national numbers have been reflected at the state level and local level as well. This phenomenon is, of course, typically understood as an important and positive outcome of our national reckoning. In fact, you would probably be hard-pressed to find any crisis center workers, trauma therapists, women’s center staff members, or other people on the front lines of this issue asking survivors to do anything other than join the burgeoning chorus. The rest of us, though, need to extend the support that we want to offer survivors also to those who will be working with them for the many long months and years of support after today’s headlines fade.

Why? Well, for starters, those RAINN Crisis Counselors who are fielding an increase in calls at the national level are grossly underpaid. PayScale.com suggests that their average salary is about $34,000 a year. If that counselor is supporting a family of four, they are only making about $1,000 more than the minimum for Medicaid eligibility, or about $5,000 over the Federal Poverty Line. In most places in this country, low salary problems extend to those who work as advocates at women’s centers, those who work as sexual assault advocates, and those who work on these issues in law enforcement. It is worth noting that what minimal funds are available to these individuals and agencies are currently under siege nationally, and it would seem that there’s little attention to the issueby those in the highest office. It must be hard for the people on the front lines of working with survivors of sexual assault not to feel undervalued under “normal” circumstances, but when they are charged with the monumental task of helping the nation process an outpouring of reports, of putting in more long hours to work with more and more clients, and to work with fewer and fewer resources to do so effectively, we are well past the crisis point.

In addition to being low-paid, and given the nature of the work, these jobs are also very high stress. There is good research that points to the harrowing effects of secondary trauma on those who work with sexual assault survivors. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “compassion fatigue” and, even for ostensibly better paid therapists, research on the topic notes that they “tend to disregard their own self‐care needs when focusing on the needs of clients,” and thus frequently experience “a form of caregiver burnout.” Compounding this general problem across the “helping professions” is that, especially on issues of sexual assault, we know that many advocates and counselors have themselves been victim to assault. This study, which is now almost twenty years old, found that more than half of its participants — individuals who worked as “Domestic Violence Agency Staff and Volunteers” — had faced domestic violence, sexual assault, or both in their own life. It seems likely that those experiences may have been a catalyst for many of those individuals to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others who were facing similar trauma; it also seems likely that those statistics have only ballooned in the past few years as reports of assault have themselves climbed significantly.

What, then, might be done?

There are a number of steps that we can all take to help make the lives of those who have to do the heavy lifting a little bit less stressful. Some of these suggestions are small: you can do them today and make a meaningful impact. Some of these suggestions are big: they will require concerted effort over time. All of them are about helping both the survivors of sexual assault and those who work with them, doing the hard work.

Make Self-Care Available: Purchase vouchers and gift cards for massages, reiki sessions, spa trips, grocery stores, gas stations, movie theaters, restaurants, and other local diversions and donate them to the staff of local women’s centers, counseling centers, assault hotline phone banks, etc. Do so anonymously, if you can, and indicate that these are specifically for the staff of these locations. If you run a business that offers self-care services, advertise and offer meaningful and substantial discounts to the staff of these centers. Call them to let them know their staff is welcome, and don’t badger them about employment verification or ask them about their work once they show up.

Post Messages of and Offer Direct Support: Use your social media presence to highlight your own appreciation for the people on the front lines of this issue. Write an editorial in your local newspaper or a blog post on a site like this. If you know individuals working in these professions, send them notes of encouragement, check in on them from time to time, and be available to grab a coffee or a beer with them.

Don’t Constantly Ask About Topics Related to Work: If you do know people who work in these professions, understand that even though they have been extra busy at work and even though they might have a lot of insight about how the national headlines are impacting your community, they might not want to talk about sexual assault when they don’t have to. Respect their wishes to disengage from social media, from discussion of news, and from the topic that they spend their working hours confronting.

Put Your Money where Your Heart Is: In the United States, almost every county, every city, every campus, etc. have centers that are set up (in whole or in part) to help survivors of sexual assault. You can find the ones near you by searching https://www.domesticshelters.org/ or by simply using Google to search for ones near you. You can donate to RAINN directly here. Donating money helps offset the threat of cuts to these centers and makes it easier for staff to purchase many of the necessities it needs to help survivors, to hire more staff, to recruit more volunteers, and to ease their increased workload.

Raise Your Voice: RAINN highlights a number of “top issues” that they need help advocating on. At present, those include ending the rape kit backlog, bolstering critical care for assault survivors, and funding long term support. You can read about these all here. They offer form emails you can send, Tweets that you can post, and other ways that you can get involved. In addition, you can find your local representatives to request more resources for local and state centers through this portal. Because these are typically seen, wrongly, as solely “women’s issues” — especially if you are a man — it is important to add your voice to these casues.

(If you have other useful suggestions, I am happy to amend this post accordingly — just let me know!)

These suggestions — many of which you can probably do in the next half an hour without too much effort — can help support survivors by helping those who work with them directly. This moment of national attention to a long-standing epidemic is overdue and important…but without the proper resources to address the consequences of an increased awareness, we run a risk of further failing those who are bravely coming forward. Keep in mind those who are working daily to make sure this doesn’t happen, and lend them all the support that you can.

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David S. Heineman

Professor & documentary filmmaker whose research and teaching focuses on rhetorical and critical theory, new media, and visual culture. | www.davidheineman.net