Talking About Sexual Violence? Strive for a Trauma-Informed Lens

It was early on in my career and I had just taught a class on consent. Most of the group had left, but one girl hung back. I asked her if she needed anything, and what soon came out was that the year before, after having a few drinks at a party, an older boy had – in her words – “had sex” with her. She explained that my class had made her wonder if maybe this was rape and she wanted to know if I thought that was what had happened to her.

I wasn’t prepared to be hit with that kind of information or to be asked such an intense question. I also realized that even though I had had a very similar experience in high school myself, I hadn’t expected my class to trigger such serious reflection from a student.

Since then, I have tried to be a lot more thoughtful when talking about topics like consent, sexual harassment and sexual violence. That’s important for a lot of reasons, including the fact that research that has found that 1 in 10 youth will experience sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. For girls of color and LGBTQ+ young people, the numbers are even higher. So these days, I enter every conversation with the assumption that at least one person in the room has been impacted personally by sexual violence. 

Doing that is just one way to begin using a trauma-informed lens when teaching about these topics. Here are six others:

1) Create classroom guidelines that provide safety for students. Include the option to opt out of certain topics.

2) Prepare students in advance of class so that they always know what topics will be addressed.

3) If possible, have another adult on hand whom students can check in with mid-class if they need a break.

4) Know your material. Ask yourself if you are victim-blaming or subscribing to myths or stereotypes when discussing sexual violence. 

5) Address harmful comments in the moment to demonstrate solidarity with victims / survivors.

6) Offer resources both within your school and community, as well as in the larger world.

It is also wise to check in at the end of class and get a read for where students are at. If someone has disclosed harm or shared something that could be concerning, it is crucial to follow up. On Zoom that can look like sending a private message. In real life, it can mean discreetly asking a student to touch base after the rest of the class has left, or making sure to circle back later in the day. 

If you are a mandated reporter you should also share that with students and explain what this means, and you should review any of your school’s policies on confidentiality which could apply to student disclosures. 

Sexual violence can be one of the hardest topics to tackle in health education. It is also one of the most important and not addressing this crucial issue will only increase the likelihood of harm. But if your approach retraumatizes an already hurt survivor, then you are doing a different kind of damage. That’s why we all need to proactively take a few simple steps to ensure we are supporting students wherever they are in relation to something that is all too common in our communities.

Ellen Friedrichs is a health educator and author of Good Sexual Citizenship. Find her at sexedvice.com or @ellenkatef on twitter and Instagram.

This microblog post was a featured post in #slowchathealth’s #microblogmonth event. You can search for all of the featured posts here. Please do follow each of the outstanding contributors on social media (including Ellen Friedrichs, the author of this post) and consider writing a microblog post of your own to be shared with the global audience of slowchathealth.com

Pair this post with the following:

Good Sexual Citizenship: How to Create a (Sexually) Safer World by Ellen Friedrichs

A Poem About Stories by Amy Dawson

ACES & TIPS by Tammy Wynard

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