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Sexual Assault Centre counsellor dispels myths and offers hope to victims

*Trigger warning: although we strive for sensitivity and compassion in our coverage, this article deals with the topic of sexual violence and may contain triggers for some readers
Supportive psychotherapist holding an anxious client's hand (Drazen Zigic - iStock - Getty Images Plus)
Supportive psychotherapist holding an anxious client’s hand

*Trigger warning: although we strive for sensitivity and compassion in our coverage, this article deals with the topic of sexual violence and may contain triggers for some readers.

Lisa Miller, executive director of the Regina and Area Sexual Assault Centre (RSAC), and Mary Zwane, a counsellor at the RSAC, gave a presentation on Jan. 20 to raise awareness of sexual violence and to offer hope and healing to victims.

The presentation was sponsored and hosted by SquareOne Community Inc.

Zwane explained the most common effects of sexual assault, and answered frequently-asked questions about the RSAC. She said that hope and healing are real.

What does the RSAC do?

The RSAC’s services are completely free. It has a satellite office in Moose Jaw for those who can’t travel to Regina. The RSAC offers:

  • Crisis support and information on a 24-hour crisis line (306-352-0434) or toll free: (1-844-952-0434)
  • Short- and long-term clinical counselling by qualified staff
  • Individual and group therapy and trauma education workshops
  • Accompaniment to police/hospital
  • Advocacy related to health and justice for clients
  • Public education presentations and research projects

Who does the RSAC help?

Regina and Area Sexual Assault Centre serves anyone impacted by sexual violence. Zwane said that trauma and stigma resulting from sexual violence doesn’t just affect victims, but their families as well. The emotional and social impacts of sexual violence can damage relationships between parents and children, and spouses and partners – at a time when those relationships are more important than ever. Counsellors at the RSAC can help those close to a victim learn how to support their family member, to preserve their relationship, and to respond in the most helpful way possible.

Zwane said that 80 per cent of their clients are survivors of child sexual abuse whose trauma has never been resolved. Some decide to seek help decades after the trauma occurred.

Because most sexual assault victims know – and trust – their abusers, the effects of childhood assaults in particular echo through a lifetime. Victims may have difficulty forming and maintaining the friendships and intimate relationships that are vital to human well-being.

“The breaking of trust in important relationships can have even more severe effects than the assault itself,” Zwane explained. Children may stop trusting adults, even their parents. Sometimes this is a side effect: a child may go to a parent or older sibling to report what was done to them – and not be believed. That disbelief may do such damage that they never tell anyone again.

For these reasons, establishing trust is the most important part of the counselling relationship. Zwane said she never rushes into exploring painful memories – she leaves it to her clients to decide when or if they feel safe enough for that.

Dispelling sexual assault myths

Some pervasive and harmful myths about to sexual assault include:

  • Myth: assaulters are usually strangers, and assaults occur outdoors or in public
    • Fact: about 85 per cent of perpetrators are known to their victims. Assaults usually occur in private spaces where victims should have been able to feel safe
  • Myth: if a victim doesn’t fight back, maybe it wasn’t too bad/they wanted it a little
    • Fact: the most common response to being assaulted – for both men and women – is to freeze up. This says nothing about them – it is a normal human response to trauma, and has nothing to do with consent
  • Myth: victims of sexual violence will be emotionally distraught
    • Fact: many victims go into shock. They may have difficulty acknowledging what happened, might suppress the memory, and may attempt to simply carry on with normal routines
  • Myth: Sexual violence must be physically violent to “qualify”
    • Fact: sexual contact without consent is assault. Consent must be explicitly given and can be withdrawn at any time. Violence is not just physical, but can be mental and emotional – the damage is just as real. Responsibility always lies with the perpetrator

What people who have experienced sexual violence (and those close to them) need to know

Regardless of circumstances (how much you drank, what you were wearing, who you were with), sexual assault is not the victim’s fault. There is no excuse for perpetrators that can shift their responsibility for their actions.

There are knowledgeable and compassionate people available to help. Zwane related that almost all of the counselling clients she sees have a feeling that they are somehow unworthy of help, or that what happened to them changed them permanently. Some believe that happiness is no longer possible.

“Sexual violence happens to everyone,” Miller said. “It’s not about weakness, and sometimes it isn’t easy to admit that, you know, ‘I’ve been a victim.’” She wants people to know that they can find help and healing, and they can feel peace and be happy again.