This is an interview with Keeli Sorenson, who oversees the direction of RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline, where we discuss how to support survivors, especially when national events cause instances of sexual violence to resurface.
Last Friday, E. Jean Carroll published an essay chronicling her experiences with what she calls “Hideous Men,” who have forcibly wielded their power against her.
The Elle columnist waits until the end of her essay for her most politically consequential accusation: Donald Trump forcibly penetrated her in a dressing room 23 years ago. (She does not describe the experience as rape, even though it does fit the legal definition of rape.)
It adds to a list of at least 15 credible accounts accusing Trump of sexual assault, but at this point many of us are no longer tracking. At this point, many of us are just tired, or strangely unsurprised, by what has become an all too familiar national event.
Perhaps the most tired of all are the survivors.
Historically, when sexual violence is widely discussed in the media, calls from survivors to RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline surge.
For instance, when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, calls to the hotline went up that day and the next by 338 percent. Similarly, following the airing of “Surviving R. Kelly,” a docuseries examining R. Kelly’s sexual misconduct allegations, calls to the hotline spiked 27 percent.
What we typically see is that people who have experienced assault — more often a past assault than a more recent one — need additional support during these moments.
As the epidemic of sexual violence becomes more of a national conversation, the hotline will continue to experience these waves of traffic. But it’s not just RAINN’s job to support survivors.
“It is good for people to be aware that these moments are happening with a greater frequency,” Keeli Sorensen, who oversees the direction of the National Sexual Assault Hotline, told me over the phone.
“We should as a community, society, and culture be aware that there are many moments where survivors are going to feel the burden of their survivorship.”
I spoke more with Sorensen about ways that we can help lift that burden of survivorship, especially during the periods when survivors feel it the most.
Can you walk me through the spike in calls when a case of sexual violence becomes a national conversation?
There’s a lot of old feelings that [can] come up again in these moments. When the national conversation blossoms or explodes, either way you want to spin it, there’s going to be a dredging up of those feelings from survivors.
What we typically see is that people who have experienced assault — more often a past assault than a more recent one — need additional support during these moments. So, they call us about situations of flashbacks, feeling overwhelmed, or feeling intense sadness or depression during the times.
They want to connect. They want to be validated. The fact that they are having these feelings and these moments is still okay.
E. Jean Carroll’s essay was yet another confirmation of how easy it is for powerful men to commit sexual violence with no consequences. I imagine this left many, as it did myself, with a feeling of hopelessness. What are ways to help survivors sort through these feelings?
We speak with people about whatever reaction they are having. Hopelessness may be one of them, but it also may be rage. Disappointment. Self-blame. A sense of doubt, in maybe themselves and in their families.
It really depends on the situation. [It is important to] make sure survivors have folks on the other end who can validate that these are normal reactions, identify ways to relate to [these feelings], and ways to cope with them.
This case is unique because of who the alleged perpetrator happens to be, but it is not a unique feeling among survivors themselves.
And are there ways you would recommend offering validation to survivors?
The best thing folks can do is ask that person — that unique individual — what role they would like them to play.
So, if someone tells me what’s happened, my responsibility is to listen to them and give them the space to articulate what they need.
When disclosures go poorly, it comes as a consequence of people taking that problem on… and then advising survivors to do what they would want to do. Or being hurt that it happened, even though it’s not their hurt to have. [People supporting survivors] can have reactions, but they need to be contained.
What are effective ways to talk to men or young boys about creating a culture of consent?
I want to [first] acknowledge the variety of relationships and orientations that people have. So, I think this conversation has to be a very open one, across gender and sexuality identity. I’ll offer that and say that consent is really key.
So, having early conversations about consent, both giving it and refraining from giving it, is a really healthy way to foray into this topic. [For example,] ‘If you don’t want to give a hug, that’s ok. You tell us what kind of intimacy you’re comfortable with us.’
These are things you see parents doing with very young children. There are age-appropriate ways to do that. Consent can start in other areas of life and then become specific around sexual relationships.
What we want all young people to know is that consent should be freely given and can be freely taken away at any time. They have the right to say, “Yes, that was okay then but isn’t okay now. And I should be respected for that boundary.”
What advice would you give on how people can best support survivors, while also supporting themselves?
Anytime people are in positions of needing to show up, needing to ally, needing to be there for other people — regardless of what it is for — self-care becomes a really critical piece of ensuring that [they] can carry out that work for as long as [they] hope to.
A really active part of the normal course of business [at RAINN] is to recognize that this work can be extremely draining. So, when [the work starts to feel] draining, we need to pause and take a break and then reflect on what we need in those moments.
A big part of onboarding our staff is a conversation about setting up [self-care] plans for themselves before they start the work. So how do you take care of yourself in difficult moments? What are the sorts of things you like do? How do you make sure you stay positive and motivated and feel healthy?
That’s the biggest part of it — feeling healthy.
[If there’s a plan], they don’t have to think about it in that harder moment. They’ve already thought through what that might look like: who they’re going to call, what music they’re going to put on, where they’re going to take their walk — all the little things that really help us take care of ourselves and maintain energy for those who need our help.
Greta Moran is a Queens-based journalist focusing on public health and the climate crisis. Her writing has also appeared in Teen Vogue, The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. For more of her work, please see www.gretalmoran.com.