Responding With Empathy When A Student Has Been Raped

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Marina N. Rosenthal is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon. As a therapist, researcher and teacher, she focuses on trauma and sexual health.  In this blog post, Marina describes three actions she takes when she is feeling bewildered, despondent or incapacitated by a student’s disclosure of sexual violence.

Responding to Students’ Trauma Disclosures With Empathy

I am an educator who teaches undergraduate courses like Psychology of Trauma and Human Sexuality. Not surprisingly, given the content of such courses, my students often disclose personal experiences of sexual violence to me. I want to meet their truths with kindness and trust, but sometimes I feel unsure or stuck as I try to determine how best to respond.

To help me through these moments, I have developed an approach to guide me. Other educators whose work touches on topics that are inherently intimate may find my approach helpful for supporting their own students who experience sexual violence.

Trauma disclosures surface in many forms. For example, some students quietly share their experiences when panic attacks related to an assault impede their progress on an assignment or when a friend is raped and needs resources. Some students linger after class and say with certainty that they were harassed, abused or assaulted. But many of my students are less direct and less sure. Instead, they often weave disclosures into essays, reading responses or emails. Sometimes, these admissions are either obliquely expressed or nearly hidden, tucked carefully away in the middle of a paragraph, within parentheses or in a postscript. Their revelations are often laced with doubt. They write, “Maybe it was abuse, but I didn’t know it at the time …” Or they wonder, “I’m not sure if I was raped. I know that I didn’t want it to happen.”

My students are not unusual. A recent qualitative exploration of college women’s perspectives on these unwanted but undefined experiences (called “unacknowledged rape”) highlights tremendous ambivalence in their understandings of what has happened to them. Victims commonly vacillate between uncertainty (with statements like “I don’t know, is what happened to me, is that … rape?”), certainty (“I felt taken advantage of, right from the get-go”) and ambivalence (“I know it was kind of rape … but I have a really hard time coming to reality with that”). I hear my own students’ voices in these quotes; I see them wavering between conviction and doubt.

As I read or hear my students’ disclosures, particularly the veiled and wary, I struggle to achieve clarity on how to respond. As a teacher, I am caught in the middle. I am always an educator, sometimes a mentor and constantly an evaluator. I spend hours every week helping my students to strengthen their writing and refine their thinking. My feedback is intended not only to nurture their development but also to assess their academic progress. Teaching a class on trauma does not free me from the reality of having to deliver sometimes disappointing grades to my striving students. So, yes, I can be a confidante, a source of support. But tomorrow, I will also be a critic, a judge.

Amid my confusion, I have found three small steps to follow when I open an email or essay that discloses to me yet another traumatic experience — three actions to perform when I am feeling bewildered, despondent or incapacitated by a student’s disclosure of sexual violence.

First, I allow myself to mourn for the pain and violence plaguing my campus, for the sweet soul tentatively reaching out. Sometimes I cry in the bathtub or sprint in circles on my block in the dark. I create space for sorrow. Hearing trauma stories can — and perhaps should — hit hard. By greeting my heartache with acceptance and offering my grief an outlet, I grant myself the same compassion I hope to give my students.

Second, I can provide information on how to report, where to seek health care and how to obtain counseling. I can also grant accommodations should students struggle to meet deadlines or finish assignments. I ask my students whether they want this type of tangible support, and I respect their answer either way.

Third, I remember that as a teacher and — perhaps more important — as a human, I can always offer belief and empathy. Research supports this final step; survivors who feel that someone believes their story report fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress. My response matters greatly, especially for survivors still in the process of comprehending what happened to them. Amid engulfing and callous noise — victim-blaming news media, unsupportive administrators, insufficient resources — expressing faith in and empathy for survivors is a powerful act. In the lines of the PowerPoints I present and the readings I assign, in my office, and in the margins of essays, I can compose the verses of my own quiet chant: “I believe you. It was not your fault. I am so sorry this happened to you.”

My students arrive in class as evolving and messy mosaics, not dry sponges ready to absorb knowledge. Their identities and experiences are not separate from or irrelevant to the work that we do in the classroom. In this sense, responding compassionately to sexual assault disclosures is an integral duty in my role as an educator. Reacting with acceptance and kindness, especially when students are just beginning to articulate what happened to them, is a gesture of love and resistance.

I wish I had access to spells or incantations, a literal enchantment to protect the students on my campus. I lack such magic, and my work sometimes feels futile. I feel caught in a cycle, unable stop the relentless deluge of violence. But while the expanse of what I cannot do is vast, I can take action, however imperfect or insufficient. I take my three small steps. I allow sadness to flow through me. I concretize and compile what I can contribute in resources and accommodations. And finally, always, I speak words of belief and empathy.