I’m lucky enough to be in Lausanne at the World Conference of Science Journalists this week, on a panel about interviewing people who have experienced bullying, harassment, and sexual assault. It’s a responsible issue to be talking about and there’s lots of information to share.
This blog pulls together some resources for journalists who are interviewing people who have experienced something traumatic, and in particular sexual assault. Links are embedded throughout. I hope it’s useful.
Psychological reactions to sexual assault
- Common psychological reactions to trauma such as sexual assault include the emotion of shame and thoughts of self-blame.
- When we feel shame we tend to engage in shame behaviours which are similar to behaviours we associate with lying. They include avoiding eye contact, being fidgety, and avoiding talking about the thing we feel shame about. These don’t mean that a person is not telling the truth.
- Other people’s reactions to disclosures of sexual assault are important. Reacting negatively to someone telling you about a sexual assault can result in them feeling more shame and not speaking about it again. Conversely, listening carefully with human connection and respect can help a person to feel that their experience has been witnessed.
- Another common reaction to trauma is to have a jumbled memory and a less coherent account of what happened. This doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Traumatic experiences often mess up our ability to encode the memories in a clear order.
- Not everyone will experience post traumatic stress disorder after a trauma, but for those that do, the main triad of symptoms is: avoidance, hyper-arousal and re-experiencing. Avoidance is not wanting to think about or talk about what happened. Hyper-arousal is feeling scared and on edge all the time. Re-experiencing includes thoughts about what happened that pop up when they are unwanted, nightmares, or flashbacks where the person feels like they are there again. PTSD diagnosis gets made after people have had these symptoms for over a month.
- PTSD is more common in intentional traumas where a deliberate act is committed against a person. PTSD is most common after sexual trauma and rape. Estimates of how many people who have been raped or sexually assaulted experience PTSD range from 30%–50%.
- Psychological reactions to rape and sexual assault affect the likelihood of someone staying in the legal process, from reporting an assault to going to court. Psychological distress and post-traumatic reactions make it harder to endure, and can also make the person seem less credible if those around them don’t understand the symptoms. Added to this, cases can only go forward to court if there is enough evidence. Often it is one person’s word against another and hard to prove.
- This big drop from numbers reporting sexual assault to numbers of successful prosecutions doesn’t mean that these are false accusations. False accusations of rape are very rare, probably a maximum of 0.5%. It’s hard to estimate this but this is based on UK CPS data of prosecutions for rape versus prosecutions for wrongful accusations. Lots of people don’t report sexual assault at all so this is likely to be an over-estimate of false accusations.
Interviewing people who have been sexually assaulted
- Sometimes traumatic things can feel so huge and awful that it feels hard to know what to say. If I’m told something about a trauma that has happened to someone I usually try to pause and take time to say that I’m really sorry that it happened.
- Bearing in mind the common reactions of shame and self-blame, anything you can do to minimise (and at the least not exacerbate) these the better.
- E.g. not asking ‘did you feel responsible?’ but asking an open question instead like ‘how did you feel?’
- Assault, and sexual assault in particular, make someone feel unsafe, and in the case of sexual trauma, a sense of their own body being unsafe. Interview somewhere calm and quiet and where you won’t be interrupted. Take your time so the person doesn’t feel rushed.
- We all feel safer when we know what is going to happen and know that we can change something if we need to. Things that might help to give the person you are interviewing knowledge and control include:
- Letting the person know in advance what will happen – how long the interview is likely to be, if you will record it, what will happen to the recording.
- Give the person options to stop for breaks whenever they need.
- Check how they will let you know they need a break.
- Explicitly give the person the option not to answer you at any point if they don’t want to.
- Be clear about what you can offer in terms of reading through the interview in advance of publication or not. If you can, it might help the person feel properly heard.
- Be clear about where the interview will be published and if possible when it will be coming out.
- It’s not your role to offer ongoing support but if you feel worried about someone you can check if they have access to help, either formally or that they have friends or family around them. You can signpost the following:
- The language you use in the piece can have an impact. “Victim” can feel disempowering. Consider using more neutral language like “people who have been assaulted” or the person’s name.
- There are many myths about rape which are untrue and that it’s important to be aware of so they aren’t accidentally perpetuated. End Violence Against Women is a good resource here.
- Be aware of the potential for interviews about trauma to affect you. It’s normal to be emotionally affected, and if you are spending a lot of time listening to interviews or reviewing material about sexual assault, for example, you might find yourself experiencing a degree of secondary trauma. This is when you experience some of the same psychological reactions as PTSD even though the traumatic event didn’t happen to you. You might find yourself avoiding thinking or talking about the information, feeling extra jumpy or unsafe, or having intrusive thoughts or images popping into your head when you don’t want them to. Try to speak to someone if you find this happening. It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget: it’s important to take regular breaks and look after yourself physically and emotionally when you’re working with traumatic material.