The first time I answered a hotline call for a rape crisis center, I didn’t know what to expect, other than tears. When it was over, the call lingered with me. The survivor’s voice, what they had experienced, how I responded. All of it haunted me for hours. And then it was time to answer another call.
For the last year I’ve been volunteering at a rape crisis center, taking shifts answering the center’s hotline and accompanying survivors to the hospital. I first became interested in sexual violence prevention in high school. The more I read the news and books like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the more I knew this was the work I need to be doing. So having conversations about current events related to assault isn’t unusual for me. But as people began to learn about my work, I found myself talking about sexual violence in my free time. And whereas I used to discuss cases going on in the national media, my conversations began to shift to people telling me about their own experiences of assault.
People began consulting me off the clock. At one point, out of the blue, a woman I had gone to school with even told me about her assault and an abusive relationship she had been in. I’ve been trained to help people in this situation, but I wasn’t prepared to use my training in that moment. I found myself saying a generic “I’m sorry that happened to you” and trying to get out that conversation as quickly as possible.
Advocates do whatever we can to make survivors safe and comfortable. We get so wrapped up in a case or a phone call that, afterward, we carry it with us. The so-called second-hand trauma can sometimes linger for days or weeks, and it can be hard to separate that from our own realities.
Many advocates are also survivors, so we’re dealing with the trauma from our experiences while also taking on other people’s trauma. Carly Mee was was assaulted during her first week of college, and is now a staff attorney at SurvJustice. She says it’s inspiring people want to share their stories with her, but it can become overwhelming to be inundated with traumatic story after story that hit “particularly close to home.”
Which isn’t to say that the struggles of advocates and survivors are the same. What this does mean, though, is that we practice the most extreme type of emotional labor. Expecting advocates to perform this emotional labor at any moment will lead to one thing: burnout. So, when we’re off the clock, we need that time to unpack what we’ve experienced in our work and do whatever we can to heal.
Sexual assault can sometimes become the dominating thing people discuss with you or identify you with when you work in sexual assault advocacy, says Jessica Davidson, who works at End Rape on Campus..
“Many advocates can experience frustration when there is something in the news,” such as the recent Bill Cosby trial or the allegations against President Trump during the election. “It dominates our day at work and then people want to talk to us about it in our personal lives,” she says, “which is exhausting.”
“I just get tired of talking about it,” says Jessica Luther, a freelance journalist and author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape. She’s found herself more hesitant to talk about sexual assault than she used to be. “At the same time, I feel an obligation to have those conversations with people, in part because they seek me out knowing they can have a certain kind of conversation with me.”
To protect herself from this, Mee says it’s important to set boundaries in her personal life. So if family or friends try to talk to her about sexual violence, she finds herself telling them that it’s important for her to take a break from thinking about it since she’s working in it all day.
Mee says working at SurvJustice helps her define boundaries while still helping survivors. “We aren’t turning people away, but we’re dealing with this at certain times,” she says.
“Nobody should have to think about this issue all the time. It is exhausting, it can lead to burnout, it can harm mental health,” Davidson says. “Giving advocates space in their personal lives to be people outside of an issue is very important, not only for their personal well-being but also for their professional longevity.”
Luther says she it’s important to enforce boundaries in her life and take breaks when she needs to. She tries not to work at night or on the weekends, and gives herself space when she works on something particularly disturbing.
Part of this means giving herself permission to cry, she says. It’s important to let herself feel whatever she feels when looking over a case, cry about it, and then give herself space from it, she says. Sometimes that space means binge watching TV while folding laundry, other times it’s or taking her dog for a walk.
One way the team at End Rape on Campus helps people deal with being inundated with these stories all day is to provide content warnings if emails about a graphic case or news story are circulating in the office. It basically says, “Read this when you’re ready,” Davidson says.
“We have a tendency to view survivor advocates as superheroes with steel spines, and while that is true and it takes immense bravery, that does not mean that they are undeserving of self-care,” Davidson says. “In fact, they need it more so to continue to be effective and continue to make change.”