So You Want to Interview a Survivor
Working at a rape crisis program means that I and my colleagues receive weekly requests from journalists and students to interact with survivors of sexual assault. I’ve received requests about interviewing survivors, filming survivors, photographing survivors during their sessions or group work, and following them around in their day-to-day lives for the purposes of a documentary, final project, article, or paper.
All of these requests come from kind-hearted individuals who are interested in highlighting survivor voices in whatever project they are working on. The intent is generally very positive.
Unfortunately, sometimes this intent doesn’t translate into the impact that these requests have. At times we have had reporters or writers who are working under a strict deadline and suddenly find themselves in need of a survivor, stat!
Journalists and similar media professionals adhere to a code of ethics that aim to preserve the integrity of the profession while seeking truth and reducing harm. The Society of Professional Journalists outline several major ethical codes that journalists and journalists-in-training should be adhering to, including the minimization of harm. The code states, “Journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent.”¹
It says something that victims of sex crimes are specifically highlighted in this code of ethics.
More often than not, these well-intentioned requests end up having more of an exploitative impact.
Think about it this way: if rape crisis professionals are actively working with survivors of sexual violence, it is more often than not because that survivor is still healing and processing through their trauma. They are likely still working through feelings of self-blame, shame, pain, anger, and may be struggling with being believed by others. When considering these factors along with the fact that many high-profile sexual assault cases result in public abuse of the victim online, it is easy to understand the hesitancy a survivor may have in sharing their story with a wider audience.
I say none of this to shame those who are interested in highlighting these very important stories and experiences. Rather, I want to help minimize harm while still getting the information out there. So here are some basic tips on being more trauma-informed when working with survivors of sexual violence:
- First things first—ask yourself if you really NEED survivor interviews or video. Can you get the information you need from other sources? Various newspaper articles, blogs, and academic articles cover the effects of sexual violence thoroughly. If the answer to this question is no, remind yourself that your request may end up being more exploitative than originally intended.
- Ask yourself if you are starting from a point of belief—meaning, will you believe the survivor you end up working with? Or are you operating from a place of suspicion?
- Remember only 2-8% of officially reported sexual violence cases are false reports, and this includes recants from those who feel scared or intimidated by lawyers and police (this rate, by the way, is no higher than the rate of false reports for all other crimes)
- When someone is asking you to share the most traumatic experience in your life over and over again, in front of multiple people, and having your integrity, personality, and story questioned ruthlessly by attorneys or the public, it is understandable why some original reports may be withdrawn later.
- Do your research beforehand.
- It is so important to know that crimes of sexual violence are rooted in power, control, and patriarchal beliefs. Sexual violence does not stem from consumption of alcohol, has nothing to do with the victim’s behavior or outfit, and is not about sexual gratification.
- Not all sexual violence victims are women, and not all perpetrators are men.
- Start here, here, or here for your preliminary research²
- Cast a net into your own social circles first. When you consider the statistics, it is almost impossible for you to not know a survivor of sexual violence.
- Anywhere from 20-33% of female identified individuals experience an attempted or completed sexual assault in their lifetime and 10% of survivors of sexual violence are male identified. You very likely know someone who has experienced sexual violence.
- Putting out an open request on social media platforms will likely draw people who are more ready emotionally and mentally to talk about their experiences on a public forum.
- Always ask the survivor if something is okay with them first.
- Whenever possible, send the survivor the questions you plan to ask and be ready to share with them the reason and goals behind your project.
- Give them permission to not answer the questions they are uncomfortable with.
- Ask them when and where they would like to talk with you—give them control over how, where, and when the conversation goes down.
- Ask them permission if you can film/record them first!
- Don’t be pushy.
- You should never guilt a survivor who isn’t okay with a certain question or aspect of your interview or project (i.e., If they don’t want you to film them in a counseling session you should not ask again).
- Learn to be okay with whatever boundaries the survivor sets up—just because you had your heart set on recording a session does not mean you’ll get that from a survivor
- Offer to keep the survivor anonymous by giving them a fake name (and note that in your project whenever possible).
Overall, just be respectful and non-judgmental about whatever the survivor may need. Work with rape crisis professionals whenever it is appropriate and please understand that we cannot hand out survivor information as it is our responsibility to maintain confidentiality and protect the identities of our clients. If ever you are not sure whether something you want to say or do is appropriate, reach out to a rape crisis professional and ask! We are happy to help raise awareness in a sensitive and trauma-informed way.
Hopefully this helps keep you trauma-informed while completing your interviews, articles, and projects.