Nevo: Supporting survivors on a campus that does not

Lily Nevo, Opinion Editor

Content warning: This story discusses sexual assault.

This April, I naively assumed I would witness an outpouring of support for survivors that never occurs during the rest of the year. I planned to write this piece as a how-to support survivors beyond Sexual Assault Awareness Month, or when support is no longer trendy. 

Yet many students were not even aware of SAAM, let alone participating in programming for it. The only “support” I found was with other burnt-out survivors, frustrated that our repeated invitations to join us in advocating for survivors on campus are rejected time after time by the student body.  

Around 20 students attended Take Back the Night’s march last Thursday, and in-person events for survivors rarely, if ever, attract more participants. Not everyone can attend every event. We are students at an academically rigorous institution and many have to balance classes, jobs and other responsibilities. Not to mention that engaging with this sort of material can be incredibly triggering. 

Yet when survivors consistently put in the work to be heard, to plan and host events that make it so easy for others to simply show up, it is devastating when no one does. Survivors shouldn’t have to advocate for themselves to begin with, so the least other students could do is listen. 

It’s not that people aren’t aware that sexual assault is a problem. When there is an opportunity to share an Instagram post with a survivor’s story, everyone shares it. Part of me wants to believe that this widespread dissemination is helpful for raising awareness. Another part of me is angry that this prolific, mindless sharing rarely results in tangible support. Hundreds of people viewed my story advertising the march and countless others reposted the graphic, yet I did not see a single one of my followers who was not a survivor themself at the event.

Social media activism is harmful beyond the shallowness of performance. Accounts like @NuPredators share graphic accounts of sexual violence, including the assailant’s name, but it is hard to understand how they support surivors. Yes, some survivors are empowered in sharing their story on such a platform, and they should not be stopped from doing so. But many survivors are also triggered when these stories are reposted by what seems to be the entire student body. 

It is not uncommon for social movements to use violent content to seek approval from those who may not recognize the problem. In many ways, this is an effective strategy: shocking content spurs emotional reactions. Yet, when these posts are harmful to survivors themselves, we have to consider who these accounts truly serve. 

The truth is, supporting survivors is not so straightforward. Just as one survivor may be empowered in sharing their story, another may be triggered in reading it; what helps one heal may not help everyone heal. 

For me, the easiest yet most impactful thing someone can do is simply check in with a survivor when something triggering happens on campus or nationally. If a crime notice details an incident of gender-based violence, a bill sparks discussion on the legal framing of assault or even a survivor publishes their story in this section, it is imperative to check in with the survivors you know. 

Once you check in, affirm everything the survivor is feeling. A survivor might feel sad or angry, but they may also feel guilty or ashamed. A survivor shouldn’t blame themselves for what happened, but that doesn’t mean many don’t. Instead of dismissing their guilt, focus on emphasizing, for example, that freezing in a traumatic moment is normal, and there is nothing they could have done to change their body’s reaction to what was happening. 

Accept that all survivors cope differently, and no coping mechanism is shameful. Some survivors enter a period of hypersexuality following their assault — constantly seeking safety in a sexual experience. Some survivors enter toxic relationships because they desperately want to feel loved. Some survivors turn away from all romantic relationships entirely, because intimacy is difficult in the aftermath of an assault.

Some survivors avoid taking care of their body because it doesn’t feel like theirs anymore. If a survivor loses their charm, that is no sign to give up on them. No trauma response is unreasonable, and a survivor is not more or less worthy of love because of how the trauma has changed their behavior. 

If a survivor confides in you, they are trusting you won’t hurt them. They are vulnerable and sensitive; remember that. It goes without saying, but believe survivors and don’t ask too many questions. No matter how well intentioned, questions cast a shadow of doubt on the survivor’s story. They do not owe you more than they want to give and their story is not more legitimate just because it makes sense to you. 

Use trigger warnings properly. A content warning at the top of a post that contains triggering language does not serve its purpose. In other words, if the triggering content can be viewed, the content warning is no warning at all. Instead, aim to post the content warning on its own slide before sharing the story itself, so viewers have to actively choose to see the post. 

Survivors often feel like they exist in a state of little control. Posting triggering content without sufficient warning only worsens this feeling as it denies survivors the opportunity to filter what content they absorb. 

When a survivor tells you what they are struggling with or what is triggering for them, listen. It is not easy to vocalize a need, and it is even harder to do so once you have been ignored once.

Many reading this piece might think all of this is obvious. But in my experience, the vast majority of Northwestern students do not do most of these things when the time comes to offer support. It is one thing to know that you should believe survivors, it is another to resist the urge to ask questions simply to clarify a confusing moment for your own peace of mind. 

The details of an assault are not needed to know that a person is struggling, and your care for a survivor should never be contingent on how vulnerable they are with you. Furthermore, a survivor has not necessarily “moved on” from their experience just because they have stopped talking to you about it. It is hard to talk about trauma even when you have the words to describe it, but it is even harder to open up when you do not understand what you are feeling. 

Trauma is not something to get over; it is something you learn to live with. If you think that someone else’s trauma is a burden to you and your relationship with them, think of the burden it is to the survivor. Think of how much that burden is lifted with even the simplest, “Hey, how are you doing?” 

In learning to live with trauma, I have learned to accept what happened to me was a terrible thing. I have learned it is okay to feel sad. I have learned random, seemingly unprovoked sadness does not mean I am broken, but I am on my way to becoming stronger. It is okay to take time for yourself. It is okay to ask for support from others, just as it is okay for them to take time for themselves if supporting you is emotionally challenging given their own experiences. It is okay to advocate for what you need, but it is also okay to be scared to do so. Most importantly, it is okay to expect more for yourself. You are not a burden, and you are worthy of love.  


The Center for Awareness, Response and Education provides confidential counseling and support groups, among other services, for survivors on campus.

RAINN operates a 24/7 confidential and free hotline, in addition to providing a breadth of resources on laws, supporting survivors and sexual violence research. 

Lily Nevo is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.