Women’s Conference: Ways sexual assault survivors can ‘bloom’

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Julie Valentine spoke on healing from sexual abuse at a session of BYU Women’s Conference. Valentine is a BYU nursing professor and has been a nurse for 34 years. (BYU Photo)

BYU nursing professor Julie Valentine gives a card to each sexual assault survivor she cares for. It reads “bloom” and shows a hardy crocus flower.

“No matter how long the winter is or how cold it is, the crocus always blooms,” Valentine said. “I tell my patients that is my goal for them: that they will find a way to bloom even after this very difficult experience that they have faced.”

Valentine, along with BYU Title IX victim advocate Lisa Leavitt, spoke at a session of BYU Women’s Conference titled “The Journey to Healing from Sexual Abuse.” Their presentation included reasons survivors often blame themselves for their assault and how survivors’ loved ones can best support them.

Leavitt directed her remarks to sexual assault survivors, acknowledging that both women and men experience this type of trauma. She explained common reactions to an assault are flashbacks, mood swings, appetite loss, hyper-vigilance and more.

She also said agency is essential to progress, but this means people are subject to the misuse of other’s agency. “Recovery begins with understanding and accepting that this was not your fault.”

Leavitt identified three main reasons victims often blame themselves: the false belief that if they had done something differently, their assault wouldn’t have happened; misunderstanding consent, such as believing passivity equals permission; and tonic immobility, where a victim does not fight their assault because their brain shuts down in response to trauma.

She also identified ways survivors can help themselves: preparing for flashbacks, reconnecting with their body, reconnecting with their family members and friends, being kind to themselves and seeking professional help.

Dani Jardine
Lisa Leavitt spoke on healing from sexual abuse at a session of BYU Women’s Conference. Leavitt is a licensed psychologist and is an associate clinical director at BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services. (Dani Jardine)

Leavitt said being a survivor is more empowering than being a victim. “Words can shift the paradigm from ‘hopeless’ to ‘hopeful.'”

She also spoke of how Christ laid down his life to provide healing; however, if anyone is facing “a significant crisis of faith” due to sexual abuse, Christ understands and accepts all they can do.

Valentine then shifted the presentation’s focus onto those who are impacted by sexual assault by knowing and loving survivors, a group she referred to as “secondary survivors.”

“Sexual assault effects all of us,” she said. “You want to help, but may not know exactly what to do.”

Valentine, who said she has been a nurse for 34 years, shared stories from her time caring for sexual assault survivors, emphasizing that everyone has healing power. “Our power to heal is directly connected to our roles as disciples of Christ, the ultimate healer.”

Valentine also said survivors must be listened to, believed and loved. This doesn’t mean being a therapist or knowing exactly what to do, but simple things such as open body language and not asking “Why?” can help survivors. It’s particularly important that survivors feel in control of their choices because sexual abuse takes choices away.

She emphasized that everyone can make a difference by educating others about sexual violence.

“We must initiate a cultural and societal revolution,” she said, adding that this revolution has already begun through shifts like the #MeToo movement. “We can only eradicate sexual violence by uniting together. We can be the resources to help (survivors) heal.”

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