5 Ways Language Can Empower Teen Survivors of Sexual Assault

ALPS CAMPINGA majority of parents do not believe sexual assault is an issue in middle and high school. Yet 25% of teen girls report that they have experienced physical or sexual abuse. How can we support teens experiencing sexual assault before college?

Contributing author: Ryan E. Morris, MSW, YWCA Community Outreach Specialist

In the past few months, sexual assault has repeatedly been in the news. Numerous colleges and universities have been investigated for mishandling sexual assault cases. Measures have been taken to combat this issue, including a number of bills proposed in our own state legislature. The media attention these cases receive has provided a much needed impetus for change within the collegiate system. However, the individuals most likely to experience sexual assault are teens and young adults aged 16 to 24 years old. How can we support teens experiencing sexual assault before college?

According to one study, one in four high school girls have been victims of physical or sexual abuse, and nearly one in six men will experience sexual violence in his lifetime. These statistics show a significant amount of young people experience sexual violence. However, it is projected that only one-third of teens ever tell anyone about the abuse they suffer.

A startling 81 percent of parents admit they do not believe or do not know if teen dating violence and sexual assault is an issue.  It is time we recognize sexual and intimate partner violence is not only a danger to teens, but is a community issue that continues the generational cycle of violence.

Your GuideWhat can I do?

While media coverage may not pay attention to sexual assault in high schools, caring adults can work towards providing support and creating a safe environment to prevent sexual assault and support people who have experienced it. It is paramount that we teach teenagers about consent prior to the age where they will be engaging in sexual relationships, in order to prevent sexual violence.

Your choice of words (or lack thereof, when listening), can make a huge impact. Language can convey your trust, establish a safe environment or even ease a survivor’s guilt. The following are just a few ways to use words to end teen dating violence, along with the impact of each technique.

  • Be Proactive – Teenagers need caring adults in their lives, to whom they feel comfortable speaking about sexual assault and intimate partner violence. However, many adults are not sure how to create this supportive atmosphere. In order to create this safe environment, adults need to speak about sexual assault prior to incidents occurring in a teen’s life. Adults can role model healthy relationships through their own actions and engage teens in conversations about what they want out their relationships. Many survivors of sexual assault fear they will not be believed, or that what happened to them was their fault. Opening up the conversation about sexual assault prior to its occurrence means teenagers will know they will be supported and believed if they do experience sexual assault.
  • Teach About Boundaries- By teaching young people to respect each other’s personal space, we can open a continued conversation about consent in all types of relationships, including sexual ones. Through these discussions, we can teach young men and women how to appropriately obtain consent (i.e. “Is this okay?”, “Do you fONE WAY TO ADVOCATE-eel comfortable if I do this?”) In educating teens about consent, we can also prompt teens to assess their own boundaries and determine what behavior from an intimate partner is appropriate to accept.
  • Start By Believing – If teenagers do experience sexual assault, it is important that the person to whom they share their story responds appropriately. Many survivors’ journeys to recovery are heavily impacted by the reaction of the first person to whom they speak. It is important to begin by believing what the teenager is saying. Facing questions as to whether or not an incident was truly sexual assault is a frequent contributor to survivor’s inability to access help.
  • Avoid Judgement – Next, it is important to not ask judgmental questions such as “What were you wearing?” or “Were you drinking when it happened?” These questions may indicate to a survivor that he or she is to blame for what happened. It is better to ask questions about how the survivor is feeling or what (s)he would like to do next.
  • Provide Choices – Finally, it is crucial for an advocate to respect a survivor’s choices for his or her next steps. With teenagers, we may believe we know what they need to do after they have been assaulted. However, it is important to let teenagers know they are in control of their own lives, since power was taken from them during the assault. While a caring adult can suggest and encourage a survivor to report the incident to the police or seek medical assistance, survivors should have the power to make their own choices regarding their care.

How can I join the cause?

SAAM_Logo-TealRibbonApril is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, during which many organizations will focus on combating sexual assault on college campuses. I encourage you to broaden the conversation to also include how this form of violence impacts younger teens and to teach other caring adults how to prevent sexual violence and support those who experience it. The YWCA of Richmond provides education to teenagers and caring adults about how to prevent sexual, domestic, intimate partner and bullying violence all year.

In April, we invite you to participate in this conversation by joining us for free community events throughout Sexual Assault Awareness Month (which is also Child Abuse Prevention Month). You may visit ywcarva.eventbrite.com to learn more about our Sexual Assault Awareness Month workshops, which range from bystander intervention training to a panel forum on what it means to be an advocate.

We are also taking the cause to social media. Share why YOU believe when a survivor shares his or her story on social media with #YWeBelieve, and help us cultivate an environment of support, safety and hope for survivors in our community. If you haven’t already, check out the YWCA’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@YWCArva)


10678804_10202615585221968_1365214582700236639_nRyan E. Morris, MSW is the YWCA of Richmond’s Community Outreach Specialist. She combines her passions for youth development and violence prevention working on teen outreach programming. In her role, Ryan works to create public education opportunities for the YWCA to spread awareness and eradicate violence. She is instrumental in training the YWCA’s advocacy volunteers and leads the YWCA’s Teen Dating Violence Prevention program, holding workshops at area middle and high schools to teach students about healthy relationships and bullying.

Ryan graduated from the College of William and Mary with a degree in Women’s Studies, and from Virginia Commonwealth University with her Master of Social Work. When she is not at the YWCA, Ryan enjoys running, knitting and rock climbing.


The YWCA of Richmond is a nonprofit organization serving women, men, children and families in Richmond and Chesterfield. If you or a loved one are experiencing violence, you may call the Greater Richmond Regional Hotline at (804) 612-6126 for free, 24/7 assistance and guidance to the resources you need.