Working with a Therapist After Sexual Assault: What You Need to Ask

Working with a therapist is one of the ways survivors learn to manage the effects of sexual violence and work through any challenging thoughts or feelings they may be having. Therapy can be a helpful tool, but it’s not a silver bullet. For therapy to work, it’s important to advocate for your needs, as both a survivor of sexual violence and a person with unique circumstances.

One woman is seated on another couch addressing another woman who is her therapist
If your therapist brings up topics you are not ready to work on, you can say, “I actually would prefer not to discuss this now.”

RAINN’s guide on the ways therapy can help is a great starting point for survivors who are navigating the process of finding the right therapist. As we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month, here are five additional questions to ask a therapist if you are a survivor.

1. Ask the therapist whom they’ve worked with in the past.

As a survivor of sexual violence, it can help to know the therapist you’re working with has experience working with survivors of trauma and will be understanding about your circumstances. It can also be helpful to work with a therapist who has experience working with populations you belong to, such as a cultural group, survivors of past traumas, or people who have managed mental health issues in the past.

  • “Do you have experience working with survivors of trauma, like sexual assault?”
  • “Have you ever worked with someone from the LGBTQ population?”
  • “I have a past history of eating disorders. That’s not what I want to talk about now, but is that something you’ve dealt with in the past?”

2. “Not now.”

There may be some experiences related to sexual violence that you aren’t comfortable talking about yet. That’s okay. There may other experiences from your past, such as an history of depression or abuse you experienced as a child, that you don’t wish to talk about either. That’s also okay. If your therapist brings these questions up, you can say, “I actually would prefer not to discuss this now,” and if you’re open to it, “you can ask me more about that when we get to know each other a little better.”

3. Be open about what your goals are from the sessions.

Therapists may be trained experts in their field, but they aren’t the expert on you. You can be up front with your therapist about expectations. If your therapist goes against these wishes, you can remind them about the goals you’ve already stated. “At this point, I’m not really looking for advice. I’d rather just have a space to talk about what happened.” “I need help managing my depression. Can we try to find concrete advice or tips to manage tough times?” “I want to find a way to address what happened to me, but to be honest I’m pretty nervous. Can we take this at a slow pace?”

4. Share a little before you share a lot.

It can take time to build trust with a new therapist. You may want to share some aspects of your life but have concerns about how the therapist will react. For example, you may be concerned about sharing your sexual orientation or preferences, substance use, illegal activities, or other stigmatized behavior. These are normal concerns. Keep in mind that confidentiality is an important part of therapy—what you say to your therapist will likely remain private. There are a few exceptions to this rule to keep you and others safe.

While therapists are trained to be impartial and non- judgmental, they are still humans with their own thoughts and ideas. If you have concerns about sharing parts of your identity or activities you have been involved in, try sharing a little before you share a lot. Once you’ve shared a small anecdote, you can gauge the therapist's reaction and decide how you want to move forward.

5. Talk about reporting.

The decision to report sexual assault is entirely up to the survivor. If reporting is a goal you would like to work toward, explain to the therapist your thoughts, feelings, or concerns about reporting to law enforcement. If reporting is something you are not interested in pursuing, be clear about that as well. If a therapist, or anyone, pushes you on this point, it’s okay to clarify your position: “We’ve already discussed that I’m not ready to report right now. I hope that you’ll continue to honor that decision.”

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