Creating a Trauma-Informed Survey: A How-To

Earlier this summer I conducted a brief survey for survivors of sexual trauma; either as an adult or as a child. I had over 70 responses. My goal had been to hear from survivors on how past sexual abuse affected/affects them in areas of sexual intimacy with a chosen partner.  Since my target audience were sexual abuse survivors, I designed my survey to be as sensitive and trauma-informed as possible. In the trainings that I do, I stress a trauma-informed approach so I thought sharing the survey here might be helpful for those who need to ask about possible abuse.  Note: survey questions are italicized; my comments related to the survey are bolded.

Typeform allows for a "Welcome Page" as a way to introduce the story. Here's what I said in mine:

My name is Elizabeth Johnson and I am a trauma-informed health educator who helps people understand how past abuse affects health and wellness. I also lead support groups for abuse survivors and am a survivor myself. My website is if you want to learn more or contact me directly. 

This brief survey is for survivors of sexual abuse (as a child and/or an adult) only. There will be questions about past abuse and questions about how that abuse has affected your sex life and/or your ability to be intimate with someone. I will also ask some basic demographics. The survey should take about 15 minutes. Your answers are confidential. You don't have to answer any questions you don't want to. Once you have started, you won't be able to close the form and reopen it later but you can minimize the screen, if you want to take a break. 

You can click "next" if you identify as a sexual abuse survivor and are ready to begin...

Thank you for your time & willingness to share".

You'll notice an explanation of who I am and why I am asking very personal questions as well as details on how to learn more about me and my work. It was also important to me that participants knew in advance that they didn't have to answer any questions and that their responses were confidential. These steps helped to create a safe space for participants to share their (sometimes painful) story.

After the "welcome page", a participant was able to click "next" and they saw this message on the following screen.

"The first 2 questions are going to ask about demographics. Click "continue" to head there now."

When they clicked "next" they were asked their age (18-100) and their "gender". The age options were drop down menu and the "gender" question was a fill in the blank. From there, I asked:

"The next 4 questions are going to ask about the sexual abuse you went through. Again, you can always skip any questions you don't want to answer."

They always needed to click "next" to continue. A small thing but it gives them control over the time and flow of the questioning which can be helpful for trauma survivors.

"What age were you when you first experienced sexual assault? If there were multiple assaults, your best guess is fine."

"Keeping in mind that first incident of abuse, who was/were the people who abused you?"

For both of these questions there were blank text boxes in which a participant could write their answer, as long or as short as they wanted to. This is proving harder to translate when it comes to summarizing the data but it's worth it if participants continue on in the survey. Because their feedback is a gift.

"Did you every tell anyone about the abuse? When it was happening (if applicable) or afterwards? If so, who was/were that person or people?"

"Thinking of that person or people you told, did she/he/they believe you? If some people did and some didn't, it's okay to say that here."

Again unlimited space in a text box for their responses here. Then I wanted to put an intentional pause in here. I did it this way:

"That's it for that part! You're doing great.  And let me pause right here to say "thank you" again for doing this survey. Your input will be used to help people who work with survivors be more effective in the resources, support, healing and education they offer their clients or patients. The next 3 questions are going to ask about your resources and support post-abuse. You can hit "continue" whenever you are ready."

Again, heavy on the praise and thanks and another reminder of why I am asking (crucial for trust building) and a heads-up about what was coming next.

Then I asked about resources accessed and included a drop down menu of choices. 

"Which of the following resources did you access after the abuse?"

Followed up with 2 questions about which of those named resources were least and most helpful.

On the next screen, I said this:

"The final 4 questions are going to ask about your experiences with intimacy. Again, you don't have to answer any of them. I'm grateful for whatever you decide to share anonymously here. Thank you again."

Then this question with a drop down, randomized menu choices:

"Which of the following challenges have you had during times of intimacy with a sexual partner?"

Followed up with this question that included a drop down menu of options including "other":

"Recognizing that different challenges can surface at different times with different partners, how have you chosen to cope with any of the challenges you mentioned, at any time?"

And then this, again with plenty of space to write whatever they wanted.

"Do you usually tell a sexual partner that you are a sexual abuse survivor? Why or why not?"

And my last question before the "leave a comment" question which was designed to end on a positive empowering note. 

"Finally, if you were to give advice to someone who works with people on issues of healthy sexuality & sexual dysfunction, what would you tell them? (It can be anything!)"

It worked. About 70% of participants left me an answer there. The font, length of sentences and my repeated "thanks" are intentional throughout the survey. All, including the decision to use Typeform as opposed to Survey Monkey or SurveyNerds, were very deliberate choices. 

The feedback that I received from participants was really validating. Many noted in the final question ("have a comment to share?") that they appreciated the flow, the breaks, the advance notice about upcoming questions. I also received some nice notes of thanks for the work that I'm doing and for offering my upcoming group for survivors starting in Durham next month.

My one challenge and learning opportunity was that while multiple choice menu options were randomized, somehow I had not clicked the multiple answers button so responses were limited to one letter choice ("A" for example" OR putting in a comment ("A-D"). So that was a miss on my end which won't happen again! Overall, the final comments confirmed that I had accomplished my goal of asking about their abuse in a sensitive, appropriate and trauma-informed way.  

For actual survey results, stay tuned! Or come to my talk tomorrow at SexCon in Cary. Questions or thoughts? Leave me a comment below. Thanks for reading.