What You Should Say — and Shouldn’t Say — to Sexual Assault Survivors
My official title at Wear Your Voice is “Columnist: Feminism, LGBTQ & Snark.” Generally, my job at Wear Your Voice is to make you laugh. I’m a standup comic, and as a comic, I prefer to approach almost everything with humor. I don’t like to take myself or life too seriously and I often find feelings really scary. But like most humans, I ooze feelings. This is an article about feelings. This is an article about a topic I don’t find funny. This is an article about rape.
I’m a survivor of sexual abuse and assault. I struggle with the word “survivor.” I can’t articulate exactly why, but I’ve never been a fan of that term and I don’t own it in my personal life. I use it here for simplicity’s sake. Too many people have been raped, most of them women. Most of the people I’ve dated (primarily cis women, some trans/genderqueer folks) have experienced sexual assault. Many of my queer friends have also experienced sexual assault. I’m not here to talk about my history of sexual abuse and assault. I’m here to talk about how we talk and listen to survivors of sexual abuse and assault. Because it’s easy to fuck up. Because we need to be there for each other. Because sexual assault is an unfortunate part of life for too many folks. Unsure how to support your loved ones who’ve been through it? Here are some ideas.
Don’t say these things:
1. Were you drunk?
You’ve probably heard that being drunk is a frequent factor in sexual assaults. It’s not that simple. Being drunk doesn’t make it the victim’s fault. Nothing makes it the victim’s fault. Asking this will likely put your friend on the defensive. A survivor of assault does not need to explain themselves to you. Their state of inebriation is irrelevant. Don’t ask if they were intoxicated, and don’t judge or blame them if they tell you they were.
2. What exactly did he/she/they do to you?
Don’t push an assault survivor to share any more than they are comfortable sharing. Let them lead the conversation. When I’ve shared my survivor status with people, I’ve been pushed for details many times. Even when I’ve specifically prefaced my revelation with the request to not ask me about details, I have been asked for details. I don’t share specifics with anyone, not even my journal. It’s too hard and too triggering. This isn’t Law and Order: SVU. You are not a detective. The details of the assault are none of your business unless the survivor chooses to share them with you.
3. Did you fight back/Why didn’t you fight back?
My old therapist liked to remind me about the fight, flight or freeze response. Sometimes you freeze. When someone crosses my boundaries or I am triggered, my reaction is usually to freeze. Women are socialized to defer to men and not make waves. Sometimes fighting back makes the situation worse. Sometimes they did fight back and they lost. Fighting back is not the point.
4. Why didn’t you go to the police?
5. What were you wearing?
No one is “asking for it.” I could walk down the street in my sexiest lingerie and stilettos (actually, I couldn’t, because I can’t walk in heels) or completely naked and I still wouldn’t be asking for it. No one is entitled to my body. No one is entitled to your body. No one is entitled to anyone’s body. Knock it off with this offensive, victim-blaming line of questioning.
It can be upsetting and even triggering when a loved one confides in you about their sexual assault. You might feel helpless and unsure of what to say. You might fear you’ll say the wrong thing, especially after I told you about a bunch of wrong things to say. You may be cringing right now because you have said some variation of the above. Forgive yourself. We all make mistakes and society does not encourage us to talk openly about this. I want to change that.
Being assaulted is, tragically, a common experience. I want us to acknowledge this. I want so badly for survivors and loved ones of survivors to work together. I want survivors to lead the conversation. This stuff is hard. When in doubt, just listen. Validate your loved ones. Believe them. And when it comes time to respond, try the suggestions below.
Things You Should Say:
“I’m here for you and you can share as much or as little as you want to.”
“How can I support you?”
“I realize it might be intense to share this. How are you feeling right now?”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you for sharing this with me.”
“Thank you for trusting me.”
“I don’t know what to say. But I hear you, I see you and I believe you.”
“I got you.”
“I love you.”