#MeToo: On Knowing What To Say To Sexual Assault Survivors
You more than likely know a sexual assault survivor. It’s so common, but because it’s so heavy, many who want to be allies struggle to find the right thing to say. We’ve all heard horror stories about unsympathetic authorities and victim blamers disguised as friends, but here I share the ways my friends supported me when I told them I was assaulted. This list is by no means comprehensive.
Acknowledge how fucked up the sexual assault was:
It sounds like a no-brainer, but it goes a long way for many reasons, even if the survivor hasn’t been victim-blamed.
“Don’t downplay or let anyone downplay what he did.”
For one, not all survivors act the same way; some might act calm and controlled, more or less numbing their feelings. I KNEW that a violation happened, and I KNEW I couldn’t swallow without pain after the assault, but I didn’t FEEL traumatized. I didn’t FEEL l like a sexual assault victim, nor did I FEEL like what happened was enough to call myself a survivor.
When my head and heart were still in analysis paralysis, it helped to have a friend voice what I knew in my gut:
“Regardless of your feelings, that’s fucked up.”
As well, if there is a friendly or romantic history, the survivor has more incentive to give the assailant the benefit of the doubt than if it was a stranger. Sometimes it’s harder to believe that someone you trusted would deliberately hurt you, than to act like it wasn’t a big deal. This is especially true if the assault was in the context of an emotionally abusive relationship.
I wanted to believe the best in my assailant. I wanted to believe that there was just a misunderstanding that I could reason with, rather than a malicious, cognizant act of sexual violence. What I needed to be reminded was that, at best, it was still sexual misconduct, even if unintentional.
“Stop talking to him. Of course he’s going to deny and gaslight if you confront him. It’s not safe.”
The most relevant fact is that he thought something seriously violating was okay to do to me. In that case, what else would he think was okay to do, to me or another person? I needed to be reminded that, as much as I wanted to express my anger, there was no reasoning with him. It was an issue that was big enough to be above my head, and not safe for me to go alone, no matter what I wanted to believe.
Remind them that sexual assault is not their fault:
Too many sexual assault survivors feel guilt for something that wasn’t their fault. The guilt isn’t limited to self-blame for being assaulted, but also includes self-blame for disrupting someone else’s life.
“You didn’t ruin his life. He ruined his life.”
At one point during the interview, the investigator told me that the university could expel my assailant, thus I could ruin his life. While I understand that it’s his job to be objective, the wording is problematic.
My intent was never to ruin my assailant’s life, but to stay safe and keep other students safe. It was his own decision to violate another student, not mine; I was only the messenger. This brings me to something very important that another authority told me:
“You didn’t do anything wrong. You brought something important to the university’s attention.”
In an ideal world, investigators everywhere would do their job to discern the veracity of conflicting stories, and sexual assault survivors reporting wouldn’t face stigma for reporting. “Report” shouldn’t be a dirty word; it should be helpful for keeping the institution safe.
“You don’t know why he did it, and you don’t need to. It’s not on you to explain the motivations behind someone else’s crime.”
The investigator told me that my story didn’t make sense, because my assailant didn’t have much incentive to do what he did. I instinctively put my hands up, scowled, and shouted, “That’s what I thought too!” The truth is, I might never know why my assailant thought it was okay, but that’s hardly relevant. No matter what his motivations, the action was unacceptable.
Assure them that friends are there to stay and support:
“I’m going to listen and talk you through this, because that’s what friends do. Thank you for sharing this with me.”
It’s understandable that not everyone can handle the emotional labor of comforting a friend who went through sexual assault, but there’s a difference between compassionately setting a boundary vs. ghosting in someone’s time of need. Friends acknowledge. Friends don’t make friends feel like burdens. It sounds so basic, but after an emotionally abusive relationship full of invalidation, it’s a huge relief to no longer feel like I’m walking on eggshells.
“You will replace the people you cut off with something better.”
After reporting the assault, I rapidly constructed a new sense of identity. I didn’t want to see myself as a weak person, or someone who accepted less than she deserved, or let her disempowerment get to the point of questioning whether reporting sexual assault was the right thing to do. I considered all the other things in my life I was just accepting and, just like that, I burned bridges.
Cutting people off, deleting messages, and discarding belongings in order to feel powerful became my new addiction. It was constructive once I handled it with nuance, but that didn’t change how lonely I felt in the interim. Having even just one person say, “you will replace them” reminded me that there was something better in store.
Marie Kondo thought similarly of her belongings:
“Some people have told me that they had almost nothing left after discarding those things that didn’t spark joy. At first, they didn’t know what to do… If it happens to you, don’t be discouraged. The important thing is that you’ve noticed. The real tragedy is to live your entire life without anything that brings you joy and never even realize.”
Don’t know how to say you care? Show that you care:
Here are just a few examples:
Walk with them if they don’t feel safe. Accompany them to the police station or to the doctor. Chip in to pay for part of the medical expenses, if applicable. Refer them to someone who can help file a personal protection order.
Check in on them regularly to see how they’re doing. Encourage good self-care. Remind them to sleep if you see them up late. Go grocery shopping or cook a meal for them. Do something mindful with them that can take their worries away, even if only briefly. Really, anything to stop them from ruminating on the “what ifs” is helpful.
Remember: it’s okay to start the conversation by asking, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Nobody always knows the perfect thing to say, but it’s always better to do something good, than to do nothing because you don’t know the perfect thing to do.
There’s no way I can write an all-encompassing article detailing every single way you could help a friend out. However, I was truly lucky to have supportive friends every step of the way, and I wish more sexual assault survivors could hear the affirmations I outlined in this essay. For further information, please visit the Rape, Assault, & Incest National Network‘s website at rainn.org