5 Things to Do and 7 Things Not to Do When Someone Tells You They Were Sexually Assaulted
You're probably wondering why a man is writing this article.
I've recently read a lot about sexual assault, on PolicyMic and elsewhere, and seen a lot of what I've diagnosed as accidentally insensitive and unproductive comments and reactions to these articles — much of them in the form of victim blaming. I think most of this is born of ignorance and of the male drive to problem-solve, and that many of the commenters genuinely want the best for the sexual assault survivor.
To all the men reading this, man to man, I've been guilty of victim blaming and seen how devastating it can be for the survivor, so I teamed up with a female sexual assault survivor to write this article, in the hopes that those who read it will have a clear idea of What to Do and What Not to Do when someone tells you they were sexually assaulted (personally or in an article).
There are, of course, terrible people out there that will say malicious things like, "You deserve to be raped," — but even if you are not this explicit, you may still be guilty of victim blaming.
Also, I will use the term "survivor," rather than "victim" in this article, as survivor indicates that one went through something but the experience does not define one's identity.
7 Things You Should Not Do When Someone Tells You They Were Sexually Assaulted:
1. Do Not criticize the survivor's actions leading up to or during the assault and Do Not suggest other ways that they could have better handled the situation:
For example, saying something like, "Why didn't you push him off?" or "Why didn't you scream for help?" The assault already happened, so it is at least unproductive to try and break it down, and at worst will result in the survivor blaming themselves.
2. Do Not compare rape stories:
Comparing stories is dehumanizing. For example, if your friend tells you she was raped by a stranger and you say, "Well at least you weren't gang-raped like that girl in India." Note that sometimes other rape victims are also guilty of this, for example: "I was date-raped …" "Well at least you weren't raped by someone you trusted."
3. If you are family of a survivor, Do Not tell the survivor that they should "get over their rape and move on with their life":
In the wake of the assault and through the recovery process, a survivor may change quite a bit. Families may wonder why they can't "just go back to the way things were," or why the survivor can't "just get over it". Families should realize that this kind of trauma doesn't heal like a broken bone and that it may irrevocably change who the person is.
4. If you are family of a survivor, Do Not blame the victim for not being more supportive of the family:
The healing process will be difficult for the family as well, but the focus should always be on the survivor and what they need. This may be more difficult than it sounds.
5. Do Not sympathize with the rapist by saying anything like:
"He was too drunk to know what he was doing."
"Boys will be boys!"
"Well, he thought she consented."
6. Do Not ever prescribe to the idea that "Sometimes, girls just don't know what they want" or that "A man knows what's best":
No never means yes, no matter what a man says. There is no logical argument against this.
* I want to draw special attention to this next Do Not, because I see these kinds of phrases in the comments of almost every sexual assault-related article on PolicyMic: *
7. Do Not ever use any of the following phrases, ever:
"Well maybe if she didn't wear that skimpy outfit she wouldn't have been raped."
"Maybe if she didn't drink so much she wouldn't have been date raped."
"Maybe if she hadn't trusted her boyfriend for so long she wouldn't have been blind-sided and had no idea what was happening to her." (According to the DOJ, about 9 in 10 perpetrators of sexual assault are known to the victim/survivor.)
"Maybe if she was smarter she wouldn't have been raped."
As a guy who has come to these conclusions before, I can understand their appeal. It seems logical and even considerate to encourage "healthier behavior" (like not getting blackout drunk), but the simple fact is that if you say something like this to a survivor, you are victim blaming. If you want to discuss the moral and societal impact of binge-drinking, pick a different venue. I've had these thoughts before when I heard sexual assault stories, but have since realized that they are nothing but demeaning, counterproductive, and hurtful. If you're not convinced, I encourage you to check out these 11 Myths About Sexual Violence, compiled by Georgetown Law School and the Department of Justice.
5 Productive Ways to Support a Sexual Assault Victim:
You could start by saying: "Wow, I can't imagine what that was like at all."
2. Offer to be there:
You could say: "If you ever need to vent, talk, or just cry, you can call me. I'm so sorry." Also, continue to be there. The healing process is long and the survivor will need your support throughout.
3. Offer to listen:
The evidence shows that it is healthier for the survivor to talk about it.
4. As a survivor, if you don't know what to do, don't know what to think, that's normal.
Any way you cope with this is the right way. Do whatever you need to do and be patient with yourself.
5. Remember that this isn't your problem to solve. You're there to support the victim, and that's it:
Just remember that if a survivor of sexual assault reaches out to you, it isn't a problem to be solved, not a situation to which you should try applying your own logic — this is a natural thing for men in particular to do and it's often useful in life, but it is entirely inappropriate in this situation. Remember these tips, empathize, and support the survivor in a productive way, without victim blaming.