The hardest part about recovering from sexual assault is gathering the courage to reach out for help. I pray to God that some of my female friends never fully understand the trauma of sexual assault, because I never want them to go through that, but you can empathize without having been in the exact position. Still, knowing what to say so when words fail is difficult. When they fail, please just say, “Thank you for feeling safe enough to tell me. I’m so sorry and I know I can never fully grasp what you are going through, but I am here for you and will stay with you.” But please, whatever you do, never say any of these things to a survivor:
1. “What were you wearing? Were you drinking? Oh, well he’s your boyfriend…I’m sure he thought it was okay. You put yourself in that situation.”
We call this “victim-blaming.” You don’t see this as much with victims of other violent crimes, but it is all too prevalent with sexual assault. Yes, of course there are situations that have a higher risk factor. Yes, of course going out drinking and walking alone at night tend to increase the danger factor, but first of all, it SHOULDN’T, and second of all, we do not need you to blame us when we already are blaming ourselves plenty. I’m not speaking for all survivors, everyone’s story and healing is different, but even though I knew it wasn’t my fault and I shouldn’t feel guilty or blame myself, I did. I still do. A lot of survivors are going to go through this process of feeling shameful and guilty even when they do accept it wasn’t their fault. Don’t make this harder on them or make it take longer. You may be very well-intentioned, but use those good intentions to go after the criminal, not the victim.
2. “You shouldn’t let men get to you like that. You’re stronger than that, come on.”
I’m not choosing to “let him get to me.” Believe me, I totally wish I wasn’t upset right now or still thinking about it. I really wish daily interactions with men were no longer triggering. I’m not trying to be a defeatist, but I cannot decide to wake up one day and be better and forget about this (I tried that). I’m not sure I agree with your definition of strength, either. I was also tricked into believing that strength was being unaffected by the storm, not allowing the rain to soak through your clothes into your skin. Being strong meant staying dry by avoiding the rain, but I could only hold on to this definition of strength for so long until I became exhausted. Survivors cannot forget their trauma to heal even if they want to or trick themselves into doing so. Healing involves facing the anxiety and fear and triggers head on and learning how to productively manage them in your life. In fact, I was very proud of the strength it took me to admit that something triggered my PTSD and reach out to friends for support. That’s strength: not pretending it didn’t happen or ignoring what the trauma in your bones is screaming. Please do not trick your loved one into thinking that trying to outrun the storm is stronger than building proper rain collection systems.
3. “You need to stop thinking about it and stop letting it define you. It’s been long enough to get over it; you just have to set your mind to it.”
The healing process, like any other grief process, is a series of steps. However, as with grief, you go back and forth between them and sometimes, years later, find yourself facing your trauma all over again, while on an anniversary or otherwise tame occasion. I for one did not begin “healing” until this year. I repressed the memory for a year and did not let myself deal with it, burying myself in my academics, riding, etc. My mindset was similar to the quote above, but it isn’t true. I had chronic pain, sleeping problems, anxiety, and eventually I couldn’t hide in my work because I couldn’t even work, as the dam burst. Let people take their time healing and remember that you can’t just “set your mind to it” like another goal, even if your conscious mind wants to, the emotional part may need more time.
4. “Why didn’t you go to the police? You would feel better then and wouldn’t have to still be worrying about it.”
Firstly, I recommend that any victim go straight to the police: don’t change your clothes or wash yourself, go straight to the hospital for a rape kit. Although this is not always the first thing on a victim’s mind, it raises the odds for justice. However, victims, sometimes date-raped, may not even fully remember or understand what happened or may be too focused on securing safety first. Others are scared and do not want to go through the traumatic process of answering the police’s often victim-blaming questions and then facing their attacker in court. It is a lengthy and difficult process that takes immense courage as the criminal justice system handles rape rather poorly. And more so, it doesn’t matter at this point that they chose not to go to the police. They have come to you for support and because they feel safe and this line of questioning does not offer that support they are seeking.
5. “Oh no, you’re totally safe. I don’t know why you are freaking out about it. Women aren’t going to get raped unless you’re out past 2 alone or walk down a bad street.”
Who made you the expert on how, when, and where women get raped? First of all, rape happens all times of the day and in all parts of town. In fact, most women know their rapist. It isn’t always the gun-to-your-head-in-a-dark-alley-way violence always. It is “I trusted you” violence. It is fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, best friends, first dates, cute guy from the park. It is “but you love me, don’t you?” Second of all, it is not so much the actual chances of being raped, but the fear of the chance no matter how small it is. Survivors tend to live in fear. I check my locks twice, look in the backseat before I get in my car, avoid going anywhere (even the grocery store at3pm) alone, and some days I cannot distinguish any man from any potential attack. Trauma screams. No matter how irrational you think someone’s fear may be (they probably do too), they can’t help but hear their brain yelling at them to protect themselves because this situation looks a lot like the last time they were hurt. We’re trying to feel safe again, don’t trivialize that need.
6. “I’m sorry but I just don’t believe that you didn’t actually want it. You still had sex with him and cheated on me.”
This is a common one I have heard from boyfriends whose girlfriends are survivors. All I’ve gotta say is…for real, dude? Once again, if someone feels safe enough with you to confide, trust them like they trust you. Rape is NOT sex. Sex is consensual. Rape is a violent crime and has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power and control. The worst thing for a survivor is to not be believed and then blamed for it. This is on par with countries that blame women for adultery after rape and sentence them to stoning. If your significant other ever tells you this after your confide in them, slam the door hard on your way out.
7. “Oh well, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?”
No. This makes me feel like I have no control over my own body. This makes me feel like my words have no impact when “stop” means nothing. This makes me feel weak. Yes, I do believe that great effects have come out of my trauma because it has allowed me to reach out to other women and find my voice to have impact again and help prevent assault for others, but this trivializes my experience to nothing more than a small injury where the skin will grow back stronger. This may sound light and encouraging, but it shows how little you understand about both the short and long term impacts of rape. Would you say this to someone who had come back from war with PTSD or to a victim of any other violent crime like kidnapping or attempted murder?
9. “That wasn’t rape. It wasn’t like you were forced down in an alley with a gun to your head. You could’ve got out of it.”
Rape is rape is rape. If “yes” is not explicit, consent is not implicit. As aforementioned, rape can happen between significant others and previous consent does not guarantee future consent. Not screaming and kicking does not equal yes. Some women, especially previous victims, will disassociate the second their brain recognizes the situation as similar to a previous rape and thus will not be fighting back. This does not imply consent. Every survivor’s experience is different and for some being raped by a long term loved one will be just as traumatic as the “Hollywood” alley-way rape. Please, never, ever, ever trivialize anyone’s experience just because it does not fit your prototype for what rape looks like.
10.”I can’t believe you didn’t tell me sooner.”
They are telling you now. You may be hurt because you feel like they didn’t trust you enough, but they are trusting you now. Don’t turn them away. Don’t be concerned with your ego when they finally feel safe enough to tell you. It isn’t personal and I promise you they wish they could have told you sooner. They feel safe here with you now, don’t make them feel like they can’t come back and be safe here again.