What To Say When Someone Tells You They've Been Sexually Assaulted
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What To Say When Someone Tells You They've Been Sexually Assaulted

Every 98 seconds, another American is sexually assaulted.

What To Say When Someone Tells You They've Been Sexually Assaulted
Aasha Shaik

Trigger warning: sexual assault, rape, victim-blaming, PTSD, suicidal thoughts

If you know more than five women, statistics say that at least one of them has been or will be sexually assaulted. Rape culture is still highly prevalent and while we all need to take long-term steps to break it down, in the short-term, we need to be supportive of survivors. The responses survivors get can often shape the way they do or do not move forward. A supportive response is therefore critical, whether you are the first person they tell or the hundredth.

With how common these experiences are, there is a high likelihood that someone you know might share their own with you. You may think you would know how to respond—or, on the other hand, you might think you’re not the kind of person someone would come to with something like that, so you don’t need to be ready for it. But, the reality is that these experiences can come out and be shared when, or even to who, we least expect.

The following suggestions are based on personal experiences of talking to survivors, but it’s crucial to understand that traumas like these have unique impacts: one survivor may need or want different support or different things said to them than another, and they are all still just as valid.

That said, here are the basics for what you should and shouldn’t say to someone who tells you they have been sexually assaulted:

Say something.

It doesn’t matter if the person didn’t tell you one-on-one, or if it was in a group, semi-public, or online setting. It doesn’t matter if you think you aren’t that close with the person. The survivor still made a conscious choice to let you know about a very personal experience they went through—typically not a light decision—so that tends to mean you should respond. The exception, of course, is if they explicitly say they would prefer you do not.

Even if you think you don’t know what to say, simply saying, “I’m so sorry you went through that” or “I’m here for you” is a million times better than saying nothing at all. Opening up about trauma is incredibly difficult, and getting no response can make it seem like you just don’t care enough to say anything—or worse, that you don’t believe them.

Only say “I believe you” if it’s relevant.

This one can especially vary from survivor to survivor. On one hand, it can be a vital affirmation for a survivor who is minimizing their experience, blaming themselves for it, or is scared to tell others because they think they won’t be believed.

On the other hand, saying this to a survivor who isn’t going through those thoughts can cause a “wait, why wouldn’t you believe me?” moment. Some studies estimates of false accusations are as low as 2%, and average only 6%—and that's only out of the cases that are reported, which are are quite a minority. So, even statistically speaking, there is little reason not to believe a survivor—saying “I believe you” to someone who doesn’t need to hear it could just remind them of the number of people out there who might not believe them regardless, and make the idea of speaking up about their assault that much more terrifying.

“It’s not your fault.”

This is another response that should only be said when it’s relevant, for the same reasons as “I believe you.” That said, this is, unfortunately, far more likely to be a relevant and beneficial response because over 60% of women who have been sexually assaulted place at least partial blame on themselves. It is never the fault of the survivor, and hearing this from someone else can be a vital reminder.

“Thank you for telling me” and “I’m so sorry you went through that.”

These are two that are almost always appropriate to say and are easy initial responses, especially if you don’t know what to say at first.

Sharing stories of trauma are emotionally and often even physically difficult. Saying “thank you” acknowledges how hard it may have been for the survivor to tell you, and appreciates that they trust you with something so sensitive. It also gives you an extra few seconds to process what you have just been told and figure out what to say, if you need to. "I'm sorry" does that too, and recognizes how awful and unacceptable of a crime sexual assault truly is.

Don’t ask for details if they’re not offering them.

Just telling someone what happened in broad terms can be impossible enough for many survivors; going into the details of what actually happened (whether it be how far it went, how it started, or any other specifics of the incident) is a whole different ball game. You can definitely ask if they want to share any details (“do you want to talk about what happened?”). This can actually be very helpful because it opens the door and lets them know they can tell you if they want to, but don’t pressure them for details or question them about it.

Don’t ask questions that suggest they are to blame.

As a general rule, don’t question their experience or story. While #1 was that saying something is almost always better than nothing, this is an instance when nothing is definitely better. Asking victim-blaming questions, such as if they're sure they “don't just regret it,” whether they’d been flirting, why they didn’t say “no” or try to leave, or whether the assailant was drunk, can all be incredibly detrimental to a survivor’s recovery by suggesting they are to blame—when, in reality, sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault.

Share resources with them.

There are numerous local and national resources available for those in need, as well as specifically for survivors of sexual assault and rape. There is only so much you can do as someone who isn’t trained in dealing with such trauma, so directing the survivor to a resource that is better prepared to help is completely appropriate. Sharing resources also shows that you care enough to look different options up for the person, and are taking it seriously.

Some national resources include Crisis Text Line, a free 24/7 service that allows anyone in crisis to text a trained counselor; RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), which has an online chat option; and the National Sexual Assault Hotline, run by RAINN, which can be called 24/7 at 1-800-656-4673.

While these resources are most commonly used for immediate assistance, they can also connect survivors to the longer-term support they may need, such as therapy.

Don’t say anything that minimizes the incident or the survivor’s healing.

94% of women who are raped have symptoms of PTSD two weeks after the assault, and one in three still show those symptoms nine months after. Another one in three considers suicide, and more than one-in-ten attempt it.

Rape and sexual assault have serious, long-term effects. Saying things like, “it happened so long ago, just let it go and move on” or “it could’ve been worse”—just two of many examples that minimize the trauma—ignores the inherent severity of crimes like these. The process of healing takes years and years for many survivors. It’s difficult to understand what going through something so traumatic is like when you haven’t been through it yourself, so don’t pass judgment on how serious what happened was, or on anyone’s process or timeline of healing.

“I’m here for you”—if you mean it.

Especially because 70% of survivors know their perpetrator, trusting people in their lives can be difficult afterward. Trusting someone enough to share their experience with them is, therefore, a big deal. Hearing that you are willing to be there for them can mean a lot—but for the same reason, also be careful not to over-promise. If you know you have a lot going on in your own life or for any other reason can't be there for the person, don’t say you will be because that will just be another letdown. Instead, you can direct them towards other resources.

If you do say you’re there for them, check in with them occasionally. This is especially important because of the high rates of subsequent issues survivors face, as listed above. Obviously don’t treat them differently, because that’s a fear that prevents many survivors from telling people to begin with. However, you can still check in with them and see how they’re doing from time to time. Unless they ask you not to, they are likely to appreciate it because it shows you genuinely care and acknowledge the severity of the trauma.

“Is there anything you want right now?” or “Is there anything I can do?”

The survivor might not have an answer to this, especially if they are overwhelmed as is. But, asking them still gives them some level of control and is the easiest way to make sure that you are being supportive and saying things that are actually helpful for them to hear. Just be sure to be respectful of whatever they say and not question them for it.

Discuss possible options, but don’t pressure them to do anything and don’t underestimate the barriers to reporting.

Part of the reason sexual assault and rape are so traumatic is because they involve a loss of control. While you may think you are helping by trying to get them to report the assault or take any other action, pressuring them to do so can feel like taking away their sense of control all over again. Ultimately, whether or not to take action is up to the survivor, and while you should feel free to discuss possible options or paths, don’t pressure them or act disappointed if they don’t want to. Similarly, if the survivor is sharing their experience with you after some time has passed, don’t question why they did or didn’t take action or report it at the time. Recognize that there is far more that goes into the decision of whether to report than what you may understand.

In an ideal world, yes, every survivor would report the crime and every assailant would be locked away so they can’t violate someone else. But, the fact of the matter is that that is not how it goes a wide majority of the time, and there are legitimate obstacles to reporting sexual assault. From social backlash to victim-blaming responses to having to rehash exact details over and over again, the process of reporting the crime is often traumatic in and of itself. Add in the fact that 70% of survivors knew their perpetrators beforehand, whether as family members, friends, or partners, and that only complicates things further.

An unacceptable mere 0.7% of rapists are convicted, making these very long and strenuous lengths to go through for an incredibly slim chance of ever getting justice. There are serious barriers—and consequences—to reporting sexual assault. Until we have a justice system and society that doesn’t blame the survivor or cause further trauma, it is unacceptable to force survivors to bear the burden for reporting the crime, on top of all that they have already been through.

Ask first if you want to hug them.

This one is super simple, but also super important. It’s natural to want to hug someone after they share something so personal, and it’s often also comforting. That said, make sure to ask for consent first—anything from “can I hug you?” to “do you want a hug?” works. Some survivors are (understandably) more sensitive to or anxious about being touched as a result of their assault. Even those who aren’t usually more sensitive to it might be in that moment; talking about the trauma often triggers such sensitivities, regardless of whether it’s a week, a month, a year, or even a decade later.

In the time it has taken you to read this article, nearly 5 more people in America alone have been sexually assaulted. Knowing how to respond is the very least we can do as friends, family, co-workers, teachers, and fellow human beings. Don't be complacent to the problem; actively choose to be part of the solution.

Educate yourself about the issue. Call out behavior and "jokes" that contribute to the rape culture that perpetuates these crimes. Support survivors.

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