The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
Trigger warning: sexual assault (SA). For the purpose of this article and stories within, I’ll be referring to both parties involved as “abuser” and “survivor” (for lack of better words). Language is important when addressing this topic, and word choice matters. I acknowledge that I’m not an expert on this topic, and this is merely an opinion piece from my own perspective. I’m still learning so much, and I make space for any questions or mistakes made when facing this subject. Be patient with yourself and others.
Many months ago, I turned 21. A mutual friend messaged me, telling me that he couldn’t wait to buy me a drink at the bar. That weekend, he bought me the drink, we took a picture together, and I posted it publicly on my social media. As the night came to a close, he pulled me into a hug and asked for a kiss on the cheek. I told him, no, but he insisted. As I went to politely peck him on the cheek, he grabbed my chin and pulled me into a kiss. I pushed away from him and told him goodnight, leaving the bar with an uneasy feeling. The following morning I received a frightening text message.
I opened the notification to see a friend telling me that the guy posted on my social media had sexually assaulted her in September. Suddenly, I remembered the kiss I was pressured into. I remembered the feeling of needing to get away and how that moment showed me the capability he had of pressuring (or forcing) another girl into doing something she wasn’t comfortable with. I felt a lot of things: relief that I ignored previous flirtatious messages from him, embarrassment that I posted him (what if people thought I supported him?), anger at him for grabbing me and any other girl nonconsensually, and sympathy for the girl that messaged me. It took such courage to message a person about a traumatic event from her past. At this moment, I believed her, but I wasn’t sure what to say. If you’ve ever been in a situation like this, you might understand that conflict.
While that mutual friend felt comfortable sharing with me over a message. Confessions of SA can be done in a number of ways: each requiring support. In autumn 2021, I was told about the SA of two friends. One friend (A) shared with me that she was assaulted by a man she deemed was a close friend. She felt so safe talking to me, and even revisiting the event when we had conversations about trauma. “A” handled her assault by living with it, and also by sharing her knowledge from it. She often posted and/or reposted inspiring quotes or messages about living with and moving on from trauma, as well as the loss of a friend. For her, that assault not only took away her trust and faith in men, it also took away a close male friend she previously hoped would be in her life forever. As much as I respect A for growing from her trauma, it wasn’t until months later that I learned her roommate (Z) had experienced the same assault. With the same male.
Throughout the semester, I was not particularly close with “Z,” so they never shared this trauma with me.Instead, I learned about it through social media. One evening, I saw that Z posted a painting they made as a means to cope with their assault. The painting included a quote from the abuser that often replayed in the survivors head: “The more you say no, the more I want you.” In its caption, Z explained the painting and even named their abuser directly, going so far as to tag his social media handle. Yes, tagged him so everyone knew who he was. That’s pretty badass. I admired this taking back of power. Z might have felt embarrassed and hurt by this event, but they took back their power publicly, perhaps even making space and creating visibility for fellow survivors that attend our small town university. I have so much respect for the ability to do that. Z inspired me to write this article. Their strength and courage from making that post was so impressive, and I hope they never lose the power they took back.
While each of these individuals lived with their assault in different ways, they were both met with support from me. Each time, I thought carefully about how to respond. If you’re reading this article for advice on saying the right thing, I can certainly offer you a guideline. I also will add, these points are not in order or importance. If you utilize this article, feel free to use whatever order you desire. In this era of openness about sexual assault, many people fear saying the wrong thing. The reality is, you might mess up what you say, or perhaps come off unaware or hurtful. The important thing is to have the best intentions. The fact that you’re reading this article proves to me that you care enough to learn and improve yourself. That’s a great first step. Now, I will say that while each situation might be unique, if you’re being told about SA, it’s a good choice to be delicate in your response, without being condescending. This person chose to trust you, and that is a big deal.
The first step is to thank them for sharing this difficult story with you. It hasn’t been easy for them to give that traumatic information to another person. In moments of shared vulnerability like this, I’d say it’s important to let the person know that you’re a safe person to tell. I also want to add, when you begin speaking to this person, avoid starting with a condescending tone (or using one at all). Avoid using, what I’ve recently heard called, a “drop voice.” This is basically a head tilt with a lowered volume “you okay?,” the intention might be good, but the execution comes off as condescending (1).
Sometimes there isn’t much you can say to them. In all fairness, it is kind of a jarring thing to be told out of the blue. You’re not wrong for being stunned or at a lack for words. However, if you’re too silent or show more discomfort (rather than compassion) about the news, you run the risk of the survivors feeling judged or vulnerable after sharing fragile information. In moments when I’m at a loss for words, I recommend sharing about just that: as respectfully as possible. I’ll elaborate on this later with an example. (2)
Thirdly, this moment with your friend is meant to be empathetic. Give less awareness to how you felt receiving this information, and more awareness of how this has psychologically affected a young person you care about. If you feel able to take on their trauma, let them know you’re here to listen.You can ask if they’d like to talk more about it. This can be asking if they’d feel comfortable sharing more at this present time, or perhaps you aren’t able to currently sit and talk for a while. If you don’t have time to give them just yet, maybe you can offer up a future time to be there for them. It may be that the survivor needs a space to vent or maybe they’re looking for advice. Ask them what they need from you or what they might be comfortable sharing. Give them space to speak and/ or change their mind if the subject gets too uncomfortable for them to talk about. At this point, I want to add, if you are NOT comfortable hearing this, now is an okay time to gently let them know that too. This conversation is not about talking for the sake of talking. If you feel that you aren’t able to manage this conversation, it’s okay to bow out (3).
Finally, whether you want to listen, or would rather not, it can be a good idea to ask them who else knows about this. Have they told any offices or professionals that work with sexual assault? Are they seeking counseling? Do any family or other friends know? At the end of the day, you are not a professional (I assume). If this event affected them deeply, they should be encouraged to seek professional help or some kind of action, aside from talking with a friend. However, even if they have done this/want to do this in the future, they may just need a friend to talk to, regardless of their plans (4).
I’ll now offer you an example of a thoughtful response using the prior tips:
Oh wow. I’ll be honest, I’ve never been told that before, so I’m sorry if I don’t say much or if I say the wrong thing (2). Thank you so much for telling me that. It couldn’t have been easy, but thank you for trusting me (1). Like I said, I haven’t had a friend share that with me before, so I’m not sure what I can offer you, but I’m here to listen if you need to talk about it. You have my full support (3). Have you told anyone else about this (4)?
As I offered in my above explanations, you might not be comfortable hearing this topic (for personal reasons or whatever the case may be). That is perfectly acceptable. In moments of your feeling that way, kindly let the survivor know how you feel, without making them feel isolated or like they’ve overshared with someone they can’t trust:
Oh wow. I’ll be honest, I’ve never been told that before, so I’m sorry if I don’t say much or if I say the wrong thing (2). Thank you so much for telling me that. It couldn’t have been easy, but thank you for trusting me (1). I’m a little uncomfortable with this topic, and I’m not knowledgeable on it at all. I wish there was more I could offer you, but I don’t think I have time to sit and talk right now OR Thank you for reaching out to me, but I’m not in a good headspace to respond to this right now. I’d love to reach out later when I’m better prepared to help you.(3). I care about you a lot, and I want to make sure you can talk to someone qualified. Have you talked to anyone else about this (4)?
I want to add that any of these variables can be switched around or even worded differently, and they should be. This is not a script to be repeated with every situation or confession of SA, but merely a guideline to advise you on an appropriate direction to take if you’ve never previously had experience with this topic.