*Trigger Warning: This article discusses sexual assault and sexual violence. While there are no graphic descriptions of these actions themselves, the concept and terminology used may be triggering to some.*
Note on terminology: For the duration of this article, I will be using the term “sexual misconduct” as a blanket term to categorize all unwanted sexual advances. “Sexual misconduct” is inclusive of all actions from harassment to rape. It is also important to note that “sexual assault” and “rape” are NOT interchangable terms. Additionally, a “survivor” is an individual who has experienced sexual misconduct. I have chosen to keep the term “survivor” gender neutral and do not use gendered pronouns around the term because sexual misconduct is not exclusive to female identifying individuals and it should not be assumed that only women can be survivors.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It is expected that sexual assault and misconduct would be a part of conversation in April, but if your “for you page” and Facebook feed is anything like mine, these issues have been on full display for the last several months. Nevertheless, it is crucial to take some time in April to sit down and look at sexual misconduct and continue the conversations around it.
In these conversations, survivors may use their own experiences to connect to the topic at hand or begin to feel comfortable enough to discuss their own history with sexual misconduct to you. It is incredible to know that you have allowed someone to feel comfortable and safe enough to talk to you about the sexual misconduct they have faced whether it occurred recently or years ago, but many people don’t know how to respond. Whether you are the first person or the 100th person that someone is telling about their experience, the way you respond has the power to be crucial in how they open up in the future. So what do you do? What should you say?
The truth is, unless you’ve been in their shoes, you don’t know what they’re feeling or need to hear. It doesn’t matter if the person opening up to you is your classmate, roommate, best friend, or sister. No matter how well you know someone who is choosing to tell you about their experience as a survivor of sexual misconduct to any degree, unless it’s happened to you you don’t know what they’ve been through. So what should you do? While it is by no means an exhaustive list, as a trained crisis counselor who has not only had these conversations first hand in a variety of situations, I have also discussed this idea with licensed social workers, other crisis counselors, as well as multiple survivors to provide to you a list of what to do and what not to do when someone is telling you about their experience with sexual misconduct.
DO say “it was not your fault”
While no one outright says “this was your fault” without being very clear that it was not, anything being said may insinuate that it was. Many survivors will go through the motions of how they got to where they were when the event took place but they may or may not make comments that indicate them taking the blame. Either way, it is crucial for you to say “this was not your fault.” Use those exact words and repeat them often and with authority. If the survivor tries to say “yeah but…” repeat it again in saying “it doesn’t matter how it happened, it wasn’t your fault.”
DON’T assume that the survivor knows they are not to blame
Again, tell them “this wasn’t your fault.” Never assume that they already know they weren’t at fault because unless you have been in their shoes, you don’t know. You also have no way of knowing who they have talked to before and what those responses looked like. Many survivors get negative responses when they open up and often have their experiences invalidated because they are told “you shouldn’t have been…” Since you have no way of knowing whether this is something they have been told before or not, do not assume anything.
DO state your support no matter what they choose to do
After an experience with sexual misconduct there are a lot of feelings and emotions for a survivor to experience and also a lot of choices for them to make. Choosing to report an incident is a huge decision and a very personal one for survivors to make. Be very clear that you support their decision, no matter what is it. More importantly, follow through on that by actively supporting whatever they choose to do. This may look like providing a ride to a doctor’s office or police station, assisting in finding resources, or it might look like helping guard the survivor’s privacy in their choice not to report.
DON’T take a side
Unfortunately, I’m sure many of us already know what we think we would want to do if we were to experience sexual misconduct or sexual assault. Whatever that may be for you, do not take a position on one side or another when a survivor is opening up to you. Unless you are a survivor yourself and they explicitly ask you why you made the choices you did, keep your opinions out of the conversation. It isn’t about you. (There could be an exception here if you know the survivor is at risk for physical danger. For example, in a case of sexual violence where the survivor lives with the attacker it may be appropriate for you to encourage them to not return to the home).
DO read the situation
Opening up to someone about past incidents of sexual misconduct is never easy to do, but there is a huge difference between a survivor who is talking to you years after an event took place and a survivor who was just assaulted. Understanding the difference can help you to better handle the situation and better support the survivor. If the event has recently occured, the survivor may be in a panicked state or experiencing a trauma response. Educating yourself on what trauma responses may look like could help you to recognize this in a survivor and help them to recognize it in themself as well. If you are able to recognize a state of panic you may be able to take hold of the conversation by saying something like “let’s breathe together” to help the survivor to calm down and reduce the panic they are feeling.
DON’T ask “were you drinking?” and DON’T ask “what were you wearing?”
While these questions may not always be intentionally geared to place blame, they do always feel like you are placing blame. It simply does not matter if a survivor was drinking or not. It does not matter what they were wearing. Don’t ask. These types of questions invalidate who was at fault and can be very harmful to survivors.
DO suggest resources
Whether you think you know a survivor of sexual assault or not, make yourself aware of the resources available in your area and where to go for more. While providing support and comfort to a survivor is great, you aren’t a therapist, you aren’t a doctor, and you can’t pretend to be. Likely, the survivor is going to need more than you can give to them so knowing where they can get that professional support is huge. While there are some specific resources provided at the conclusion of this article, when in doubt, you can suggest the survivor go to their local hospital. Hospitals will not turn them away and are capable of providing information on local resources of every variety while maintaining confidentiality.
DON’T tell anyone else
What a survivor tells you is confidential. End of discussion. You should not tell anyone else about it. Not because you feel they should know, not because you want to help the survivor not have to say it, never. It is not your place to talk about someone else’s experience with sexual misconduct unless they explicitly ask you to or give you permission to do so. However, having someone tell you about their experience may be triggering for you and it may bring up some of your own emotions. In this case, consider talking to a confidential resource, like a counselor or a therapist if you see one, or a confidential crisis hotline.
DO show kindness
Bottom line, if someone is telling you about their experience with sexual misconduct they are sharing a very personal and painful experience with you. Above all, treat them with kindness. Be a good listener and tell them your support. Put aside judgement and just be kind.
At the end of the day, be supportive and be kind. The more you inform yourself about sexual misconduct, violence, assault and harassment the better you will be educated and equipped to have these types of conversations with others. Take it seriously and be vocal when others do not. It’s okay to be caught off guard or to not know what to say, these are difficult conversations for everyone. It’s important to remember to always return to kindness and support.
Resources Based in the East Lansing Area (not an exhaustive list):
The Listening Ear: (517) 337-1717
A 100% confidential and free crisis hotline based in East Lansing but accessible through the US. (Hours: 2pm-2am 7-days a week)
End Violent Encounters (EVE): (517) 372-5572
Provides supportive services that are free and confidential. Has a 24 hour crisis hotline, online chat option and additional specific sexual assault services.
East Lansing Police: (517) 351-4220
Any of the above resources can put you in touch with more resources as well.