The 5 Best and Worst Things to Say to a Sexual Assault Survivor

1 in every 5 women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime. This is a statistic that we’ve all likely come across—and shuddered at—but it leaves out one key piece of information: if 1 in every 5 women are raped, that includes 1 in every 5 women that you know. Rape and sexual assault are incredibly widespread problems, and because of the huge amount of sexual abuse that goes unreported, it is much more common than you might think it is.

I spent 2 years in a toxic relationship with a partner who sexually abused me more times than I can even count. When it was over and I realized the weight of what I had been through, it was incredibly difficult to talk to people about it. Some people knew exactly what I needed to hear, and some people made me relive the experiences just to invalidate them. Here are the 5 best and worst things that people said to me when I came forward and suggestions for how to support someone who shares their experience with you.

The Worst:

5. “What were you wearing that day?”

Say it with me: clothing has nothing to do with consent. Not one thing! Not only does asking this question place blame on the victim, but it also makes excuses for the perpetrator. It doesn’t matter what someone is wearing. No article of clothing can work as a substitute for clear and freely given consent.

4. “Were you drunk?”

Speaking of freely given consent, it stops existing the moment someone becomes incapacitated from drugs or alcohol. It doesn’t matter if the victim was drunk. What matters is that someone chose to take advantage of them when they were unable to defend themself. Everyone should have the right to feel safe and comfortable, whether or not they are intoxicated.

3. “Had you said yes before?”

Consent is not ongoing. If you’ve given someone consent once, that doesn’t mean that you’ve given it to them indefinitely. Many victims of sexual abuse already place unjust blame on themselves. Adding to that burden by forcing them to justify a relationship with their abuser is unnecessary and cruel.

2. “Okay, but don’t judge their whole personality based on what they did.”

It is very common for victims of sexual abuse to have some sort of relationship with their abusers. This often means that victims and perpetrators have mutual friends or loved ones, which can make the conversation about their experience even more difficult. As hard as it is to imagine your friend or loved one as abusive toward someone else, it is never acceptable to tell the victim how to deal with their trauma or how they should feel toward their abuser.  

1. “Are you sure you don’t just regret sleeping with them?”

This is the mother of all invalidating comments. Unfortunately, it’s basically inevitable for people who don’t come forward immediately after their assault. Here’s a general rule of thumb: survivors of sexual assault don’t lie about their experiences, even if they happened a long time ago. There is no incentive to make up a story about abuse. If someone comes forward to you about their experience, it is never acceptable to assume they are lying, let alone to outright accuse them of it.

The Best:

5. “Let’s go slash their tires!”

Okay, okay. So you definitely shouldn’t be going out and committing crimes (no matter how much you might want to). The point is that sometimes it’s nice to have a reminder that people are willing to stand up for you in whatever way you need. Plus, a little comic relief can help remind the victim that this new information doesn’t mean that you’re afraid to joke around and still be their friend.

4. “What do you need me to do?”

This question lets the victim know that you are there for them. Chances are they are not going to need you to do much except be there for them. They also might not know what they need right away, so try not to be frustrated if the conversation feels slow or awkward.

3. “I believe you.”

One reason why so many people choose not to come forward about their experiences with sexual abuse is that the fear of people not believing them is too big to face. Working up the courage to come forward just to be called a liar is one of the most invalidating and hurtful things that someone can go through, so letting them know right away that you are in their corner is always a good idea.

2. “Their choices are a reflection on them, not on you.”

This is one of the most helpful statements anyone has ever said to me. After a sexual assault, it can feel like you are walking around in someone else’s body. You might feel guilt, anxiety, blame and a million other overwhelming emotions. Reminding the victim that they are still themself and that they haven’t done anything to deserve what happened to them is incredibly powerful.

1. “I’m listening.”

Sexual abuse affects everyone differently. There is no one ‘right’ thing to do or say when someone tells you about their experience. The best thing you can do is let them know that you are there for them, no matter what.