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5 Things You Should Never Say to a Sexual Assault Survivor

*Trigger Warning* This article contains descriptions and language related to sexual violence, abuse, and trauma. 

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This month is dedicted to the visibility and prevention of sexual violence, abuse, harassment, and trauma. 

Sexual assault can be perpetrated in many different ways: unwanted fondling or touching, forced penetrative sex, forced oral sex, or any other coerced sexual activity. According to RAINN, 1 out of every 6 American women and 1 out of every 33 American men have been the victim of a rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. In addition, an American is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds. Sexual violence affects millions of people in the United States per year, which is why this month is so important to recognize. 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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One of the most imperative ways to educate yourself this April is to learn how to support and respond to survivors. Many victims of sexual assault struggle to speak up and often grapple with fear, shame, and guilt. If a friend or loved-one decides to come to you with their story, you need to be prepared with a response that will make them feel safe, supported, and heard. To help you be the best ally you can be, here are five topics and phrasings that you should definitely avoid when talking to a survivor about their experiences. 

Any questions about the circumstances of the situation

When a sexual assault victim is sharing their story, avoid asking them interrogative questions about the situation. These questions include: 

"What were you wearing?"

"Were you drinking/drunk?" 

"Why did you invite them to your place?"

"Why did you go to their place?"

"Why did you go to that party?"

"Were you leading them on?"

"Did you say no?"

These questions insinuate victim-blaming. Victim-blaming is defined as an attitude that suggests the victim holds responsibility for their assault. Only 230 out of every 1,000 assault crimes are reported to the police, which means 3 out of every 4 assaults goes unreported. Victim-blaming is a leading cause for this statistic.

Sexual violence can occur in various ways, but one thing remains constant: it is never the victim’s fault.  It doesn’t matter what they were wearing, where they were, who they were with, or how much alcohol they had to drink before... so don’t ask.  

Why didn't you report it or talk about it sooner?

It’s very normal for survivors to wait a long time before opening up about their sexual trauma. The recent #MeToo movement is a clear example of how many women have experienced sexual assault, yet never said anything about it. There are lots of reasons why this happens.

One of the most common reasons is that it can take years for a victim to process their trauma and fully comprehend their assault, especially if it happened at a younger age. In addition, despite 51.1 percent of sexual assaults being committed by intimate partners, many women don’t recognize their experiences as rape because it was by a spouse or romantic partner. Other women see their experience as “not serious enough” to speak about or report to the police, which is never the case. 

Another reason is shame, embarrassment, and self-blame. Sexual assault can leave a victim  feeling invaded, dehumanized, and humiliated. In addition, there is a social stigma in our culture that places judgement and shame on sexually active women. Women are hesitant to open up about sexual acts, even those that are non-consensual, out of fear of being slut-shamed. Some survivors might feel that because they were under the influence or wearing certain clothes that their assault will be invalidated. Others may be afraid that no one will believe them because they lack proof or evidence.

To sum it up, there are many complex reasons for why victims can take months or years to open up about their trauma. Asking them about these reasons can be harmful, and only encourage further guilt and shame.  

Why didn't you fight back or say no? 

Avoid asking questions such as:

“Why didn’t you just hit them?”

“Why didn’t you say no?” 

“Why didn’t you scream or fight back?” 

These types of questions carry implications that the victim was at fault. A victim is not responsible for stopping or preventing the crime that was committed against them. 

In addition, one of the biggest myths related to sexual assault is that not fighting back or not saying no is equal to giving consent. This is definitely not the case. In fact, freezing up is a very common response to terror and trauma. Sexual abuse is so complex and can be inflicted by both physical intimidation and emotional coersion. 

Any phrase that begins with "at least..."

You should never compare one sexual assault story to another.

Using phrases similar to “well, at least they didn’t do this/that” or “at least this/that didn’t happen to you”  is very ineffective. While it may seem like a helpful way to make your loved one feel better about their experience, it could actually make them feel dismissed, invalidated, and embarrassed. It’s more constructive to acknowledge their present pain, and make sure they know they are in a safe space to share their feelings and trauma. 

This response could also contribute to rape culture. Rape culture is a societal attitude that normalizes sexual violence and aggression from men to women. It perpetuates beliefs such as “boys will be boys” and “it happens to all women, that’s just how it is.” Dismissing a survivor’s story by comparing it to another that is considered worse preserves this toxic cultural narrative.

But weren't you in a relationship?

In 2015, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen defended sexual allegations against Trump from his ex-wife by stating to a reporter, “You cannot rape your spouse.” 

This false statement sparked many necessary conversations about the lack of education about marital rape and sexual assault between intimate partners. Rape by romantic partner is actually more common than stranger rape. In fact, one in every 10 women has been sexually assaulted by a spouse or intimate partner in their lifetime.

When a survivor is sharing their story with you, do not question their relationship with the offender. Being in a relationship with someone does not automatically ensure consent for all sexual interactions, and should definitely not excuse coerced sexual activity. Questions like “but aren’t you dating?” or “but haven’t you been intimate with them before” simply aren’t relevant. 

If you’re not sure what you should say when speaking to a sexual assault survivor, a few good places to start include:

“I believe you, and it’s not your fault.” 

“Thank you for finding the courage to share this with me.” 

“You don’t have to decide anything right now, but I will support you if you want to take action in the future.” 

“You are not responsible for this.” 

These conversations can be very difficult and painful to navigate for both parties. All in all, the most important thing to do is provide a safe, non-judgmental space for your loved-one to feel listened to and supported. 

While there has been tons of progress made in the fight to end sexual violence, there is still work, education, and destigmatization to be done. Learning to be an ally is the first step that we should all take.

Sarah Bradley is pursuing a B.S. in Digital Media & Communications from Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. She has completed various marketing and editorial internships with Glitter Magazine, 60 Seconds Magazine, and S&S Studios. In addition, she recently earned her Florida real estate license and is currently practicing with Luxe Real Estate Co. She loves cooking new recipes, drinking iced coffee, journaling, reading romance novels, and binge-watching bad reality television.
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