Sexual assault is not something that you can just “get over”. It is not only physically oppressive but also mentally, emotionally, and cognitively damaging.
Whenever a person chooses to rape or sexually assault another individual, they are not only affecting the victim’s life in a drastic way, but also their parents, friends, and loved ones. The months and years after a sexual assault can be filled with fear, isolation, confusion, and hatred toward oneself and their attacker. It is important that the survivor has a supportive network of loved ones to help guide them through their healing.
Of course, this is not an easy process. It is painful for the victim to open up about their experience and it is also difficult to know what to say when someone you love tells you that they have been raped.
Here are some “guidelines” to speaking to someone about their sexual assault:
1. Don’t blame the victim
It took a lot of courage for this person to open up to you and tell you about their experience. The single worst thing you could do is tear them down even more by blaming them. Victim blaming can happen in a variety of ways. There is the obvious: saying they shouldn’t have been out that late, saying they should have not gone to that party, etc. Blame, however, can also come in the form of a question. These are just as hurtful and can make the victim feel as if you are belittling their feelings and their experience. A few common ways you can blame someone with a question includes: “Were you drinking?” “What were you wearing?” “Well, did you fight back?”. All of these questions take the blame off of the rapist and on to the victim.
2. Don’t tell the victim they have to report the attack (if they chose not to)
There are a variety of reasons why an individual will choose not to or not want to report the attack to authorities. Going along with number 1, it is no secret that the media and society puts blame on the victim. For example, in the 2012 Steubenville rape case, a high school girl was incapacitated by alcohol and was repeatedly raped and humiliated on camera by two sixteen year old high school football players. The two boys recorded the assault and sent the video to other students who then chose to post the video of her rape all over social media. When the girl reported the attack to school officials, they ignored her plea for help. The two boys were charged of rape of a minor and the school officials were charged for obstruction of justice. When the verdict of the two football players was reached, there was a national out-cry. People were furious that these boys were being punished as adults. I don’t know about you, but I think a sixteen year old boy is old enough to know that rape is wrong and is perfectly capable of controlling his actions. As if this young girl had not gone through enough already, the media had a field day. Saying things like “I feel bad for the two young guys, Mays and Richmond, they did what most people in their situation would have done.” and “There goes those poor boys’ futures!”. Do they even care about what her future will look like now? Did they forget who the victim is? Possibly the one whose sexual assault went viral on the internet and around the world..
Usually when a person chooses not to report their attack, it is to avoid a traumatic legal battle and having to face their attacker again. Please do not press the issue.
(For more examples of why people choose not to report their rape, read here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/13/us/how-one-college-handled-a-sexual-assault-complaint.html?_r=0 )
3. Do ask them how they are doing
Many people’s first reaction when someone tells them they have been raped, is anger. This is completely normal and expected. However, the first thing to come out of your mouth shouldn’t be “what’s his name?”. We understand that you are angry and will do anything to seek justice, however, a survivor, especially if they chose not to report the individual, never wants to say/hear their attackers name ever again. And if a survivor refuses to tell you the name of their attacker, it is not to defend and protect them but to protect their loved ones from making a mistake and getting into trouble.
Instead, ask the survivor how they are feeling and if they are safe. Ask them how they are dealing with this experience and if you can help in any way. Usually by the time a survivor starts opening up about what happened to them, they have had some time to begin healing. If they have not, this is when you can help guide them in the right direction. It won’t be a quick or easy process but it makes all the difference in the world to have a support system.
4. Do not “just pretend it never happened”
Outward appearances can be deceiving. Many times, a survivor can put on a mask and convince themselves and the world that they are happy and the event no longer haunts them. Do not be fooled by this. Victims of all kinds of abuse try this coping mechanism because sometimes it is easier to ignore reality and sweep it under the rug. This may provide temporarily relief but the memories and pain are always the last thing on their mind before they fall asleep. Never stop checking up on their healing progress but try not to do this is a nagging way. Be there in a supportive, loving way. This can just be including them in daily activities, asking them how they are feeling, watching their moods, and giving them space when they need it.
5. Do suggest that they get professional help
If they have not already chosen to do so on their own, it helps to have a little bit of encouragement. They may know very early on that they need to seek professional help but could be too afraid to do so. They are afraid of opening up, being judged, being blamed, etc. If they are not ready to speak to a therapist just yet, be patient. They will choose to go when they are ready.
6. Do remember what makes them special in the first place
Among the craziness of dealing with a traumatic event, an individual may become lost for a while and lose who they are temporarily. This can manifest in a variety of ways such as rebellion, depression, anxiety, anger, hatred, regret, etc. Do not let these temporary side-effects cloud your judgement on the person you love. Remember what makes them happy, what makes them smile and do not give up on them. If they were brave enough to open up, they trust you and love you enough to share one of their darkest moments with you.
I understand that every situation is different and so is every person. These are not strict guide lines and can be altered and customized for your specific situation. However, two things remain the same. Never stop showing you care and be sensitive to their feelings.
I hope that this reaches someone who cannot find the words. But most of all, I hope that one day we will not need a guideline on how to speak to survivors because rape will cease to exist.