What to say – and what not to say – to someone who has been sexually assaulted
I have been sexually assaulted.
There I said it.
That’s the tough bit out the way..
I don’t say this to get sympathy (although that would be OK), or to get your attention (the idea someone would want attention brought to this part of their life seems nuts to me).. I’m simply saying this to offer context on what I’m about to write.
I’ve had plenty of those horrible incidents where I’ve been grabbed in bars or just trying to live my life. I don’t know any girl that hasn’t. It is sexual assault. We are all living with the repercussions of that. It’s not OK.
I’ve also had 2 other times where I was sexually assaulted and it was much, much worse. People that I trusted or that should have been looking out for me took serious advantage of me when I was vulnerable in the worst possible way. It was horrific.
But that’s not what this post is about.
I’ve done a huge amount of work on these experiences to get to the point I’m at today. A point where I can open up about what happened to me. I can let go of that hideous, crushing feeling inside. I can be me.
It’s not been easy. In fact, it’s still a work in progress. But these things are no longer holding me back or affecting my relationships and that’s huge.
Therapy has played a massive role in getting me to this point as have some ultra brilliant friends and family. It’s a big part of the reason I chose to be a therapist myself. I get to be part of that positive, life changing stuff with other people. I treasure it.
But it hasn’t all been rosy. There’s been some pretty dark patches. Some of those have come from surprising places, even once or twice from therapists who were supposed to be helping me.
Don’t get me wrong, the positives of therapy have massively outweighed the negatives, but I have come to realise through my own experiences and seeing the backlash to the hugely helpful me too movement that not everyone knows how to respond to survivors who open up.
Here’s some guidance as to what to say – and what not to say..
What not to say
“You should/will be grateful for that experience.”
I completely understand the need for gratitude in life and that you can come to appreciate the extra strength you get from surviving these experiences, but this is not the time for gratitude.
It’s time to listen and support.
“I think you are being too harsh on him”
This person thought I was being too harsh on the man that sexually assaulted me by calling him predatory. If someone is opening up to you they need support not judgement.
If you want to consider the other person’s side of the story the victim might not be the best person to do that with, particularly immediately after they’ve told you.
“Everything happens for a reason”
I understand that might be your ethos but it is not helpful here. Those that have been assaulted or abused know that if everything happens for a reason sometimes it’s a really, really awful reason.
Platitudes aren’t good enough for every situation. Its good to think about the implications of what you are saying and if you can’t think of anything it’s OK to wait a while.
“You need to be more positive. Negativity attracts negativity. This is why bad things happen to you.”
Again I understand you are trying to help but this is a form of victim blaming. Positivity has a happy impact and negativity can make situations worse, but happy people can get assaulted too I’m afraid.
Their attitude did not do this to them, the perpetrator did.
In response to I feel such guilt – “that’s crazy/ridiculous/insane”
I know this is meant to be helpful but it doesn’t play out that way.
Sadly the most common response to sexual assault isn’t fight or flight as we hope it would be – it’s freeze. Your brain offers no helpful suggestions for how to get out of the situation.
Afterwards you spend years wondering if you’d only struggled harder or done something different, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. The guilt from that is unreal and soul destroying. It’s also the normal, human response. It’s not crazy.
What’s more helpful is to say that freeze is the standard response. It’s OK. It’s not your fault your brain didn’t know how to help. It’s not your fault.
Anger with the victim
It’s really normal to be angry at this kind of situation when someone you care about has been hurt. The emotions may be impossible to control. That’s OK.
However, try and make sure your anger is not directed at the victim.
If you have said angry things to someone who has been through sexual assault, make sure you go back later and say sorry. Let them know it was the situation you were angry with and not them. You may think that would be obvious to them but chances are it won’t have been.
What you can say or do
This is huge. Listen to what they need to say. Let them know you are available to listen when they need it.
“I’m so sorry this has happened to you.”
This may seem to go without saying but it’s still a good thing to hear.
“You are an amazing human.”
They need to hear this kind of thing. Generally if someone’s been through any kind of abuse or assault they feel hideous inside. It’s important to remind them they aren’t.
“How are you coping? Can I do anything to help?”
This is the kind of support you can offer. Even if someone says you can’t help it’s good to know that there are people who are willing.
“I think I can help”
This one is to be used more sparingly. It’s more important initially simply to listen and to reaffirm to them that it wasn’t their fault (ie use the other suggestions in this list first).
However, if you know a good therapist or something that has helped you deal with trauma, you could suggest it gently to them. Any suggestion could help but you need to give them space to come to it in their own time. Pushing help on someone isn’t really help, however well-meaning.
If you have been sexually assaulted (and sadly so many have), please do try to talk to someone about it or at least tell someone what has happened. I know it’s hard to do but every time you talk about it, it gets a little easier.
The love and support you need to help you heal is out there waiting for you to reach out. And little by little, each time you open up about it, what happened will have slightly less hold on you.
The only thing harder than telling everyone is telling no one.
If you have been affected by a similar incident or any trauma, or you know someone who has, there are a number of fantastic organisations offering help and advice including Rape Crisis, The Havens, and The Survivors Trust. We recommend that you locate your nearest Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC).
There are also some wonderful, dedicated therapists locally that can help, including Jo herself. Therapies such as EFT, counselling and hypnotherapy, have all been shown to have some truly healing results and to offer a huge help for those suffering from trauma.
Remember there is no need to suffer in silence.