Here is a fantastic blog post from Feministe about what NOT to say when someone discloses a sexual assault to you. (At the bottom, we have added in a list of appropriate things you can say to a survivor you may be supporting):
“20 Things Never to Say to a Friend Who Confides in You That They’ve Been Sexually Assaulted”
This list is by no means exhaustive. Unfortunately, many people will know or do know someone who’s a survivor of a sexual assault or rape. If you find yourself in the position of confidant, please choose your words carefully. They can make the world of difference. (This list is heteronormative because it’s an account of personal experiences. However, sexual violence is by no means just male-on-female. People of all genders commit sexual violence against people of the same or a different gender.)
1. “Are you sure that happened?”
I know you’re shocked. But asking me if I’m sure if I was assaulted is a HUGE slap in the face. Yes, I know what happened to me. I remember every detail because it plays over and over in my head.
2. “Was he DRUNK?”
The emphasis on the “drunk” part comes off as though you believe there is no way this person could do something like this unless he were under the influence (which still doesn’t make his actions excusable). If you are friends with him, it will be even harder for you to imagine your friend committing an act of sexual violence. If you don’t believe the person is that “type” to do such a thing, don’t let me know you’re skeptical, because that weakens the trust and safety I feel confiding in you.
3. “Tell me EXACTLY what happened.”
I know you’re experiencing some denial that this has happened to someone you know. But you have to understand that it is extremely triggering for someone to recount every detail of a traumatic experience. And when you persist, it seems as though you’re looking for details to “validate” that this was in fact an assault, especially if you know who did this (see #2).
4. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
Regardless of how close we are, it’s not easy for someone who’s been through a traumatic experience to bare their soul right away. Just because I didn’t tell you immediately after it happened doesn’t mean I don’t trust you. It’s hard to put words to an incident that I wish had never happened in the first place.
5. “Are you okay now?”
No, I’m not. But, I know you want me to say “yes” so you can stop worrying about me and we can go back to the happy BFFs we were before. Eventually I just give up and say “yes” so you’ll stop asking so many times.
6. “Why are you still upset?”
I didn’t know there was an expiration date on pain, depression, confusion, and the myriad of other emotions I’m experiencing.
7. “How long will it take for you to get better?”
I don’t know how long it will take. Trust me, I’m doing everything I can.
8. “But you look fine.”
Just because I don’t walk around with my head down and an unkempt appearance, and I don’t communicate in grunts instead of English, doesn’t mean I’m not hurting inside. Sometimes, I don’t want to talk about it. Sometimes, I don’t have the energy to mentally take myself to that traumatic place.
9. “Just don’t think about it.”
Because that’s so easy, right? We all know what eventually happens to bottled-up emotions.
10. “You need to be strong.”
Telling me to just be strong is like telling me to lift myself up from my bootstraps.
11. “In X years you won’t really care about this.”
This isn’t some embarrassing fall in the middle of the dining hall. The recovery process is a long and rocky road, and I don’t need anyone, especially a close friend, brushing the incident off as “something that we’ll all laugh about in X years”.
12. “It could’ve been worse.”
Very true. That doesn’t make what happened to me any less severe. That doesn’t mean I’ll say, “Gee, you’re right. What am I even upset about?” The fact that it could’ve been worse doesn’t make me feel better in the slightest.
13. “You can always come to me whenever you need me.”
It’s okay to let me know that you don’t think you’re someone who can provide the support I need, because this is a delicate and traumatic situation to deal with. Suggesting I reach out to a counselor or other resources is perfectly okay. I promise I won’t be offended.
14. “I understand how you feel.”
Yes, you know how it feels to cry, to be hurt, scared, and confused. But unless you have been through a sexual assault or rape yourself, do not tell me you understand how I feel. You and I both know that you don’t, and you saying this makes me more angry than comforted. Being close to a survivor and being a survivor yourself are two completely separate things.
15. “This is about me, too.”
It is never, ever about you. Yes, you’re upset that something awful has happened to me. Yes, you may know the person who hurt me, and now you’re in this position to “choose” between us. Nonetheless, what you’re feeling as the friend of a survivor is no match for what a survivor feels.
16. “You could be fabricating this whole thing.”
Never do so much as to even insinuate that I am or could be lying. I promise you, I’m not faking the depression, the tears, and “I want to kill myself”’s that you see and hear.
17. “This isn’t fair to me to be in this position. I wish you never told me.”
Do you even hear yourself? I know it’s tough to be hit with cold, hard reality. But for you to tell me that it’s not fair for YOU to know what I’ve been through is selfishness and immaturity at its finest.
18. “Why didn’t you ______?”
Never, ever, EVER, ask me why I didn’t act differently. Survivors always blame themselves first for what happened, and the fact that you’re asking me why I didn’t do ____, which may have caused a different chain of events, strengthens the internal blame, guilt, and self-loathing that I’m struggling with.
19. “Does he know how this has affected you? Maybe he’d be sorry if he knew.”
Whether or not he would be “sorry” if he knew how upset I am after the incident, don’t ever try to paint said perpetrator in a sensitive, caring light. That doesn’t mean you need to bash him. But don’t try to reassure me that he’d be eternally remorseful if he knew how hurt I am.
20. “Girls always say ‘no’ because they’re scared. It’s happened before; they eventually give in… It would be beneficial to you to keep this between us.”
This last one doesn’t follow the trend, but was said to me by the guy himself. I didn’t know where to begin: the fact that you just looked me in the eyes and told me this after I found the courage to confront you about the incident afterwards? The fact that you (and countless others) believe it’s okay to force someone against their will to engage in sexual activities because you know they’re “just scared”? The fact that I wasn’t the first one you “strongly encouraged”? Or, the fact that you’re trying to save face by attempting to convince me that it would be beneficial to ME to not tell anyone what YOU did? Out of this entire list, this one had the most impact on me, and I know I’ll remember these words for the rest of my life. Because sexual violence has existed, still exists, and will continue to exist on this earth, please, PLEASE choose your words carefully if you ever find yourself in the position of confidant. When in doubt, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know what to say”. And remember, no matter how upset, confused, frustrated you are, what you’re feeling is NOWHERE near how your friend is feeling. If you know someone who is a survivor of sexual assault or rape, do not hesitate to reach out to resources, either for your friend or for yourself. If you are a survivor of sexual assault or rape, please reach out. I know it’s hard. I know you may feel embarrassed to talk about it. But no matter how alone you feel, please know that you aren’t.
Helpful Things You Can Say When Supporting a Sexual Assault Survivor:
1. Begin by believing. Even if you experience some doubt, keep it to yourself. It is not your job to decide what is real and what isn’t. Hearing the words “I believe you” can be so empowering.
2. Listen actively… be present in the moment. Say things such as “I’m listening” and “take all the time you need,” but REALLY listen… don’t just say that.
3. Allow the individual to experience any emotions that may arise… it’s healthy. Saying the words “it’s okay, you’re allowed to feel what you need to feel” can be really helpful.
4. Offer to be a support person if you feel comfortable, for example: accompanying him/her to a rape crisis center for more information, and possible next steps. You can say something like, “I will help and support you in any way that I can if you would like me to,” but only if you truly mean it.
5. Let the person know that it was NOT their fault by actually saying “it was not your fault.” This is one of the most important things you can ever say. Regardless of clothing, alcohol consumption, physical location…no one deserves to raped, ever.
Maine (only) Sexual Assault Helpline: 1-800-871-7741
National Sexual Assault Helpline: 1-800-656-HOPE(4673)