In a devastating stroke of coincidence, I have had multiple friends over the past month or so reach out to me immediately after experiencing sexual assault. Part of this is likely selection bias: I speak and write about sexual assault often and I’m open about the fact that I am also a survivor, making me an obvious candidate for such a discussion. In reality, rape and other forms of sexual assault happen constantly, all around us, and because of the nature of the crime, we will never know who all of the survivors among us are. Every person – literally, every person, and that includes you – knows someone who has been sexually assaulted. Low-end estimates place about 1 in 5 women as survivors of sexual assault. Sexual assaults are seriously underreported for a variety of reasons, and so the actual proportion is quite likely higher. Transgender people are even more likely to be survivors of sexual assault. Cisgender men are less likely to be sexually assaulted, although there are a small percentage of men who are also survivors.
Many people think that if someone they knew was a victim of rape, that they would be aware of it somehow. You might be one of the people who thinks that. Inaccurately, they imagine that when a rape occurs, it is reported to the police, followed by an investigation and trial that makes headline news, and a perpetrator who is brought to justice. This is very, very rarely the case. Some victims report but most do not. Some victims tell friends and family, while others guard their experience as a poisonous secret. As much as everyone agrees that rape is among the most horrible crimes a person can commit, the role of the victim/survivor is a socially stigmatized one. Hearing about rape makes many people visibly uncomfortable. They may ask questions that could be interpreted as requests for “proof” of the victim’s innocence or the rapist’s crime (“Who did it?” “When did it happen?” “Where did it happen?” “Were you drinking?” “What happened exactly?”). They may get angry and try to involve themselves in the situation inappropriately. They may be dismissive. There are a lot of ways to respond poorly to a survivor who wants to confide in you. Unfortunately, most people who choose to reach out for support following rape will experience some or all of those poor responses.
Here is my guide, which is neither exhaustive nor official, to be a supportive person to survivors of rape and sexual assault.
1. Even before you are approached by a survivor, be deliberate and careful about the way that you discuss sexual assault cases in the public eye or in your social circle. Unless you have absolute proof that a sexual assault did not happen, do not express doubt about the survivor’s account. Examples of absolute proof: the accuser and the accused live in different countries and have never been in the same place at the same time; the accused died before the accuser was born; the accused was in a coma when the assault occurred; etc. Examples of ridiculous statements that are not proof: “I know that A didn’t rape B because I know A and he’s a really cool guy”; “A can get all the sex he wants, there’s no way he raped anyone”; “B is a total crazy liar, you can’t trust anything she says”; “I just don’t think it happened/I have a feeling it didn’t”. This doesn’t mean that you have to speak out against the accused – if you have doubts, just don’t say anything. The rate of false reports for sexual assaults is infinitesimally small and the burden of proof already falls on victims. The repercussions for keeping your opinion to yourself are basically nonexistent, while the repercussions for airing your skepticism are pronounced: you will alienate the survivors in your life. You will establish yourself as a person who doubts survivors. If someone close to you is the victim of sexual assault, they may choose not to share that information with you because they fear you will accuse them of lying. Be aware that when you discuss sexual assault, you are never just discussing the situation at hand. When you can, side with survivors. Stand with survivors. The people around you will remember your words in the future.
2. When someone comes to you for support following a sexual assault immediately communicate two things: that you care and that you believe them. Beyond that, allow them to steer the conversation. Don’t play 20 questions with them. They are in a vulnerable place and may feel obligated to respond, even if responding is not helpful to them. Examples of potentially helpful questions: “Is there anything that you want me to do to help you with this process?”; “Do you want to talk about it, do you want to talk about something else, or do you want to be quiet together?”; “Do you want advice or would you prefer for me to just listen?”. Many survivors won’t want to get into the gritty details of their assault and will find it re-traumatizing to do so. They may not want to identify their attacker because they fear retribution. Make sure to let the survivor know that they are not under any obligation to share anything they don’t feel comfortable sharing. The conversation is about them and their needs. If you are unable to prioritize their needs, tell them that you are not in a good place to give support and give them information to contact a sexual assault support line (for example, 1-800-313-9900 is the number for SARSSM’s 24-hour line).
3. Don’t physically touch the survivor (pats, hugs, etc.) unless they explicitly request it. Some people who are recovering from sexual assault will have a heightened sense of touch and feel very uncomfortable when people intrude on their physical boundaries. Rape and sexual assault are crimes against bodily autonomy. Regaining a sense of agency over their body is an important part of the healing process.
4. Don’t push the criminal justice system on them if they choose not to report their assault. Absolutely do not imply that they bear any responsibility for their attacker’s future victimizations if they don’t report. The process of having forensic evidence gathered for a rape kit is lengthy, emotionally exhausting, and traumatic for many. No one should feel pressured to go through that if they do not feel like they can handle it. Some victims may have good reason to believe that they will not have sufficient evidence for a conviction, even though their assault really occurred. Again, the survivor should be at the center of this conversation – not the perpetrator.
5. This might be the most subversive suggestion – in “gray area” situations (situations that felt exploitative but do not meet the legal definition of rape or assault), allow yourself to feel empathy for the survivor and take their experience seriously without faulting the other person involved. For example, if both parties are intoxicated beyond the point of consent and neither would have given consent if they were sober, both of them might feel traumatized in the morning. A sexual encounter where the victim does not say no or resist at any point (because they feel pressured or freeze up in the moment) may leave the other person completely unaware that they are having non-consensual sex. Obviously, these situations lend credence to the idea that culturally we should move toward a model of enthusiastic consent – where sexual encounters only happen when consent is explicitly and happily given (focusing on “only yes means yes!” rather than “no means no”). At the same time, it’s possible to understand that a lot of people assume, “They would tell me to stop if they wanted me to stop”. The emotional experience can still be traumatic and valid without casting a villain. Again, keep your focus on being there for your friend, not on punishing the perpetrator.
By treating the survivors in your life with respect, dignity, and support, you can help end the stigma that keeps so many of us silent.
Tonight, April 25, is Portland’s annual Take Back the Night March and Rally. The event starts at 6pm in Monument Square. Please consider going if you want to stand with survivors, or especially if you are a survivor looking for a sense of support and community. I hope to see you all there!