Quick Hit: What not to say to a friend who has been assaulted

Feministe published a great piece by Harvard undergrad Anahvia Mewborn on 20 things never to tell a friend who has been assaulted. I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely heard many of these before. Some highlights include:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

You find the whole list here. Here’s a question: What should you say when a friend tells you they were assaulted? Survivors, how have friends successfully supported you?

New Haven, CT

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at Feministing.com, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX, a national legal education campaign against campus gender-based violence. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, and NPR. Through Know Your IX, she has organized with students across the country to build campuses free from discrimination and violence, developed federal policy on Title IX enforcement, and has testified at the Senate. At Yale Law, Alexandra focuses on antidiscrimination law and is a member of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. Alexandra is committed to developing and strengthening responses to gender-based violence outside the criminal justice system through writing, organizing, and the law. Keep an eye out for The Feminist Utopia Project, co-edited by Alexandra and forthcoming from the Feminist Press (2015).

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at Feministing.com, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/hellotwin/ Ami

    “I believe you.”

    “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

    “It’s not your fault.”

    “I’m glad that you trusted me/felt comfortable telling me this. It’s not always easy to tell people things like this.”

    If they think they’re not reacting ‘normally,’ a reminder that people react differently to being assaulted and that their reaction is normal for them.

    “If you ever need to talk more about what happened I’m here for you.” (Obviously respecting your own boundaries and need for healing/ time not discussing trauma).

    Try to use the language they use. If they refer to their assault as rape or something else, stick with that, etc.

    Be honest if you don’t know the answers to their questions. Offer resources for further help, if you know of them.

  • http://feministing.com/members/readingforfun/ Reading

    From personal experience, the most generically positive reply I can think of is, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do for you?”

    Of course, the best replies would be genuine, empathetic, and focused on the person who is opening up about a traumatic event, not on the person who is receiving the news. So, if someone were to reveal a story of sexual assault to you, if that gives you strong feelings, this is not the time to express them to their full extent. So, not appropriate to burst out crying and screaming how horrible it is that this happened to your friend. Not appropriate to defend the perpetrator regardless of whether or not you believe the victim/survivor. Not appropriate to cross examine the person’s account.

    There is a reason why this person has opened up to you. It’s probably because they have found your reactions to be supportive in the past. So, it’s probably safe to actually say what you think/feel as long as it conforms to the above-mentioned rough guidelines.

    If you happen to overhear someone describing their sexual assault to another person, don’t butt in. Nobody is asking for your opinion. If eye contact is made, nod compassionately, and read the person’s body language to see if they want you to do anything else.

  • http://feministing.com/members/domingo/ Becca

    I have to say, I find this list pretty ridiculous. If I’m telling someone about my sexual assault*, it’s usually because I want to talk about it. So I’d like them to ask questions, and it doesn’t necessarily matter what those questions are but rather the tone they’re asked in.

    I’ve been asked “Was he drunk” and “Did he get you drunk” in ways that I found completely appropriate. I’ve been asked “Does he know how this has affected you” by a fellow survivor who illustrated that once she spoke to her rapist 10 years later she learned he’d thought about it every day since the incident. Didn’t mean I wanted to speak to my rapist (and I still don’t) but it helped me develop in how I think and recover from it.

    I wish tone had been emphasized more. “Why didn’t you tell me before?” That’s an honest question that, if asked in an accusatory tone, is absolutely inappropriate, and when asked in a “Let’s get to the bottom of this” tone is a really great way to get me to elaborate and think and work on my healing.

    In fact, I’m frustrated by this list because it’s going to scare supportive people into not saying anything. What I hate most is when people sit there in silence when I clearly want to discuss it, especially since I’ve picked them because I think they’ll be supportive. If they would say something like question 13 (“You can always come to me whenever you need me”), I’d be thrilled.

    Instead, most people just sit there silently, afraid of saying that or anything else.

    I feel like this list does not adequately or accurately reflect how my fellow friends/survivors feel. The author says it isn’t exhaustive. Obviously. But it’s putting rape survivors into a giant basket and say “Here’s a start on what none of them want to hear.” Ridiculous.

    Probably about ten things on this list are really dumb and should never be asked, in my opinion, but I keep thinking this: I want to open up but sometimes I need leading questions, and if they’re asked in an honest and caring way a lot of those questions would be fine.

    People I love have asked me appallingly dumb questions before and I’ve been shocked into silence, but I’ve been able to at times use it as a teaching moment. No one is going to react “right” to the news I’ve been raped but I still hold silence is the worst.

    *I prefer using this phrase instead of “rape” because of how much baggage the word rape carries.

    • honeybee

      Thank you I thought I was the only one who was offended by some of these. Everyone is different and needs to heal in different ways but under the right conditions (including genuine concern) many of those questions and discussions can be totally valid and totally helpful.

  • http://feministing.com/members/crescentdave/ Dave

    I know how I would want to respond to hearing about it … as overwhelmingly supportive as I could possibly be- balanced by not wanting to be too intrusive or pushy. I’d want this person to know I could also run errands, pick up clothes … be a part of whatever steps might need to be taken in order to ensure safety and support. I’d be hoping to establish this baseline of support and willingness to be there for her or him.

    I know when it happened to me, I was ashamed. I felt stupid and responsible. I kept playing it over in my head what I did wrong and what I didn’t pick up when I “should have.” I also didn’t want to be touched. It took for me to allow someone to hold my hand. Simple demonstrations of kindness were almost unbearable. Simple sentences and simple questions worked best. I still get emotional just allowing myself to be in the present and think about this question. I’m glad it was asked.

  • http://feministing.com/members/amewborn/ Anahvia

    As I have written in other places: As I did say at the beginning of my piece, this is a personal recount, not a bunch of things I pulled out of thin air. As with all personal experiences, things WILL NOT apply to every single person. Anyone is more than welcome to disagree. If you don’t agree with my reasons, that’s your right and I’m not upset about it.

    -Writer of the article

  • http://feministing.com/members/bennett/ Bennett

    I didnt really find the article and its questions all that engaging. My only experience with sexual abuse was with a partner, and she was quite drunk at the time. I was also high, and even to this day I admit it most likely happened because in my altered state I wasn’t able to really be very stern about not wanting anything. Does either of our states excuse what occurred? Of course not, but it is something to be understood when understanding how the whole case went down.

    Past that I only see most of these questions being of issue when the wrong tone is used. Im happy to explain why I dont like to talk about it, why I shared it with you now, and how it could have been better or worse.

  • http://feministing.com/members/amewborn/ Anahvia

    Bennett I am grateful for your criticisms and opinions on my piece. I respect that you didn’t find my article engaging. I don’t want anyone to think that I am trying to be the end-all-be-all. Tone is an important factor which I neglected to mention in my original piece. Again, it came from my own personal experiences with 18 and 19 year olds, and I will be the first to admit that at that age we aren’t necessarily mature enough to think before we speak or to think of the other person’s feelings. What started as an article in the magazine I write for gained more widespread attention and more people outside of that 18/19 year old college student culture have read my piece. I hadn’t thought of tone because those reactions and the tones used were ones I am used to hearing. When I read those phrases the negative tones are default, I would’ve never imagined them any other way (because I’ve never heard them any other way). And from the supportive friends I do have, none of them said anything on this list at all, or anything else insensitive, so I drew off of personal experiences. I do think that reception of this is largely subjective, as I have gotten feedback from people ranging from 100% agreement to 100% disagreement. I appreciate any and all comments. I apologize if my previous comment seemed harsh or unreceptive to criticism.