TW: sexual assault. This article contains sensitive information about sexual assault. Please do not read if you do not feel comfortable doing so.
I was sexually assaulted when I was 17 years old. This experience has shaped me and affected me in many ways, in sexual situations, as well as during discussions during my classes or with friends. I do not tell many people this fact about me. Not just because I am sometimes uncomfortable talking about the event in situations even where I feel safe, but because of the reactions I have received from speaking about it. The assault occurred when I was with friends and they all knew what had happened. We all sobbed together as we fell asleep, but we have not spoken about it since. I wish these friends had done a little bit more for me, like maybe checking in with me the next morning about what I wanted to do. The most common response I have gotten is radio silence because it is easier to ignore what I said than unpacking it. Most friends I have confessed to have had nothing to say and just moved the conversation along as if nothing had happened. I have told one intimate partner that I trusted, and he responded by telling many people in my dorm building my private information.
I do not blame any of these people for not responding the way I wished, and I do not believe their reactions were meant to be intentionally harmful to me, so I try not to take it personally. This is an uncomfortable topic that not everyone can talk about and requires some grace in conversation. Many people have never experienced this scenario and might not even know how they might consider reacting when someone they love tells them they were sexually assaulted. Trust me, I never thought I would be in this position either. However, I do believe the trajectory of my healing and the way I understood what the assault meant about me would have been different if those I trusted had decided to acknowledge what I was saying and be vulnerable with me. I have only just begun working through this issue in therapy over three years later. I am finding this is still a fresh wound that unfortunately keeps reopening. Due to the confusion that I experienced through several “miscommunications” about my assault, I have decided to create a short guide on what to do if someone tells confides in you about sexual violence and appropriate ways to react. Please note this is not a comprehensive guide; I am just sharing some advice based on my own experiences. Although this is mainly for therapeutic purposes, I hope something I say resonates with you.
1. Create space for discussion and take it seriously.
Many times, I have found myself thinking, “why is sexual assault so difficult to talk about?”. Yes, it can be triggering to certain people and that is an important boundary to establish before discussing, and each survivor should be able to choose who they tell and when. However, I could not really think of another reason. In fact, I would encourage more open dialogue about the commonality of sexual assault and training on this very topic, like in tandem with bystander intervention training. It is so important to listen and believe survivors. Speaking about sexual assault is a brave thing to do. If someone opens up to you about their experience, I encourage you to take what they say seriously and hold space for them to speak. If you are comfortable, maybe say something along the lines of: “I hear you and I believe you. I am so sorry that happened to you and it is not your fault. I am here for you if you need anything. Have you looked into receiving professional help?” I have found there is great strength in vulnerability although it can be scary. Please do not be afraid and shut down discussion when people need it most, however, I think reciprocity is not required. If you can relate and feel comfortable sharing, there is courage and closeness in a shared experience. But it is also a great feat to be someone who will listen and empathize.
2. Have patience, kindness, and compassion.
This is my only other suggestion. Although this might feel self-explanatory, I think it needs to be said. I just want to reiterate that no one’s healing or life looks the same after a sexual assault. A survivor might not want to engage in this kind of conversation and might focus on reclaiming their sexuality. Or a survivor might have significant issues with intimacy and is unable to verbalize it. Some might feel comfortable talking about their experiences to an extent and others might not. If a survivor feels comfortable talking about their assault with you, please exercise patience, kindness, and compassion. I try to keep this grace in mind with others. You never really know what those around you are experiencing. Someone’s reaction might not reflect their attitude towards you but might be a result of what they are going through. Please be patient. Someone might not be able to speak about their assault with their partner until after they have been married for years. Or it might not be a big deal for them until years after the assault occurred. Please choose to be someone warm although it might not be the easiest thing to do.
I am not a perfect person.
Although I have been able to talk candidly to my therapist and a few others, I cannot imagine what it would be like to tell my parents and I don’t know if I ever will. I just know how sad it will make them and my mom would blame herself. Recently, I thought I finally met a partner that I really liked only to become triggered after getting physical. I am not sure what to say to him now. I am beginning to learn that this will be a long healing process for me. I can imagine many other survivors experience similar complications. I admire the bravery of my fellow survivors who do speak up and have inspired me to engage in this conversation, like Kesha and Chanel Miller.