“I’ve been raped.”
It’s hard to hear. It’s even harder to go through.
Now, we are seeing a shift in society for people to openly talk about their experiences with sexual assault. People from across the board are coming forward and outing their perpetrators. We are slowly learning as a culture to respond with “I believe you,” instead of “Why were you there?,” “Did you fight back?,” “What were you wearing?,” or “How much were you drinking?”
Even so, as founder and leader of Lotus, Fort Lewis College’s support group for sexual assault survivors, I’ve found that too often people don’t know how to support someone after their assault. I want to help.
When someone you love tells you that scary sentence, saying “I believe you” is a great start. Practice saying it. Practice meaning it.
Then move onto this these tips. (This is based off two assumptions: You and the victim are close and well-acquainted and the victim is older than 18. Remember, every assault is different, so this general guidance.)
Stay away from detailsToo often, men and women I work with come to me in distress because a loved one wants to know details about the assault. Unless you are a police officer investigating the incident, a lawyer working on the case, a Title IX coordinator or their counselor, you do not need them to explain or validate what happened to them. You do not need those details to be supportive.
Offer to hold themIt is a misconception that someone who has been the victim of a violent assault will not want to be touched. Choice is key. The important thing is to always ask if you can hold them or hug them. Be OK to hear “no.” Be prepared to hear “yes.” Look for ways to offer power back into their hands.
Do not take things personally This isn’t a time to take it personally when someone needs space or wants to be left alone. It is not a time to make it about you. When I was going through a grievance procedure, I wanted my mom to be there, but I did not want her in the room with me while I was sharing the gritty details of my assault. When I told her this, she hugged me, nodded and said, “I’m proud of you.” She let me tell her what I needed and understood that this was about making sure I was OK, not her.
Stay clear of ‘shoulds’“You should report.” “You should tell your dad.” “You should get tested.” “You should ...” No matter how well-meaning, a “should” is a hard thing to hear. It puts a lot of pressure on someone. Instead, offer assistance: “If you want to get tested, I can drive you to the clinic.” Or: “Do you want to tell your parents? I’ll be there for you.” Remember, let them keep the control and power in their hands.
Use resourcesWhen someone tells you about their assault, you will want to fix it for them. This is not your job. There are professionals and organizations whose sole purpose is to help people through their assaults. Local resources include Sexual Assault Services Organization and Lotus. There also are The National Sexual Assault hotline and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website.
Keep information confidentialDo not ask your neighbor Judy how to help your daughter when her boyfriend raped her. Do not call your son’s teacher to say you are worried because he was assaulted at a party. Lean on professionals. Even if the person you love has told you it is OK to tell someone about their assault, think it through before sharing the information with others.
Act with love.Act with love. Simple.
Merkin Karr is a student at Fort Lewis College and founder of Lotus, a sexual assault support group at FLC.