Earlier this week, I found myself engaged in a discussion about the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case. "Well what did she expect was going to happen when she decided to go to his hotel room late at night?" my acquaintance stated.
Unfortunately, victim blaming is still a frequent occurrence when the topic of sexual assault arises. Further, many survivors wrongly believe that they were responsible for the trauma that they endured. Media coverage and comments that place blame upon the survivor, only serve to perpetuate the shame and guilt that they may already be experiencing. The following are five things you should never say to someone who is a survivor of sexual assault.
1. Why did you decide to go to that party?
Asking questions such as, "why did you go to that party?" or "what were you wearing?" adds to the stigma and shame that the survivor may already be experiencing. You would likely never ask someone who was robbed at gunpoint, why they decided to walk down that street. When someone is sexually assaulted, the only person who is to blame is the perpetrator. It important to assure them that no matter what they were wearing, what party they went to or how much they had to drink, what happened to them was in no way their fault. No matter what they did, no one deserves to be sexually assaulted.
2. You need to report what happened.
Someone who has experienced sexual trauma went through something that was completely out of his or her control. Therefore, it is critical that you do not try to control how they choose to cope with what happened. Everyone copes with trauma differently and it is up to the survivor to decide how they wish to proceed. Instead, empower them to be in control of their own recovery journey. You can empower the person by asking them if there is anything you can do to support them, rather than telling them what they should do.
3. How come you aren't able to move on from it?
Recovery following sexual trauma is possible. However, the healing process can take time. There are a myriad of psychological effects that can occur after a person experiences sexual trauma, which include flashbacks, depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges. However, "It is important to remember that there is not one "normal" reaction to sexual assault." Telling the person to "just get over it" is invalidating and hurtful.
Kristin Jackson, a survivor of sexual assault, emphasized this when she stated, "Many of my friends knew of my attack, but they weren't professionals, and if anything, they were counting on me to have the answers. Often, it was the people closest to me who told me to "get over it. So I tried to do just that, mainly by hurling myself into a downward spiral for the next two years." Rather than being judgmental of where the person is in regards to their healing process, it is important that you validate their feelings and emphasize that they are coping the best that they can.
4. Why didn't you tell me sooner?
For many survivors of trauma it can be incredibly difficult to talk about what happened to them, in part due to a fear of not being believed, feelings of intense guilt and shame or their worry that the perpetrator could retaliate. Rather than shaming the person for not disclosing sooner, emphasize the strength that it took them to share with you the trauma that they endured.
5. Men can't be raped.
Saying, "men can't be raped" is entirely false. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, "Men and boys who have been sexually assaulted or abused may have many of the same feelings and reactions as other survivors of sexual assault, but they may also face some additional challenges because of social attitudes and stereotypes about men and masculinity." Further it is important to note that, "although rape is thought to occur much less frequently to men than to women, the incidence of male rape is thought to be underreported. Because of the misconceptions about rape and the fears such an experience unleashes, most men come forward reluctantly or not at all."
When someone discloses that they have been sexually assaulted, it can be difficult to know what to say. However, it is crucial that we avoid victim-blaming and stigmatizing statements and instead approach the survivor with validation and compassion. Sexual assault is never the survivor's fault and no one should have to cope with the aftermath alone. Further, it is possible to live a happy and fulfilled life as a survivor. Kristin Jackson emphasized this when she stated,
It took me longer than I thought it would, but eventually, the nightmares and shame have disappeared. They have been replaced by a confident resilience and a fearless attitude that there is nothing that could ever permanently knock me down. I am no longer a victim of sexual assault. I am a survivor.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it's not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org, y en español: rainn.org/es.