In 1995, when I was twenty years old, a man broke into my apartment and tried to rape me. I filed a police report and promptly stopped talking about it. Why? Because that’s what everyone told me to do. Their reactions spanned a narrow range between “You’re lucky it wasn’t worse” and “It’s time to move on.” This wasn’t my first experience of sexual abuse, but it matched a pattern of minimization and non-reaction that seriously fucked me up for most of my life.
I’ve met my fair share of sexual abuse survivors, and I recently wrote a novel about a woman who was raped by a family member. In both my personal life and my book research, I’ve struggled with the question of how people are supposed to respond when a loved one discloses her abuse. Judging by overwhelming anecdotal evidence, hardly anybody knows what to say.
So here’s what I’m going to do for you. I’m going to tell you what to say. And if you are a survivor reading this, I encourage you to share additional suggestions in the comments.
1. If your best friend tells you she was raped, BELIEVE HER.
Lots of people think of rape as something that happens in dark alleys with knife-wielding maniacs. But according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), one out of every six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. If you look at that statistic (and we all know how under-reported sexual assault is), is it truly possible that all rapes happen in dark alleys? If it were, we’d be seeing knife-wielding maniacs everywhere.
The terrifying truth is that perpetrators of sexual abuse can be anyone — a family member, a coach, a spouse, a babysitter, a friend — and the scariest thing is, they’re not all evil people. They can be accomplished, otherwise law-abiding citizens who seem perfectly normal. So if your best friend tells you she was raped by a regular guy you both know, you can’t immediately turn away from the idea just because it doesn’t fit your notion of what rape looks like.
Hear her out. Believe her. Take her story seriously.
2. Show some fucking outrage.
If your best friend tells you she was raped, she is making a statement. But she’s also asking a hidden (perhaps even to herself) series of questions: Do I matter to you? Do I matter enough that when you hear this story you will be furious on my behalf? Do you value me enough that this story will hurt you?
We are social beings. When bad shit happens to us, it’s not just about the bad event. We look to our community to gauge how we’re supposed to respond to that event. When a child skins her knee, she scans her mother’s face to see how serious the wound is. If a bomb goes off in the distance, we ask our neighbors, “Did you hear that?” We are constantly measuring our experiences against those of everyone we know.
When sexual assault happens, we look to those around us to see what their reaction is.
So what impact do you think it has when a survivor tells you she’s been sexually abused, and you don’t say anything?
Maybe you’re scared. Of saying the wrong thing. Of doing the wrong thing. Of making it worse somehow. Maybe you feel inadequate to the task. Maybe you feel angry for being brought into something that’s too big to handle. Maybe you just freeze up.
But if you minimize your friend’s experience, if you change the subject, if you defend her abuser, if you urge her to get over it, here’s what you’re saying: You don’t matter enough to make me fight my own paralysis and confusion and fear. You are not worth defending. You are not worth standing up for.
That is bullshit, and I think we all know it. So let me say it again. Show some outrage.
Get angry. Cry. Tell her how sorry you are, how heartbroken, how devastated. Tell her that she didn’t deserve it. Tell her it wasn’t her fault. Tell her you love her. Tell her that her pain means something. Tell her how much she matters.
3. Be in it for the long haul.
There’s a reason people tell stories. Stories help order the chaos. They help us make sense of even the most vicious and random events.
A rape survivor needs to tell her story. In as many ways as she can.
Sometimes she might be self-conscious that she’s talking about it too much. And you might not want to bring it up and remind her of “negative things.” But listen. Do you really think she’s not thinking about it?
She’s thinking about it. It’s with her every moment of every day.
Ask questions. Check in. See how she’s doing. Maybe she’ll tell you she doesn’t want to talk about it. But at least you will be addressing it directly instead of acting like she’s harboring some shameful secret that can’t be named. Because guess what…
4. If you can’t name it, you can’t recover from it.
Many rape survivors make excuses for their perpetrators, especially when it’s someone they know. He didn’t realize what he was doing, he was drunk, I shouldn’t have been there in the first place, I went along with it — and why do they do this? Because like everyone else, they subscribe to the dark alley theory. And what happened to them doesn’t fit that narrow picture.
But here’s the hard truth. He could be someone she knows. He could not realize what he’s doing. He could be drunk. He could be a nice guy. And it could still be rape.
Sexual assault infects every aspect of a person’s life — her sense of safety, her ability to trust, her sexuality, her physical health, her spiritual life — everything. If she can’t name the reason for that total and comprehensive disruption, then what she does is blame herself. I must be crazy. There’s something wrong with me. I’m not like other people. I’m broken.
There’s nothing wrong with her. She was raped. Do her the courtesy of putting a name to what has happened to her. Be brave enough to say it. Be that friend who helps her call it what it is.
5. If you need help dealing with this, get help.
It’s not easy supporting a sexual assault survivor. It can be exhausting and it can break your heart. Understand that you have feelings too, and your feelings are important. Talk to your other friends about how hard it is. Talk to a therapist. Consult one of the many wonderful resources available for survivors and their loved ones, like RAINN, or Laura Davis’s indispensible book, Allies in Healing.
Take care of yourself, because you matter too.
And on behalf of sexual abuse survivors everywhere, thank you. Those of us who recover do so because of loving friends like you.