If it starts with, “Well, at least…” — try something else.
Supporting survivors of sexual assault is critical to their healing and well-being after enduring this traumatic event. Most of us don’t learn how to respond when someone discloses what they have been through, and sometimes things we think to say can be harmful, even if they’re well-intentioned. Here are a few common things to avoid saying and why they can be harmful.
“Are you sure that’s what happened?”
This question implies disbelief. It’s normal to be shocked about hearing that this happened, especially if the perpetrator is someone that you may not have expected, but questioning it is not supportive to the survivor. It also implies that if the survivor does not provide more details or evidence than they have shared, they will not be believed. It’s up to the person who went through it to decide if and when to share details at all. Tell them you believe them.
Asking for details
Asking someone to relive details of a traumatic event is not okay. It can be painful for the survivor, and it can also make them feel defensive. If the person feels comfortable, they may eventually open up. They might choose to never share details, or only to share with specific people. Respect that decision and express support instead.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”
Traumatic events do not strengthen us- they bring out the strength that we have had all along, if we are able to get to a place to exercise that strength. Not everyone survives this kind of trauma. This statement minimizes the pain of what it’s like to endure this traumatic event and all of its aftermath. Comparing sexual assault to not being fatal, or to not being a painful, life-changing event that causes wounds that don’t heal is erroneous. Instead, express that the survivor is strong by simply saying so, checking in with them, and reminding them that they do not have to be strong all the time.
“Well, at least…”
Telling a survivor that things somehow could be worse is unhelpful, patronizing, minimizing, dismissive, and rude. What happened to them is devastating. What happened to them will likely be one of the most painful things they ever go through. How it happened does not matter. How it didn’t happen does not matter. There is no “at least”. It is a traumatic event- not something to count their blessings over. Avoid comparisons altogether.
This phrase is infuriating to hear as a survivor when people fail to acknowledge or recognize the pain of enduring an assault. A survivor might be physically okay but suffering immensely. And eventually, those internal feelings may become physical issues. Don’t assume they are okay. Let them tell you how they’re feeling if they’re open to having that conversation.
Offering unsolicited advice
After enduring sexual violence, a person needs some time to wrap their minds around what has happened. They need to make decisions on their own timeline. When someone is robbed of power and control during an act of sexual violence, they benefit by being put back in control of their lives and making their own choices. It may be tempting to ask the survivor to go to a hospital or to report right away, but every survivor needs to make the best decisions for themselves. Reporting is often as or more traumatic than the assault itself and is not always in the best interest of the survivor. Many survivors have also been pressured not to report a perpetrator. They will know what is best for them- trust them to make the choice they need. Ensure that they know all of their options and tell them they are supported in whatever they choose to do.
What to say?
Usually, saying simple things like, “I’m sorry that this person did this to you”, “I believe you”, “It wasn’t your fault”, and “How can I support you?” go a long way. There is no magic answer, but believing them and being open to hearing what they need from you is incredibly important. Given how common sexual violence is, it’s time that we all learn how to help instead of cause more harm.