27 'Harmless' Comments That Actually Hurt Sexual Assault Survivors
If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
“You went to his bedroom. What did you think was going to happen?”
“Just because you had ‘bad sex,’ doesn’t mean it was rape.”
“If it was really sexual assault, why didn’t you report it?”
“Well, what were you wearing?”
These are some of the things sexual assault survivors often hear after opening up about their traumatic experiences. While some of these comments might come from a place of trying to understand the situation, the reality is, they are ignorant at best — psychologically damaging at worst.
Sexual assault survivors deserve better. We must learn to respond better.
So how can we respond well to someone who opens up about sexual assault? Well, part of it involves learning what not to say. To open up this discussion, we turned to sexual assault survivors in our community. We asked them to share one “harmless” comment they heard that was actually incredibly harmful in their recovery. You can read their responses below.
If you are a sexual assault survivor and have heard any of these comments, we’re so sorry. You absolutely did not deserve or “ask for” your assault — or any of the harmful comments you heard after. Here are some truths we need you to know.
It wasn’t your fault.
We believe you.
You are worthy of support and healing.
If you want to support a loved one who experienced sexual assault, head here for tips for what to say.
Here are the “harmless” comments sexual assault survivors in our community have heard:
1. “Are you sure you didn’t want it?”
“’You must’ve wanted it.’ ‘You just want attention.’ ‘Get over it.’ It hurt because everyone was so damn dismissive over what happened. I mean honestly, no, I won’t get over it. No, I didn’t want attention. And no, I didn’t ‘want it.’ Why must people assume that?” — Brittney H.
“’Maybe you enjoyed it?’ I was hurt, because it was hard for me to confess what really happened. I was shaking and stuttering while I talked. And all they could muster to say was, I ‘enjoyed it.’” — Meon L.
2. “Well, why didn’t you tell anyone or report it?”
“My sister once asked me why I never told anyone so they could do something about it. I found that question shaming to me. Like I was supposed to be able to understand what was happening to me, and what I was supposed to do about it.” — Charles H.
“’If it really happened, why didn’t you report it?‘ Because I was scared! And even now, after all these years, I’m afraid.” — Jodie A.
3. “Why didn’t you fight back?”
“’Well, did you at least try to fight back? Did you even yell for help?’ It topples me every time someone says that after I open up to them. Words can’t express how little they understand.” — Isa H.
4. “That doesn’t happen to men.”
“’You’re a bloke… It can’t happen to men.’ Something I’ve heard from past experiences, can’t trust anyone anymore.” — Chris R.
5. “You were married. That doesn’t count.”
“’You were married. That doesn’t count.’ Just because I was married doesn’t mean what he did was right. We’re divorced now. Thank the universe. And now I’m happily married to someone else with a beautiful son. But my own friend said that to me… I felt like I couldn’t go to anyone after that.” — Jlynn B.
“’That’s not even sexual assault.’ My ex had told me that because I was his girlfriend, I was supposed to have sex with him. And if I didn’t, he would leave me. I still have problems today when my husband wants sex and I don’t. I’m always worried that I have to even if I don’t want to.” — Amber L.
“’He was your boyfriend, so you must have wanted him to have sex with you.’ Just because we are in a relationship does not give a guy permission to use me for his own personal gratification. If I say ‘no’ or if my actions show that I do not want his advances, then he needs to respect me and stop!” — Christina H.
6. “But that happened so long ago.”
“’It happened a long time ago.’ Yep, I know. Yet it feels like it’s happening right now and I still deserve to feel safe and get justice.” — Courtney H.
7. “It could have been worse.”
“’It could have been worse. Someone had it worse than you.’ This is devastating every time I hear it because it makes me feel like what happened to me was not ‘that bad.’ Or not bad enough to affect me like it did. Thanks to what happened to me, I have major PTSD and major trust issues.” — Maddie C.
8. “Boys will be boys.”
“‘Boys will be boys and men will be men’ or ‘Maybe you shouldn’t dress that way’ or “You’re the reason the family is falling apart. You should just forgive and move on.’” — Raven M
9. “Girls can’t rape girls.”
“’What? Girls can’t rape girls.’ What is so damaging is it didn’t register right away what had happened. No one explains this, especially in the LGBT community. It took years to accept what happened and to this day the damage lingers into my current relationship.” — Cynthia M.
“’You can’t be sexually assaulted by another girl, you must of wanted it.’ These things make me feel like I am to blame for some as else’s actions. It also makes me sick that society can be so sexiest because if a guy had done to me what this girl did, he would be charged with assault.’” — Jamie W.
10. “You’re a guy though. How did she overpower you?”
“’You are a guy though, how did she over power you?’ People need to realize how much this hurts and how pathetic it makes me feel. In my case, it started with emotional abuse. By the time they tried sexually assaulting me, I didn’t feel like I could fight back.” — Callum C.
11. “You shouldn’t have put yourself in that situation in the first place.”
“’You shouldn’t have been alone with him if you didn’t trust him.’ I did trust him. I thought he was my friend. He raped me while I was recovering from a hospitalization and medicated on pain meds.” — Katy D.
“’You shouldn’t have gone to his house. It’s your fault you know.’ My boyfriend at the time blamed me for being raped. My rapist was a childhood friend whom I trusted and was very close to for years. There were no signs things were about to change. I had to interact with my rapist every day at school and act like nothing was wrong. I haven’t seen him since graduation, but I live in fear every day.” — Joselin I.
12. “Don’t you think it’s time to forgive and move on?”
“’Don’t you think it’s time for forgiveness?’ While seemingly good, really just disregards someone’s suffering. It hurts to hear that because I don’t feel like forgiving them. I don’t want to let go of the hate and you telling me it’s ‘time’ to forgive really just tells me it’s time to talk to someone who actually understands.” — Callie B.
“’The past is the past. Leave it in the past and move on.’ If only it was that simple. I’d give anything, absolutely anything, to be able to move on like it never happened. But it did happen, and years on, it still haunts me.” — Abby R.
13. “At least you weren’t seriously injured.”
“As if my lack of internal and external injuries just makes it all better? Let’s not think about the nights I laid awake or the countless flashbacks and PTSD that occurred due to my fortunate lack of ‘serious injury.’ Choose your words carefully. Don’t minimize what was an incredibly traumatic experience for me.” — Megan K.
14. “Why do you keep bringing it up?”
“’Why do you always bring this up?’ Because I haven’t gotten over this yet, and it’s clearly still on my mind.” — Lauren P.
“’Why do you want to drag all that up now? It was so long ago and you are doing good now.’ This hurts because I need therapy now. I don’t know how to get over it or if it is even possible. It still affects every day of my life whether other people see it or not.” — Elizabeth V.
“’Put it in a box, put it in a shelf and lock it away. Only visit it when you need to.’ Basically bury my feelings deep inside and don’t deal with them.” — April H.
15. “I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that.”
“’He didn’t know what he was doing.’ Trust me, I’ve analyzed every way around it. My therapist too. Replayed it over and over. He knew.” — Chelsea W.
“’I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that, he was just playing and trying to have fun with you.’ My parents to me as a child telling them about a family friend assaulting me.” — Shannon D.
16. “You’ve done bad things too.”
“’You’ve done bad things too.’ This hurts because this is something I know to be true (everyone’s done bad things or things they’re not proud of). I’ve never sexually assaulted or sexually abused someone, and to have people equate what is usually me setting boundaries as [the same thing as] assaulting or abusing someone is so painful. As someone with PTSD, I already struggle with guilt and shame related to being assaulted and abused — I don’t need anyone else’s help.” — Brieal M.
17. “Everything happens for a reason.”
“’Everything happens for a reason.’ It makes me feel like the person is saying the assault needed to happen for me to grow. They are trying to make me feel better, but they take away my sovereignty and they don’t point fury at my assailants.” — Emily C.
18. “Not all men are like that.”
“I actually had a guy tell me that it was unfair to the ‘good guys like himself’ that I and many other women are scared of men and therefore wouldn’t give them a chance.” — Summer W.
19. “He just liked you and wanted to be with you.”
“’He just wanted to be with you.’ Totally dismissed what had happened as something I should have seen as ‘sweet.’ Really destroyed me and my friendships with those people.” — Kaela W.
20. “You’ve slept with so many people though…”
“’You’ve slept with so many people though…’ I slept with those people because I was robbed of my virginity [and] felt I had no value after being raped and assaulted — all within six months.” — Shay K.
21. “It takes two to tango.”
“’It takes two to tango,’ is what I was told by my best friend’s mom. The person who assaulted me was close to their family, and he was living with them. She didn’t understand that he forced himself onto me, or that I froze up. What scares me even more that my best friend told me had I not gotten him off me when I did, I would have ended up being raped, because he knew how said person was. And that still haunts me. My first hickeys were from a guy who felt like I was his play toy.” — Hollie D.
22. “What’s the big deal about this #MeToo movement?”
“’What’s the big deal about this ‘#MeToo’ movement?’ The big deal is it helped other women to feel empowered and speak up about abuse they were afraid to talk about or get out of. I have shared stories and it has helped other girls and women to speak up about things that were happening to them or things that had happened to them.” — Tara O.
23. “It’s your fault for trusting bad people.”
“’It’s your fault for trusting bad people.’ Or, ‘Can’t you just forgive and forget?’ I was drugged and helpless, it’s not my fault. I was innocent, naive in trusting a fellow student at my school. No one chooses to be deceived, drugged, then assaulted.” — Nicole E.
24. “That happens to a lot of people.”
“‘It’s not a big deal, happens to a lot of people. Just face what happened and forget.’ It is a big deal. It may not be a big deal to you, but to me it is because I went through it. I can’t just forget, sorry.” — Samarpita N.
25. “Did you say ‘no’?
“‘Did you say no? Are you sure he understood your no’s?’ Yup, 100 percent sure.” — Olivia T.
“‘You didn’t say no.’ Consent isn’t the absence of a ‘no,’ it’s the presence of a ‘yes.’ I was frozen, too scared to say anything.” — Meghan G.
26. “What were you wearing?”
“When my happened, it was a continuous barrage of, ‘It was what you were wearing. You shouldn’t display yourself like that.’ I was wearing baggy jeans and a T-shirt, but apparently I brought it on myself for how I had dressed prior.” — Tamara W.
“‘You deserve it for dressing like that…’ When I told the teacher she needed to report [my assault], she told me I deserved it because of how I dressed.” — Emily M.
“‘Were you wearing something revealing? You must have been flirting.’ The first time I told my Mom, nothing happened. She forgot it even happened, but I remember vividly.” — Dawn L.
“Nothing. No one said a thing. They all just pretended it never happened and like I would somehow forget being molested for years. I’m sure they thought, ‘She’s so young she probably won’t even remember.’ Well I do. And I live with that trauma every day of my life.” — Ashley M.
Want to know how to support someone who experienced sexual assault? Head here for suggestions from RAINN, the nation’s largest sexual violence prevention organization.