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12 Ways to Respond When a Loved One Opens Up About Sexual Assault

“What were you wearing?”

“Are you sure that’s really sexual assault?”

“He’s a good man. Don’t say things like that.”

These are some things sexual assault survivors often hear after opening up to loved ones about what happened. While some of these comments come from a well-intentioned (but ill-informed) place, they can actually be really damaging.

So how should we respond to someone who opens up about sexual assault? We turned to our Mighty community and asked them to share what they wish they heard after disclosing their sexual assault experiences to their loved ones. Keep in mind that everyone is different and has different needs, but we hope the suggestions below give you a place to start.

Here’s what our community shared with us:

1. “How are you feeling?”

“I wish I had heard, ‘Please keep talking’ or ‘How are you feeling?’ instead of ‘Please stop talking…’ I needed to talk about it because the guy who did it scared me into not talking for almost two years. I didn’t need someone else telling me to be quiet. I never finished telling them what he’d done.” — Maya B.

2. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

“No one ever said, ‘That’s awful’ or ‘I’m so sorry’ or ‘Let me get help for you.’ The reactions were, ‘Yeah, that happened to me too once’ or ‘What’s the big deal?’ or ‘You’ll figure this out on your own.’ I got the impression it was bad manners to mention it.” — Sherry L.

Not with, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ But rather with, ‘I’m so sorry I didn’t protect you.’” — Monika S.

“My mom responded perfectly. I slipped a note to her under the bathroom door as I was ashamed to tell her in person. She came into my room with tears and hugged me! She apologized for not protecting me. I said I always wanted to protect her! It was my father…” — Deborah C.

3. “Can I hug you?”

“I wished I would have been hugged. Since the sexual assault happened, I felt disgusted about my body and felt disconnected from it. I also felt ashamed. Hugging would have helped me to learn how to accept my body again much faster, [let me know] I was supported and I am not to blame for what happened to me.” — Chidi O.

4. “Thank you for telling me.”

“’Thank you for telling me.’ It was such a personal and big choice for me to open up to someone I trusted. What I learned instead was that the wrong person to disclose to is someone who doesn’t want to hear that it happened to you, and will make you feel like you’ve ruined their day with negativity when it took everything to open up to that person and give them a glimpse into who you are.” — Hoiyan P.

5. “I’m here for you.”

“I wish no one asked, ‘Why didn’t you _____’ or ‘Are you sure that happened?’ I’m not sure what I wanted somebody to say, the ones I really needed, I just wanted them to hold me. [Maybe] simply say, ‘I’m here for you’ and mean it. Check in and not just forget about what you told them.” — Tania S.

“Just a simple, ‘I’m here if you need me’ and a hug. Don’t give me your story (at least right this second) or try to invalidate what I experienced. I don’t need your opinion. I don’t want or need you to praise my strength at continuing to exist despite my experiences. Just be there for me.” — Jordan P.

“’I’m so sorry. I’m here for you.’ Followed by [encouraging me to do] therapy of some sort, counseling, something that would have helped me cope and heal.” — Zee M.

6. “You’re not alone. I’m here and we will get through it together.”

“I wish they would have said, ‘It’s OK, we will get through this! You don’t need to be afraid anymore.’ Instead of ‘Are you sure? He said it’s not true!’ and then pretending it never happened. Now I get to continue healing in silence.” — Adriana S.

“’It’s not your fault, we will deal with this…’ but instead [I heard], ‘Well you shouldn’t have gone over there.’” — Keely R.

7. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“I wish they’d told me it wasn’t my fault, instead of agreeing that I’m to blame. It took me years to work it out myself.” — Luci G.

“’It’s not your fault.’ The whole time I was told it was my fault and I could have prevented it. It’s your fault you took a male roommate. It’s your fault for being so relaxed around him. ‘It’s your fault’ was all I heard from the people I told, including the police.” — Joleen R.

“I wish they would have believed me instead of just saying I was overreacting. I wish they would have hugged me and told me that everything was going to be OK and that it wasn’t my fault.” — Samantha S.

8. “Are you OK?”

“I wish she had asked if I was OK instead of asking why I was at a party. It made me feel as if it was my fault.” — Julissa R.

“I wish someone would have made sure I was OK instead of just asking if I wanted to press charges… I just wanted to feel safe again.” — Geena S.

9. “How can I support you?”

“’What can I do to help you?’ Only support/positivity. I was raped in college and only told my close friends. It was about six months later I was thinking about reporting it, my ‘best friend’ at the time said, ‘Oh! What brought that back up?’ It had only been on my mind 24/7 since.” — Emily L.

10. “I’m proud of you. It was so brave to open up about this.”

“Instead of asking, ‘Why didn’t you say anything/fight back?’ Telling me that it wasn’t my fault, and that they were happy I was brave enough to tell them the truth.” — Karina G.

11. “What do you need right now?”

“’I am so so sorry. What do you need me to do? Let’s call the police together, we will do this together.’ I felt so all alone, and still do.” — Lee M.

“I heard, ‘I’ll believe you this time, but next time it’s all you.’ I was 16. I’d much rather [have] heard, ‘Clara, I’m so sorry this happened. What do you need from me?’” — Clara W.

12. “I believe you.”

“’I believe you.’ These three words would have made a world of difference to me, both as a child when the abuse was exposed, and as an adult now. Sexual assault makes you feel so isolated, knowing someone was in my corner could have alleviated a lot of the loneliness I felt.” — Kristy H.

What are some other responses that support sexual assault survivors? Let us know in the comments.

Unsplash photo bia Cristina Isacov

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