It’s everywhere now, women and men alike sharing their experiences of sexual harassment and assault or simply saying nothing more than “me, too.” The undeniable presence of the norms surrounding sexual misconduct becomes more evident every time someone shares their experience. These experiences typically involve shame, fear, hiding, telling lies, and struggling to find normalcy after the trauma.
For many, this week has brought about a terrifying realization: someone they love was sexually assaulted and they didn’t know.
Maybe that’s you. Maybe you didn’t know your loved one was living in fear, struggling with trauma, and daily confronting the effects of what happened to them. Maybe you didn’t know, but now you do—and how you respond is very important.
I asked for input from survivors about the responses they received—both positive and negative. These brave, beautiful people shared many ways not to respond. Things like: Don’t blame. Don’t ask leading questions like “Where were you?”, “Were you drinking?” or “What were you wearing?” In fact, don’t question at all. Don’t tell them they were “asking for it.” Don’t ignore changes in behavior. Don’t look away because it’s inconvenient or difficult to confront.
Some survivors also shared the things that helped them. But many had no examples of a positive response to share because no one had responded lovingly when they shared their experience. No one.
We can do better. If you’ve recently discovered that your loved one has experienced sexual assault or harassment, here are some ways you can be the one to show them love and support.
Without this, nothing else matters. Trust that what they say is true. You can even come right out and tell them you believe them. This validates their experience and establishes trust. Don’t become the critic, the detective, or the second-guesser. If someone says #MeToo, believe them.
This goes beyond believing them into validating them and their experiences. If someone says that street harassment or cat calling cause them to live in fear, you don’t get to say that it shouldn’t. If someone says that their body was violated, you don’t get to question whether what they experienced actually qualifies as violation. It is their experience. You get to say: Yes, that happened. It was wrong. You did nothing to deserve it. Your feelings are valid. I’m here for you.
If someone chooses to share their experience with you, hang on tightly to your questions and your judgement. Create a space of respectful silence where they are free to express their thoughts and feelings without interjection. In this case, your opinion does not matter. Love them well and keep it to yourself.
Offer Help & Respect Boundaries
There are so many practical ways you can help. Offer to help pay for the counseling or therapy of their choice. Contribute to legal fees. Watch their kids so they can participate in things that help them heal, like therapy or meditation. Cook a meal if they’re struggling or they need some time. Offer to attend legal meetings or go to court with them as support. If it’s your partner, let them know that you will stick with them through the healing process. Learn their triggers and never pressure them to do anything that could potentially re-traumatize them. Always, always respect their boundaries.
When in doubt, ask your loved one what they need. They may not know, but your availability can make all the difference in the healing process. Coming to terms with abuse is a long, grief-laden process. It will take time, and what they need today may not be what they need tomorrow. Whatever you do, don’t tell them what they should do. That takes away their agency and can begin to feel manipulative. Be available, but remember that they get to decide what they need, not you.
You may find yourself in need of support throughout this process. You may discover areas in yourself that need growth or healing. That’s a very normal thing. Go to a therapist. Find a support group. Engage in good self-care. Do what is necessary to care for yourself so you can continue to show up for the ones you love.
Showing up for your loved one, even when you’re unsure of how to help them, is the most loving thing you can do. Your kind, nonjudgmental presence will give them the space to find healing and move forward.
Thank you for your persistence in showing up when things are hard, when there are tears, when we don’t know what we need, or we’re uncertain of what the future holds. You are the ones who keep us moving forward when the world seems especially dark.
Kaela is a writer, editor, sometimes speaker who likes to tell stories–sometimes true ones, sometimes not. She lives in Kansas with a pirate princess (daughter) and her running buddy (dog). If you need her, she’s probably trying desperately to keep her plants alive. Or writing.
There is so much healing in sharing your story. When you’re ready, contact us.