Welcome to the month of April, the fourth month of the year. April is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In light of this, I am dedicating this piece to all the people in the world who have survived some form of sexual assault. We see you. I see you. You are not alone. Sometimes the conversations about sexual assault gets muddy because we focus on the things the survivor could have or should have done, instead of discussing ways to combat rape culture and push for re-education. We also sometimes forget that survivors are people who must confront these unwanted sexual experiences, and not entities floating somewhere in outer space. Sometimes, in our efforts to empathize or side with survivors, we say the wrong things or make inquiries and suggestions that puts blame on survivors for the crimes committed against them. To help us all be mindful of the things we say to people who have survived incidents of sexual assault, here are suggestions of things not to say to a sexual assault survivor.
Do not ask a survivor what they were wearing. This question is often one of the first things that people ask, without recognizing how harmful and blaming it is. This question assumes that the outfit of the survivor caused their assault. It also assumes that the assault would not have happened had the survivor not worn that outfit. I believe that this question stems from the policing of bodies, especially women’s bodies. We as a society are guilty of attaching worth and value to people’s bodies and outfits, in that a person’s value increases based on how they look and what they wear, until they do not wear what we want them to. So, by asking a survivor what they were wearing at the time of their assault, we are assuming they were wearing something “unacceptable” or “inviting”.
Do not ask a survivor what they were doing at the scene of the assault. This question, among a million other problematic assumptions, suggests that the survivor could have prevented their assault by not being at the scene. It takes away a person’s right to feel safe wherever they go, regardless of where they are. If I am walking down the street, I should feel safe enough to do that simply because I am a human being whose life is worthy of protection. In a similar light, a survivor should be able to feel safe in a bar, restaurant, a hiking trail or their own homes because they are beings whose lives are worth protecting. Asking someone what they were doing at the scene of the assault takes away their right to feel safe wherever they are, especially if that place is in their home. Imagine if someone asked you what you were doing in your living room that a robber decided to rob you there. Absurd right? That is exactly how that question sounds when we ask it to a sexual assault survivor.
Do not tell a survivor that you know how they are feeling/what they are experiencing. This is a statement that we often make to others as a show of solidarity and empathy. When someone has lost a loved one, experienced a difficult break-up, or is simply in the dumbs, we are inclined to connect and side with them by letting them know that they are not alone. However, we neverknow whatsomeone is feeling, especially someone who has experienced a violation of their body. Even when we ourselves have experienced a similar incident, we do not know what the other survivor is going through or feeling. Our experiences are so unique, no matter how similar, that making the assumption that we know what the other is experiencing can be invalidating. Instead of telling someone we know what they are experiencing, we can instead communicate that we understand that this may be a difficult experience, or that we are with them in their pain. This conveys our empathy and support without invalidating and minimizing their experience.
Do not tell a survivor that “everything happens for a reason”. The fact that this is even on the list saddens me. Yes, this is really a thing that people say to those who have experienced incidents of sexual assault. As a religious person, I understand the purpose of this message, but it does not fit the contest. No matter how you rationalize it, it does not and will not fit the context of a bad experience. There is no reason that sexual assault happens, except that the abuser took control from the survivor as a power move. Yes, some survivors reconstruct their experience to find a positive outcome, but that does not mean that “it happened for a reason”. If you catch yourself wanting to say this to someone, this is what I advise that you do; take a deep breath, close your mouth and walk away. When this thought has passed, go back and simply offer your presence and a listening ear to the survivor.
Do not tell a male survivor they are not “man enough” because they were sexually assaulted. There is a misconception that men are not sexually assaulted, and this is what leads to the aforementioned statement. When we talk about sexual assault and rape, we assume that it only applies to women. Yes, women make up the overwhelming majority of survivors of sexual assault (hint: rape culture and objectification of women), but men are also sexually assaulted. Regardless of height, weight or sexual orientation, men can be and do get sexually assaulted. If a man is a survivor, it does not make him less than a man. Also, this statement assumes that the man’s “maleness” should have been enough reason for him not to get assaulted, which is also false. Men are people, and we need to create space for them to talk about their experiences. Statements like that only enforce toxic masculinity and silence male survivors.
Do not tell a survivor that they “let” their assault happen. No one wants to be sexually assaulted. No one “lets it happen” to them. This is the most blatant form of victim-blaming on this list, and if these words ever fall out of your mouth, you should probably wash your mouth with soap. Simply because a survivor did not fight back at the time of the attack does not mean they wanted it. Sometimes, staying still and remaining silent is all they can do to keep from getting killed. Sometimes, it happens so quickly that they do not have time to react. Being silent or immobile is not equivalent to giving consent to be assaulted.
This is not an exhaustive list. Please expand on it as you move through life and be mindful of how impactful your words can be. Again, it is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so be aware of how you are using words. Before you leave, remember that nearly 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced sexual violence at a point in their lives (CDC)…