Someone told me they’d been sexually assaulted, I didn’t know what to do.
A few things to be mindful of when confronted with one of the most difficult conversations you can have.
By Jarrett Hill
The last month has brought to a bit of a head a national conversation, and subsequent movement, that’s been brewing for over a year now: talking about sexual assault and harassment in a way that we haven’t given this amount of significant attention to in decades.
In the 90s when we had a moment not-unlike this one, I was a kid. Discussions like these weren’t something I was all that privy to. But now, as a grown man, these discussions are knocking at my front door. By every piece of statistical data, there is on sexual violence, I undoubtedly know dozens of people (if not more) who’ve been victims of things like this and not been aware of their plight.
When we witnessed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, there were a few groups of people listening: people who had no real personal connection to a story like hers, people who’d heard stories from friends and loved ones about their own experiences and people for whom simply hearing her story brought up difficult, scary, traumatic memories from their own firsthand incidents with sexual misconduct.
For me, I was somewhere between the first and second group. I have a few people in my life that have told me they’ve lived through some of these events in their own lives, but never really had they expressed to me in detail what happened and how they’ve dealt with it in the time since.
In the last two weeks, I’ve been told about various times that people I know, some that I love, have had to relive these horrible encounters. Even more interesting, all of the accounts I’ve heard most recently have been from gay men who’ve been assaulted. Which, for me, made me really realize how pervasive this problem is in all communities.
All that said, I’ve spent an significant amount of time working through how to best support the people in my life when they trust me with such vulnerable, difficult-to-share information.
I’m no expert, but I can tell you what’s worked in the last few weeks. If I can offer any advice, it’s the following:
- Just listen. Actively listen and try to hear what is being shared with you and know it’s something that this person has relived countless times. Know that they aren’t excited to talk about this, they’ve probably thought about how this conversation might go many times before finally talking about it.
- Ask how you can best support them. Often times the people we know and love who are sharing things like this have never told anyone, or have told very few people about what they’ve gone through. As I’ve heard in one of the recent accounts, this person did tell more than one person, all of whom told them they couldn’t be telling the truth because the person couldn’t have possibly done what they said. Being believed and actually heard is of great value to the person you’re hearing from. But they also may have specific feelings about what happens next – either they may want to talk about it more in the future, or they may never want to discuss it again, or they may fall somewhere in between. Ask them how you can best be supportive in aiding them.
- Ask what they’d like you to do with the information. This will likely not have a definitive or immediate answer, but the open door of the other person knowing they have someone’s who has their back is what’s most important. We all need a person we can trust and lean on when it comes to handling life’s biggest, darkest challenges. Be the person you’d want to be able to come to in a time like this.
There are some great resources for survivors of sexual assault and misconduct that will help you, or the person confiding in you, with what to do with their pain and how to move forward with all that comes along with it. One of the most easily recognizable resources is RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. They are the administrators of the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673).
They’ve helped millions of people get through this and are ready, but more importantly, they’re equipped with the tools needed to have a positive impact.
According to them, “calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline gives you access to a range of free services including confidential support from a trained staff member; support finding a local health facility that is trained to care for survivors of sexual assault and offers services like sexual assault forensic exams; someone to help you talk through what happened; local resources that can assist with your next steps toward healing and recovery, referrals for long-term support in your area; information about the laws in your community; basic information about medical concerns.”
Another useful resource for friends and family of sexual assault victims is NSVRC, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. They offer various ways for survivors, their friends and families, and for advocates and educators, even media and press. Their stated mission is “to provide leadership in preventing and responding to sexual violence through collaboration, sharing and creating resources, and promoting research.”
We all have a role to play in being the support system our friends and family members need, our communities need, that our country needs in the era of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Be the friend you would want if you were in someone else’s shoes.