A friend said they were raped. You were speechless…
Your friend, or maybe your significant other, has just disclosed to you that they were sexually assaulted, molested as a child or raped in college. Maybe your initial reaction was one of shock. Maybe you were speechless. Now you’re trying to regroup and figure out what you can say to the next time this topic comes up (or even planning to bring it up yourself). You want to get the conversation “right” and make sure the other person knows they are loved, accepted and supported. The only problem is, you still don’t know what to say…
First of all, let me know say that I’m writing this blog post, because your feeling lost and speechless is a NORMAL response. When I’m talking to a survivor of sexual assault, childhood molestation or rape in a counseling session and they say they’re ready to tell a new boyfriend, their parents or a friend, this is one of the things we discuss. In a perfect world, you’d have been prepared for that conversation and known the “right” thing to say. Reality? People are often surprised and have no idea how to respond. Maybe your initial reaction was anger toward the perpetrator. Or it’s possible your first reaction was fear about how it would impact your relationship with this person. It’s also possible that truly the only emotion you experienced was pure shock. I’ve even heard clients talk about loved ones hanging up a phone, walking out of the building or crying themselves.
Do I bring up their disclosure again? If so…how?
If you regret how you initially responded to your friend or loved one’s disclosure, it’s ok. You CAN go back and have a more comforting discussion later. Just do that. You are right to be doing research, and it’s ok to bring the subject up again.
“I have been feeling bad about how I responded to what you told me the other day. Can I have a do over?”
I recommend you use a phrase somewhat along these lines. Why? This statement gives the power back to your friend or loved one. They have a warning this topic is coming up and they can say, “No, I’m not ready.” It also gives them a heads up that this conversation will be different.
Be prepared for the next conversation
In the past, I’ve talked about specific actions you can take to support a friend or family member who was sexually assaulted. Take a look at that blog post, do a little research. Overall just get more comfortable with the topic of sexual violence. You may never be truly comfortable talking about things like molestation, rape or sexual assault but at least you’ll be less likely to completely freeze.
What specifically do I say to a victim of sexual violence?
Ok, so I’ve given you permission to have had an imperfect first response and to bring the topic up again. But, I still haven’t told you exactly what to say. This is the section you’ve been waiting for, right?
Only problem is that every single survivor (read here why I prefer survivor over victim) is different. And every relationship with two people is different, so some of this absolutely is in context of your relationship with the other person. If the survivor is your best friend you might respond differently than if it’s your adult daughter. It also may make a difference if they’re telling you they were raped yesterday versus they were molested 25 years ago. But with that disclosure said….here are a couple specific ideas for what you can say.
That was wrong. That is not ok. You shouldn’t have had to go through that.
This is a GREAT place to start. Survivors often blame themselves. Even if they logically know they didn’t deserve the way they were treated, they will ask themselves what they could have done to prevent the assault.
Let me put it this way… Imagine for a moment you see a distraught, drunk woman standing in middle of the road naked shouting, “Rape me!” Is it right to go ahead and rape the woman? Regardless of what happened to put her in this situation, are the actions of the assailant acceptable if a man goes ahead and rapes that woman? If you answered no, how on Earth could it have been your friend or loved one’s fault?
In an effort to try to better understand what happened, you may be tempted to ask questions like, “Were you drunk?” or “Were you alone?” Please don’t ask those questions. IF they were any of those things, they’ve already wondered if the rape was their “own fault” because of those factors. But just like the woman I described above, it doesn’t matter how they were dressed, what substances they’d had, if they’d chosen to kiss the other person, if they’d had sex in the past, or any other factor. Rape, molestation, sexual harassment, sexual assault or ANY form of sexual violence is simply unacceptable. In fact, I rarely ask any of those questions when I’m working with a new client. Often over the course of therapy we’ll have to talk about the specifics of their assault, but that’s down the line. The first thing your loved one needs to know is that you believe what they went through was wrong.
I believe you.
Survivors worry they won’t be believed and it puts them in a very vulnerable position to tell you what happened. In fact, someone else may have said with their words, actions or questions that they didn’t believe the victim/survivor. Even if you think, “Duh, of course I believe my girlfriend when she tells me she was raped.” She still may need to hear those words from you. And if the survivor was a male? Then they still need to hear those words! Please, say the words. Then show it with the tenderness in your voice, with your presence, with every fiber of your being show that you believe. The research is clear that men and women just don’t make this stuff up. If someone is telling you they were the victim of sexual violence, you can be pretty sure they are telling the truth.
I am here for you and I support you.
Again, this may seem obvious to you, but it’s likely not obvious to the person you’re speaking to. Especially if your first reaction was shock. You CAN come back from a moment of shock or a less than optimal reaction to their disclosure of rape. But in those instances it’s especially important that you say, “I am here for you” when you return to the topic. Then show you’re there. If they say something that makes you uncomfortable, take a deep breath and listen. Know that if YOU feel uncomfortable, they surely do. And they’ve felt uncomfortable a thousand times before when they’ve thought about the incident. They are opening up to you now because they trust you. Show them you’re worthy of that trust by communicating that you can handle their pain.
I don’t know what to say. What would be helpful to hear?
This is an ok response as well. It’s better to admit that you don’t know what to say than to say nothing at all. Maybe the other person doesn’t even know what would be helpful, but it shows that you care just by asking.
Do you want help finding a professional?
Not every mental health professional is really experienced in this type of work. However, those of us who specialize in helping survivors of sexual assault can help guide someone through the healing process. In Columbia, you may be looking at talking to True North if the survivor was the victim of domestic violence, the Title 9 if there was any relation to campus, the RSVP center if the survivor is a student or staff member at MU, or any other number of professional services available to help. If the assault was recent it may even mean going with your loved one to the doctor or emergency room for a rape kit (although many people choose not to take this step and that’s ok). Going to these resources can be scary. You can help by calling ahead and asking questions for your friend or by offering to go with them to an appointment.
If you suspect your loved one may have PTSD or even if they don’t but may benefit from having someone to process their sexual trauma with, you can recommend counseling. However, I highly recommend looking for a therapist who specializes in PTSD treatment or even better specializes in helping sexual violence survivors specifically. Traditional talk therapy (or what we call “treatment as usual”) can be helpful if the therapist and client form a good therapeutic relationship. But by going to a specialist, your loved one will be able to get questions to questions they may be thinking (what’s a ‘normal’ response for instance) and the trauma expert can use evidence based counseling methods that have helped countless survivors.
Counseling for Sexual Assault Survivors in Columbia, MO
If you are looking for a therapist who specializes in helping survivors of sexual assault in the Mid Missouri area, I encourage you to reach out to Aspire Counseling. We have trauma specialists who provide quality, evidence based counseling services in a comforting, caring environment. We believe in the power of counseling. Our skilled therapists have helped many, many survivors of sexual harassment, sexual molestation, sexual assault and rape find peace, gain control over their memories and move forward feeling empowered. Healing starts here.
About the Author
Jessica Tappana is the founder of Aspire Counseling, a Mid Missouri counseling clinic. Aspire Counseling specializes in treating anxiety, trauma/PTSD, grief and overwhelming stress. We provide evidence based counseling services for everything from depression to gender identity exploration in a comforting counseling environment. Jessica herself specializes in helping people get unstuck and primarily sees teens through retirees with anxiety, a history of trauma or difficulty adjusting to a major change in their life. She especially enjoys empowering survivors of sexual violence and sees herself as an advocate for sexual violence survivors. She believes in the power of counseling.