What Do I Say When…
Someone Tells Me They Have Been Sexually Assaulted or Harassed?
Media coverage of sexual misconduct allegations against several celebrities and politicians, the Time's Up movement, and the #MeToo social media campaign have heightened awareness of the prevalence and effects of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the United States. For some, using #MeToo may be their first public acknowledgement of their experience. The culture of silence around these issues is shifting, and it can be difficult to know what to say to a friend, a family member, or a co-worker who discloses their story of sexual assault and/or harassment.
The point of the #MeToo campaign is to foster awareness and empower those who have faced assault and harassment while also reducing isolation, shame, and guilt. Starting to speak about an experience like this is very difficult for the survivor, so it is important that you convey support and empathy. The idea of talking about these issues can be scary for the listener. It's not always due to not wanting to be supportive. It may have more to do with fear of saying the wrong thing. My best advice is to focus more on what the person is saying and less on what you are saying. The first step in creating a space for supportive and effective communication is to listen.
The following are a few guidelines to help minimize worry about saying the wrong thing. Remember that the exact wording is not the point as much as the intention and the meaning behind the words you use.
1. Survivors decide when they share, what they share, and how they share it. Just because someone uses #MeToo does not mean they are ready to disclose their whole story in detail. If it's shared on social media and you want to show support, then acknowledge that you saw it and are available to listen. If the person is ready to talk about it, try saying, "I'm glad you feel comfortable talking to me about what happened. You can tell me as much or as little as you want." If they start to talk but then want to stop, let them know, "I imagine it can be hard to talk about it. I'm open to talking when you feel more comfortable. No pressure."
2. Acknowledge the pain without assuming how they feel. People have different needs at different times in their lives, and they react many different ways. Be careful to not minimize or catastrophize. Stay focused on what the person is telling you and not on what you think the person is feeling or thinking or what you think she or he should do. You might try saying, "What was it like for you?" or "What feelings come up when you talk about it now?"
3. It's okay to express your anger or sadness. You are a person who has feelings, too. Seeing how you react to the story sometimes validates the survivor's experience or helps the survivor know you are present in the conversation. The key here is to make sure it does not become about your feelings or story and to always bring the focus back to the survivor. You could say, "I'm so angry that this happened. No one should ever have to experience that. I want to help. What can I do for you?"
4. Don't ask a lot of questions. In an effort to understand, people often fall back on asking lots of detailed questions when confronted with someone else's experience. Sometimes questions do the opposite and suggest judgement or disbelief. Asking questions like, "Were you drinking?"; "Did you say no?"; "Why did you go to his room?"; or "Why did you wait so long to talk about it?" are examples of questions that can shut down the person who is disclosing to you. These types of questions also suggest that the incident was the survivor's fault. You may have those questions, but it is not necessary to ask them. You aren't trying to solve a crime. You are trying to support someone who has experienced one.
5. Offer to help them find resources. There are those who already have their own resources and support systems in place, such as trusted family, friends, or professionals in mental health. Ask, "Do you have support?"; "Have you talked about your experience with someone?"; or "Would you like help locating more or different types of support?" It's also okay to say, "I'm not sure of what resources are out there, but I can help you find out." Offer choices and options that the person selects. For example, if the person is in distress, offer hotline information, refer them to their employee assistance program, or help them get to more immediate services such as the emergency department.
After hearing someone else's story, you will have your own reactions and may need your own support. Practice self-care and set reasonable boundaries. You may want to seek out a trusted individual or a professional who will support you and offer guidance. It is important to remember that when survivors share their story with you, it is not your story to tell. If you seek support from friends, family members, or co-workers after hearing about someone else's experience, minimize sharing details and focus on your own thoughts and emotions.
Vanderbilt University and Medical Center employees have several resources to access. Some services offer support and guidance while others focus on safety or grievance/complaint procedures.
In an emergency, the following services are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week:
- Project Safe Support Hotline: 615-322-SAFE (7233)
- Work/Life Connections – Employee Assistance Program: 615-936-1327
- Vanderbilt University Police: 911 or 615-421-1911
- Vanderbilt University Medical Center Emergency Services: 615-322-0160
- Nashville Sexual Assault Center Hotline: 1-800-879-1999
- YWCA Crisis and Information Line: 615-242-1199
Chad A. Buck, PhD
Work/Life Connections - Employee Assistance Program