There's a really great but uncomfortable Amy Schumer bit where she says "Every woman's been a little bit raped." It's great because it de-stigmatizes sexual assault and creates solidarity through experience, and it's uncomfortable because it's brutally honest—not because it's poking fun at a situation that should never be mocked. It's designed specifically to make you squirm, and/or nod your head in agreement. I think it's one of few instances in which comedy tackles the issue of sex crime without being crass or offensive, or relying on some sort of misplaced sense of shock value. Add to that that one-in-five women has been the victim of sexual assault, and you start to see how comedy is capable of making a powerful social statement.
I bring up this anecdote as a means of addressing how we, on a personal level, should and should not speak to someone who confides that they've experienced sexual assault. On whatever level the assault has been experienced, from the horror of rape to the every day harassment that happens on the street, we should always take confessions by victims seriously enough that we're both able to contextualize what has happened to them both culturally, and personally. We should always be aware of the wider implications of sexual assault and have empathy for the way in which the survivor is dealing with what they've gone through.
Many years ago, I had a man grope my chest on a London bus. I was lucky enough to be with friends who were sensitive in the situation. I was wearing a low cut top. I was drunk. But I was minding my own business when a man who I'd had zero interaction with and did not personally know, as he was stepping off the bus, decided to put his hand down the front of my top. After the event, my friends asked if I wanted to be hugged, and if I wanted to go home. They encouraged me to go to the police, and went to the station with me, foregoing the party we were heading to. But not everyone is so compassionate, and I'd be lying if I said I'd never heard someone say something like "Did you ask for it?" or "What were you wearing?" when I've described an instance of a man being sexually aggressive towards me. Of course I've heard that. Every woman has heard that, and they never should. When someone says they've been sexually assaulted, here are six things you should never say.
1. "ARE YOU SURE?"
Yes, I'm fucking sure. When someone has been sexually assaulted, woman or man, they are sure. Asking someone who has already been stripped of dignity, autonomy and their sense of safety if they're "sure" is a really great way to take more of those things from them. Casting doubt often causes a victim to doubt their own experience, and that's not OK. If you have questions about the circumstances, ask those instead. "Where?", "How?", "How did it make you feel?" You can be inquisitive without being a jerk.
2. "WHAT DID YOU DO TO PUT YOURSELF IN THAT SITUATION?"
Nothing. No one in the history of the world ever did anything that was deserving of a sexual assault. Period. We need to delete any victim shaming vocabulary from the lexicon of sexual assault discussions.
3. "THIS REMINDS ME OF THE TIME THIS TOTALLY NON-RELATED THING HAPPENED TO ME!"
No one wants to hear about the time someone backed into your car and then yelled at you and how that made you feel embarrassed or small. I'm sorry (but not sorry) to tell you it's not the same thing. Or when Suzy What's-Her-Face pushed you over in gym class—not the same thing. Or when you were bullied at work by your mean boss—not the same thing. While all those things suck, you can't really understand what it feels like to be sexually assaulted unless you have been, and it's not helpful to try and compare it to something incomparable. It's reductive to the victim's experience, and while you might think you're "relating", all you're actually doing is making the victim feel like what happened to them wasn't of great consequence. While other hurtful experiences might be embarrassing or difficult to navigate, sexual assault can often leave the victim feeling entirely vulnerable with no security at all. Empathy is not the same as sympathy.
4. "DON'T TELL ANYONE."
Encouraging a sexual assault victim to hide what happened to them is another form of shaming. Whether due to the social implications for the aggressor, the supposed futility of reporting, or how the victim will be viewed by their peers, this "advice" is nasty and backwards. It's a victim's choice whether or not to report a sexual crime, and we should be cultivating a culture in which the victim feels empowered, not terrified, to do so.
5. "IT HAPPENS TO EVERYONE."
Whoppdie-fucking-do. That doesn't make it any easier to bear. Never brush off sexual assault because it's common. As my mother used to say to me when I was in school: "If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?" Just because something is happening to "everyone", that doesn't make it OK. Saying "It happens to everyone" almost excuses it. At the very least, it normalizes and diminishes something that should never, ever stop feeling exceptionally abnormal and egregious. Instead, why not point to the ways in which support is available in the community, or offer some support yourself instead of trying to bury what happened to your friend in the pile of shit that happens to people every day.
6. "YOU'LL GET OVER IT."
A survivor of an assault might "get over it", but that doesn't mean there won't be scars. To be honest, this is a piece of advice that should be banned from EVERY advice-giving situation. In time, things will (hopefully, ideally) become easier. But we all have to live with the things that happen to us, and being callous about the way different people handle trauma is not exactly a recipe for an empathetic sense of humanity. Maybe someone will get over it, maybe they won't—and that's one hundred percent not for you to be the arbiter of. Instead, try helping someone "get over it" by offering them kindness and patience. I know that might sound a little bit sermon-y, but I can tell you first hand that sexual assault leaves you feeling like your skin has been peeled off. What you need from the people around you, sometimes, is silence. A cup of tea, maybe. And a reassurance that someone will be there for you, unconditionally, no matter what it takes to get you through what you're feeling.