Stories about sexual violence make their way into the media on a cyclical basis, especially when a major trial is taking place, as was the case with Bill Cosby’s trial, Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and now with Harvey Weinstein facing trial for decades of alleged sexual misconduct. These discussions, while necessary to have publicly in order to shed light on the problems of sexual violence and abuse of power, can be difficult for survivors. This is especially true when it seems like you can’t turn on the radio, scroll through social media, or follow the news without being inundated by potentially triggering material. Here at Muhlenberg, the Department of Prevention Education unequivocally supports those who have experienced such violence, whether it occurred many years ago or more recently. We respect the work of feminists like Tarana Burke, who coined the #MeToo hashtag as a means of survivors from all walks of life to show solidarity with one another, and to bring to light the fact that there are more people in everyone’s life who are survivors and victims of sexual violence than you might think. For example, the 2015 Association of American Universities Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct found that, “Overall, 11.7 percent of student respondents across 27 universities reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation since they enrolled at their university.” This statistic includes women, men, and non-binary or gender non-conforming folks, both cisgender and transgender.
With this in mind, how can we all support survivors in times that may be especially difficult, and most importantly, how can we apologize and make amends if our first responses aren’t as supportive as we intend?
This is where I like to think about the first thought/second thought paradigm, as explained by Tumblr user nikolaecuza (sharing wisdom from their mom): “The first thought that goes through your mind is what you have been conditioned to think. What you think next defines who you are.” This means the first thought that comes to mind may not actually be something in line with your values. Your first thoughts are often things you were “trained” to think, such as a sexist or racist thought. Your second thought is the one that comes after. It is your inner voice saying, “Wow, that was a sexist/racist thought – where did that come from? That’s not me!”
Most of us grow up in a culture that inundates us with sex-negative messaging, and part of that includes blaming survivors/victims when they report sexual violence, or wondering what they did to contribute to it. What were they wearing? Were they drinking? Why were they at a party with people known to be predatory? As we grow up, we also seldom receive information or training about how to respond to survivors/victims when they share our stories with us, and so we may be at a loss for how to have that conversation. We may feel embarrassed, confused, or our culture or religion may tell us that sex is a private matter that is impolite to discuss openly, or even with close friends. You may not have responded how you wish you had to a friend during their time of need, or said something dismissive out of hand, later realizing your mistake.
Here are some helpful tips for how to have that conversation the right way the first time, and how to go back and apologize to your friend and let them know you want to be a supportive person:
1. There is no perfect response. That’s right! There are no magic words or “perfect” ways to respond. Brené Brown, a social worker and shame and resilience expert, shares that one of the most powerful ways we can show empathy – even if we don’t know what to say – is to try something like, “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.” Sometimes just sitting in silence together is powerful. No need to say anything at all.
2. Just listen and show your support. If your friend wants to talk, just listen, and show with your body language that you’re paying attention and you care. Don’t cross your arms or frown, signs that you may be disapproving of what they say. Make eye contact, but do not stare. Nod your head slightly to show that you understand what your friend is saying.
3. Ask how to be supportive. Oftentimes survivors/victims have had their agency (or ability to make their own choices) taken away from them. When someone sexually assaults someone else, it is often primarily about taking their power away from them. So someone who has been victimized can feel powerless. Asking someone how they would like you to help can be empowering and restore their ability to have choices.
4. Offer a distraction. “Would you like to me to watch cartoons with you?” (Steven Universe is a personal favorite!) “Would you like to walk my dog with me?” “Would you like to work on a puzzle together?” “Do you want to go throw a football around?” “Want to come with me to my next kickboxing class?” All of these kinds of distractions can be a helpful way for a survivor to take a break from the trauma of what they’ve experienced. This is especially helpful for those who have experienced sexual violence recently.
5. Offer to help with chores, studying, or a walk across campus. Someone healing from the trauma of sexual violence may feel overwhelmed by everyday things like doing their laundry, eating lunch, or cramming for the physics final. They may feel unsafe walking to their dorm alone after class. Doing any of these practical things together can be a life saver for a friend engaged in this kind of healing.
6. Offer to let the conversation be ongoing. It doesn’t have to be a one-and-done. If you feel comfortable, let your friend know they can talk to you about this again in the future. However, if you feel your friend is leaning on you too much, or you feel in over your head, never hesitate to offer to help your friend connect with the folks at Counseling Services, make a report with Campus Safety or our Title IX office (you can also make a report online), or even access outside support like with the Crime Victims Council or Bradbury-Sullivan (LBGTQIA+ support). This doesn’t have to be something you take on alone.
If your friend has come to you for support and you have made a misstep, it’s a good idea to follow up with them instead of avoiding the situation and hoping it blows over. This can be a tricky conversation to have, and I like what sex educator Reid Mihalko* calls the Difficult Conversation Formula. The basics go something like this:
“I would like to talk to you about something important. I’m afraid of ________ happening. What I’d like to happen is ________. Is there anything you’d like to share?”
If you’ve responded poorly to a friend telling you about their sexual assault, it might look like this:
“I would like to talk to you about something important. When you told me about your sexual assault, I recognize that I didn’t respond the best way, and I’m not proud of that fact. I’m afraid I’ve damaged our relationship/hurt you further/made you not want to be friends anymore. What I’d like to happen is to have another chance to hear you out/let you know I support you/apologize and ask if you can accept my apology. Is there anything you’d like to share?”
It takes a lot of courage to open up such dialogues, and it’s okay to be nervous or afraid of the other party’s response! Once you have heard your friend out, hopefully they will be open to repairing the relationship and continuing the conversation. At this point, it might be worth revisiting some of the bullet points listed above. For instance, it might be a good time to offer help with chores, offer distractions, or just open space for listening. Be sincere and open to feedback, and you may wind up being a strong source of support to your friend!
If you have any questions regarding this post or about supporting survivors in general, feel free to reach out to Jules Purnell, Associate Director of Prevention Education: firstname.lastname@example.org, 484-664-3186.
*In the interest of full disclosure, Reid Mihalko has been accused of and has undergone an accountability process with the help of his community for sexual violence against fellow educator Kelly Shibari. Reid has documented his process here. While it may seem counter-intuitive to offer his guidance on this matter, the difficult conversation formula is still a valuable tool to use in circumstances like this.