If you’ve met me, chances are I’ve told you I’m a survivor of sexual violence. I tell a lot of people. I always have. Part of my mission in life is to break down the shame and stigma that comes along with being a survivor.
I’ll tell you straight up, usually in reference to the work I do through The Enliven Project. That’s not always how it goes down. Sometimes, a survivor might mention that “something like that happened to me too” or “I know what that survivor is talking about.” Or it might be as a pivot to a completely different topic like, “After I was raped, I found a really good trainer at the gym.”
When a friend shares personal information like this, most men will say something like, “Wow, I’m so sorry.”
If this is how you responded to a friend, congratulations! You are on the right track. You acknowledged the survivor. You believed them. And you didn’t stick your foot in your mouth.
But maybe you want to say more. Maybe you felt like you didn’t accurately convey how much it pains you to think that a friend endured something so unbearable. Maybe you have questions about what you can do to better support this person’s healing.
You aren’t alone. A lot of men – and women – feel this way, especially if they haven’t had an in-depth relationship with a survivor, formal education about sexual violence, or experience navigating emotional conversations about uncomfortable topics.
As a friend, you can say more, both in the moment and in the course of your friendship. In the moment, try following up with one of these questions or statements:
“Are you getting the help and support you need right now?”
“Wow, no one deserves to have something like that happen to them.”
“If you ever want to talk more about being a survivor, I’m here for you.”
“I appreciate that you trusted me enough to share that.”
If you missed your moment, it’s not too late for you.
“I know you mentioned some time ago that you were a survivor of sexual violence. I want you to know that I’ve been thinking and reflecting more on this topic, and if you ever want to talk, I’m here.”
“I just want you to know that I’m proud of all you have done to survive sexual violence. And I’m really sorry it happened to you.”
“If there’s anything that I can do – or not do – that would be helpful through the lens of supporting you as a survivor, please let me know.”
Some men I talked to deliberately avoid the topic of sexual violence with their survivor friends because they don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable, cause pain, or imply they are victims. This comes from a place of good intention, but it doesn’t really make sense.
Imagine for a moment that your friend lost a parent in high school. And then you never talked about it again – you never even mentioned it. That would be strange, right? You wouldn’t need to re-hash or re-live the trauma of the moment their parent passed away, but you wouldn’t avoid the topic all together. And you’d be sensitive about things like Fathers’ Day or the anniversary of their death. But you wouldn’t stop talking about fathers all together, would you?
Part of friendship is being able to talk about easy things and difficult things. Part of friendship is being able to bring your full self to the table. That means you can and should want to understand how this trauma impacted who they are and how they experience the world today. As a survivor sexual violence, I appreciate the friends who are open to talking about the ways in which being a survivor might impact me today, as a wife, as a worker, as a mother, as a consumer of the ever-triggering media.
It’s really okay to talk about sexual violence. Talking helps. It reduces shame, and increases understanding. It’s a way to let survivors know you care.