Sexual harassment and assault happen more often than you think. It’s just that survivors stay silent for fear of not being believed.
Whether you’re reeling from the outpouring of sexual predation accusations in Ateneo or the Brett Kavanaugh trial re-triggered awful memories for you/the people you love, I’ve put together a little primer for the friends and loved ones who would like to help and support someone who underwent such a terrible experience (sometimes more than once).
- Assess your own emotions and state of mind first. So you’ve heard the news that someone you care about was harassed or assaulted. Is it perhaps making you go through the stages of grief? Are you perhaps a survivor too, re-experiencing your own traumatic event after hearing about what someone you know went through? All these feelings are normal. They serve as your gauge as to whether or not you can be of any help at this moment in time. And if you can’t be? That’s perfectly all right. There’s a reason why airplane emergency procedures tell you to put your oxygen mask over yourself before helping anyone else–take care of yourself first.
- Always ask them what they need first. This one particularly applies to assault survivors. If you can be there for them physically and you happen to be affectionate, ask them if it’s okay for you to touch them. The assaulted often feel disempowered from make their own choices; you’ll be doing them a kindness by letting them decide your interactions. After this, ask them how you can help: do they need someone to drive them to the doctor? A listening ear? Someone to research a specialist? Someone to help them write down and file a complaint? Would they rather not do any of the above and just need the company of someone they trust? Or are they simply too drained to perform normal activities under circumstances, such as eating, drinking water, calling to pay the bills, and so on? Help them with whatever they need to the best of your abilities.
- If you don’t know what to say to them the first time you hear of their story, you can use any of these phrases. If you’ve decided to reach out to them, know that it is terribly easy to say the wrong thing. These phrases will not only deepen their trust in you. Some are keys to helping them release their emotions. They are: “You’re not alone.” “It’s not your fault.” “I believe you.” “I’m sorry that happened to you.” “That should never have happened to you.” “I’m here to help in any way I can.”
- Figure out what kind of help you’re willing and able to offer. This is especially great once you’re reassured that your loved one has people in their support network who are already helping them do the heavy lifting, but you’d still like to be of some help. Not someone who’s good at holding or listening to difficult conversations? Do you not have the time or mobility to be physically there for your friend? Pictures and videos of cute animals, as well as care packages, are always welcome. Even if it’s just a link to a funny meme, your loved one will be heartened to know that you’re thinking of them. As an example, batchmate of mine whom I’d never really spoken to in person recently reached out to me, admitting that they are not good at the above mentioned things, and yet she sent me a link to a philosophy video. And though I honestly have yet to watch it, I was really moved by her wanting to help me.
- Remember that your loved one will need support for the long-term and not just for the next few weeks and months. Don’t forget to check up on them from time to time. If they still don’t want to talk about what happened, spend time with them anyway. Help them around the house or arrange for a hangout or vacation somewhere new.
- Don’t make their experience about you. This is why it’s important to check your own emotions and state of mind, first. You may feel tempted to deny that this ever happened to your loved one, because your anger and guilt at having been unable to protect them overwhelms you. You may feel a reflexive impulse to doubt their experience and defend their attacker/harasser because that person treated you very well in the past, and it is difficult for you to reconcile the attacker/harasser’s two sides–or that you may have never really known that person at all. You may even want your loved one to keep quiet because you either can’t stand the idea that you may have been complicit in a system of abuse OR you feel that their speaking up will ruin your reputation or the reputation of the group you both belong to. If you experienced something similar yourself, their own experience may even make your identity feel threatened because you brushed off your own experience the first time and don’t like thinking of yourself as a victim. You’re not to be blamed if these feelings are your first impulse–the important thing is that you do not act on them. Focus on your loved one, their experience, and the fact that you pledged to support them no matter what.
- Don’t assume you know what’s best for them–and order them to do it. Let’s say you’re in their corner all the way. You set a meeting with them in a cozy cafe, pay for their order, and tell them to tell you their story–or if they don’t want to talk about it, you start telling them to go see a therapist, start filing a report, and so on. Recognize that these are all what you think you would do in such a situation. Though these are all good deeds in and of themselves, you haven’t asked them how they would like to be treated and what they would like to do moving forward. As a result, you’re putting unnecessary pressure for them to move on and therefore indirectly invalidating their experience. Let them decide how, when, and where they would like to manage their own pain.
- Don’t put a deadline on their healing process. You don’t ask a cancer patient when they will be healed. Similarly, you don’t ask a survivor when they’re going to get over what happened to them. If you do, you’ll put unnecessary pressure on them–and they’ll start to think they’re broken or abnormal if they don’t meet the “deadline.” As mentioned above, supporting the sexually harassed/assaulted means being in it for the long haul. Understand and accept that their experience will have changed them, but you don’t have to alter your relationship with each other for the worse with this kind of reaction.
– Me, a sexual assault survivor