What To Do When Someone Approaches To Tell You About Sexual Assault or Abuse

When a person comes to you to tell you that ou has experienced sexual assault, rape, incest, molestation, or abuse, it’s a scary and intense thing. A lot of people freeze in this situation, even people who have experience with these kinds of conversation. Even (sometimes especially) people who have experienced these things themselves.

It’s also a supreme act of faith and trust. In you. And the way that you respond will have a major impact on the rest of this person’s life. I am not engaging in hyperbole here. If you are the first person this person has approached, this person is regarding you as a safe space. As a trusted person. As someone who can be confided in. This person is exposing the deepest and darkest parts of ouself and what you say, especially in that first interaction, can dictate a lot of things.

It can dictate whether or not this person will commit suicide. Whether or not this person decides to report the crime. Whether or not this person spends the rest of ou life in self doubt. Feeling dirty. Being disgusted by ouself. Hating ouself. What you say. Matters. More than I can even begin to say.

That’s putting a lot on you and you really need to not mess this up. Fortunately, the response is really easy.

Start with ‘This is terrible. I am so sorry to hear that this happened to you.’ Or some variation on this phrasing. It’s important to emphasize that you recognise this thing that you are being told about as a wrong. And that you recognise that this wrong happened to the person you are talking to.

Follow with ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’ ETA: It’s worth noting that this framing can be problematic, because it can put pressure on the person, who may feel an obligation to come up with something for you to do. You can say ‘I’m here to help,’ or ‘I’m here to listen, if you like.’ (end edit)

And stop right there.

Right. There.

That is all you need to say. What this person needs from you right now, what this person is asking for by coming forward, whether it’s talking about a molestation that occurred 30 years ago or a phone call in the middle of the night asking for a ride home from a party, is your support. Is your unconditional love. Is a reinforcement that yes, this happened, and it was wrong and awful and horrible and not the victim’s fault. It should not have happened. And you are in this person’s court. You are there. You are listening.

This is pretty much the exact same formula used by crisis counselors. Reflection of what the person is saying, emphasis that, yes, this happened and it was bad, and a question about what the crisis counselor can do for the person who is asking for help. That might be sitting there and talking. It might be accompanying someone to a hospital or police station. It might be helping someone find a therapist. A shelter. What happens next is up to the person asking for help, not the person offering it.

There are some things that you can say that would be really unhelpful.

‘I can’t believe that/that seems out of character/there must be something else going on/are you sure this is the whole story/do you have proof/where you drinking/where did this happen/can you go into more details.’ I really shouldn’t have to explain why none of these are ok, but there we go. These things are not ok because they are not supportive. They are not anything this person hasn’t been thinking about. Hasn’t been asked (if you are not the first person this person has talked to). They are not anything that won’t be repeated over and over and over and over again in the coming weeks, months and years. They are not anything that will batter away at this person’s heart and soul for the rest of ou life.

Oh, wait, that is exactly what they are. What people need when they are asking for help is not an interrogation, is not questioning. What they need is your love and support. Remember that the culture we live in tells us to deny these things. Especially when they involve ‘nice guys’ and upstanding members of the community and parents and family members and ‘trustworthy’ people and partners.

You may privately have questions. That’s fine. Welcome to rape culture. Keep them to yourself.

‘Are you going to report it/do you want me to take you to the police/did you get an exam/have you talked to a doctor.’ Remember what I said about how this person needs your support? All of these things are things that may eventually happen. They may not be things this person wants to think about right now. This person is overwhelmed and terrified that ou is talking to you in the first place. Any interrogatories are not going to go well because this person. Just. Needs. You. To. Listen.

‘Do you need help?’ is an open ended question. Sometimes all you can do is be willing to sit and talk. Sometimes someone wants to go to a hospital or police station, and you can assist with that. Maybe this person wants a recommendation for a counselor, and you can suggest RAINN or a local crisis hotline. This person might say ‘I don’t know what to do, what do you think I should do’ and then you can say ‘you may want to consider going to a doctor to get examined.’ Remember to construct what you are saying as an offer, not an order. ‘Do you want to talk about maybe reporting it to the police’ rather than ‘you should go to the police.’ If that person says ‘ok, can you help me do that,’ you can indeed help with that. If that person brings up wanting to report it and wanting support, then you can volunteer to help. But don’t jump in there from the start with this stuff. The person who approached you is probably thinking about it. Considering it. Weighing the risks.

By providing your unconditional support and offer of assistance, you make it clear that help is available. That what happened really happened. That other people will be angry and horrified and shocked and they will provide assistance. That this will be taken seriously. And that’s what people need to hear most as all when they are terrified and reaching out for help.