They say that 1 in 6 women have been the victim of a completed or attempted rape. Though it’s hard to determine because crimes go unreported, 1 in 5 girls are victims of childhood sexual abuse. Self-reporting shows that a full 20% of women were sexually assaulted or abused as children. It seems I attracted the 20%, the 1 in 6, because the majority of women I know have experienced some kind of rape or assault in their lifetimes. The question is not “Were you raped or molested?” but “When were you raped or molested?”
We need an etiquette to deal with this, a way to speak of it without flippancy. First, we must keep trigger warnings, as stupid as some people may find them. And yes, it can be frustrating to write *** TRIGGER WARNING BELOW *** when you’re typing something in a Facebook group. But just because you, personally, have never been molested or raped doesn’t mean that trigger warnings are for the weak or the whiny. On the contrary, trigger warnings are for strong women (and men) who can become completely derailed when reminded of their assault. They should have the choice to decide when and how they engage with depictions of sexual assault, because that choice was taken from them at least once already. They can feel re-victimized when they encounter triggering material — again powerless, again blindsided.
Second, we need to come out of the darkness. We need to create a strong, supportive community to give people the space to talk about their assaults. Part of that means that the strongest among us have to speak out: not necessarily in gory, push-pull detail, but in solidarity. I was molested as a child, by another child. I was raped twice in college. When I share my story, I open up the space for others to share theirs. And in that sharing, we can find healing, because we realize we are not alone, we are not dirty, and we did not ask for it. Our assault is not something we brought on ourselves. It is not our fault. By telling our stories, we open the space for others to reaffirm these truths with us.
And when that telling comes, we need to receive the news with the same solemnity we receive news of a death. Because this is, in a sense, a death: the death of a person’s sexual innocence, a death of control over the body. The only proper response to disclosure of a sexual assault is, “I’m so sorry. Is there anything that I can do?” Don’t offer a hug; the person may not wish to be touched right now, while they’re talking about their assault. And don’t meet the disclosure with a breathy, “Oh my gosh!” Your shock makes the disclosure about you. And it’s not about you.
The initial impulse, upon hearing about an assault, is to ask, “What happened?” Resist this urge. If they want you to know what happened, they’ll tell you. Do not press for details. Do not ask when, where, how, or who. Do not ask if they reported it. Do not ask if they told their mother. Just don’t ask. You are there to offer support and keep the conversation focused on the person who was assaulted.
But if details are given, and they often are, you have one job and one job only: to listen. Nod your head along to show you’re still with the victim. It is not in your purview to show shock, disbelief, or rage. Shock turns the conversation back to you. Disbelief shows you can’t believe it could happen to such a nice girl, and can reinforce a hidden sense of self-loathing. Rage also turns the focus back on you and your feelings. It’s OK to say you’re angry. It’s not OK to get livid. No matter how shocking and lurid the details, you need to be strong. Don’t flinch. Don’t back away. Acceptable responses include, again, “I am so sorry,” “I’m so angry for you,” “That never should have happened to you,” and “You know none of this is your fault. I hope you never felt that way.”
Most of all, you should never, ever, ever question the authenticity of what the person is saying. “Are you sure it happened that way?” is the death sentence for any productive discussion about rape. So are little jabs that question the experience: “Did you say no?” “Why didn’t you tell someone?” “Are you sure you weren’t just drunk?” These undermine the person’s faith in their own perceptions, and when blown up, basically imply that the person was never raped or assaulted or that they did deserve what happened to them. This is the biggest faux pas in a discussion about rape and should be avoided at all costs. It hurts the other person and makes you an asshole.
But in the midst of this discussion, we need to be mindful of ourselves, especially if we are also sexual assault survivors. It’s OK to gently excuse yourself if you find the discussion triggering. If you’re panicking, having flashbacks, feeling nauseated, or grappling with a sudden sense of misery, you may need to exercise some self-care and explain the situation. It may be enough to stop talking about it. But you may need to leave. You may even need to find someone to talk to yourself. If this is the case, you should consider finding a therapist. (I do not meant that flippantly.)
Rape is a horrible thing. A life-altering, horrific event. So is sexual assault, be it against a child or an adult. We need to have common-sense guidelines in place as these things come out of the darkness and into the light. And they need to emerge from the shame that covered them in the past. But that can only happen if people feel safe enough to tell their stories, and they will only feel safe enough if their story is met with compassion and love.