Here’s How To Center Survivors When Talking About Sexual Assault

The moment that compels survivors to share is the moment we must stop and not talk over them, not tell them about their own experience, but listen.

Imagine, for a minute, what it would feel like if someone with absolutely no knowledge or experience in a given area tried to explain it to you. Spoiler: Women don’t have to imagine a scenario like this because we experience it constantly. The New Yorker even published a cartoon about it, cleverly captioned, “Let me interrupt your expertise with my confidence.”

The cartoon made me think of a particular conversation that happened again and again a few years ago, during which my own job was explained to me by someone with no experience in my line of work. Imagine how tedious this would be to hear. How insulted you would feel. Then imagine being on the other end of the conversation, and having the audacity to invalidate someone’s experience with your lack thereof.

Now imagine that the topic you have no experience with isn’t someone’s job. It’s someone’s sexual assault.

Since Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s initial accusations broke, I have had exactly one conversation with strangers on social media on this topic. The thread, on a friend’s page, was engaged in by a group of people who a) had a clear interest in the topic and b) also had clearly never been sexually assaulted themselves. A few of these people, expectedly, were only interested in trolling. They dismissed women as liars out to ruin reputations. They regurgitated the rhetoric that keeps survivors powerless and silent and keeps perpetrators from facing consequences.

The other commenters were men who didn’t understand the nuances of sexual assault but showed a genuine willingness to learn more. A few survivors, myself included, answered questions and shared our own experiences.

Happily, the result was overwhelmingly more empathy and less judgement. Conversations like these are necessary if we want to flip the cultural script surrounding sexual assault. However, if you have not been sexually assaulted and are initiating a conversation with someone who has or may have been, it is imperative to understand that these conversations can be painful and potentially retraumatizing for the other person.

If you are someone who wants to discuss the Kavanaugh accusations with others, but do not know much about sexual assault yourself, I’ve put together a brief list of common questions, followed by some things to consider before speaking with others who may be assault survivors.

Did you report it?

Let me get this out of the way first: It is never, and I repeat, never appropriate to tell someone who has been sexually assaulted how they should have handled it or what you would have done instead. When the question “Did you report it?” is posed to a survivor, the implication is almost always “You should have reported it,” and that’s not OK.

Objectively, the question makes sense. If your bike is stolen, you file a police report. If you see suspicious charges on your card, you call the bank. Reporting things means that the bad person will be apprehended and that at the very least, you’ll receive compensation and closure for your trouble.

Sexual assault doesn’t work like that. One of the reasons that it is so underreported is because many survivors justifiably believe that nothing will be done. This was the case with a friend of mine, whose attacker went on to rape others after police failed to take her report seriously. Assault survivors must put themselves through a tremendous cost/benefit analysis when making this decision. What are the stakes? What if I put myself through reliving my trauma only to be right back where I started?

It’s also important to realize that many survivors do not wish to report. Every survivor and incident is different, but reasons for not reporting include the following:

  • Paralyzing feelings of shame and guilt; holding themselves responsible
  • Desire to forget, heal, or otherwise move on privately
  • Fear of not being believed
  • Fear of being ostracized by social groups
  • Fear of retaliation by the perpetrator, especially if the perpetrator is in a position of power and prestige

These reasons are all valid and intensely personal. Do your best to put yourself in an assault survivor’s shoes, and also understand that criminal, judicial, and cultural systems frequently fail to help this population.

OK, but why come forward now?

We all know the saying: If not now, when? Just as survivors may have a multitude of reasons for keeping their stories private, they will inevitably confront future circumstances that raise the question of reporting. Personally, I can think of no better circumstance then the man who attempted to assault me is being nominated for the Supreme Court.

In regard to other less publicized cases, remember the time that we are living in. There is strength in numbers, and the #MeToo movement has given throngs of people a platform to share their stories. Certain religious and cultural norms dictate that these topics be ignored or shoved under the rug, as we have seen in the Catholic Church’s systemic cover up of child abuse. If someone you are speaking with is sharing a personal story, keep in mind that this may be their first time discussing it publicly. Offer to listen without putting them through an inquisition or confirming their worst fears. Applauding and encouraging their bravery helps break the cycle of silence.

Maybe you’re misremembering?

Dr. Ford testified on September 27 that she was “100 percent” sure that her attacker was Brett Kavanaugh. In her account, she recounted Kavanaugh’s hand over her mouth and the sound of boys’ laughter at her expense. She does not remember how she got home that night. Upon hearing her words, I realized that among the vivid details of my own experience 10 years ago, my memory of going home is completely missing.

This mix of strongly remembering certain details while struggling to recall others is in line with research on how our memories are impacted by trauma. Jim Hopper’s article in Scientific American, published on the day of Dr. Ford’s testimony, is an immensely helpful resource. “Critically, whether it’s an IED attack or a sexual assault, just because we—or an investigator, or even the survivor herself looking back later—believe some aspect of an event would or should be a central detail, that does not mean it was a central detail for the survivor’s brain at the time,” Hopper writes. “Many who have been sexually assaulted don’t remember whether certain things were done to their body because, at that point, they were focused on the perpetrator’s cold eyes, or traffic sounds on the street below.”

In other words, gaps in this kind of memory don’t automatically undermine credibility. They probably point to a survivor’s attempt to mentally shield themselves from what is happening to them or from what has just occurred.

If you are reading this and thinking, “But what if I don’t know anyone who has been sexually assaulted?” I assure you that you do. Survivors among your family members or friends may come out of the woodwork now. They may continue to keep their experience to themselves until another opportunity presents itself. Each decision comes with its own set of challenges and is worthy of respect.

One in three women and one in six men will experience sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. This isn’t something that happens on another planet or in a parallel universe. It happens every day, in real time, and it isn’t something we can ever fully speak to unless we’ve experienced it ourselves. The moment that compels survivors to share is the moment we must stop and not talk over them, not tell them about their own experience, but listen.

Chelsea Cristene is an international student adviser, English professor, and graduate student based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, The Establishment, and MamaMia, and has appeared on HuffPost Live. Find her on Twitter.

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