7 HARMFUL & 7 HEALING RESPONSES WHEN SOMEONE TELLS YOU THEY’VE BEEN SEXUALLY VIOLATED
By: Aurit Lazerus, Psy.D.; Clinical Psychologist
In my clinical psychology practice it is, sadly, par for the course that my patients get told awful things about their sexual trauma by boyfriends, friends, parents, and even former therapists. But now politicians are reinforcing my patients’ worst fears. Even well-intentioned reactions can be re-traumatizing if they reinforce aspects of the initial violation. It’s time for everyone to learn how to listen to and talk about sexual trauma.
I have written two lists for having healthier conversations about sexual trauma. List one is 7 Retraumatizing Responses: WHAT NOT TO SAY. List two is 7 Healing Responses: WHAT TO SAY. These lists represent countless moments of sitting with people of all ages, races/ethnicities, and genders and of talking about their most painful experiences of violation. This list is also personal, for me and many of my loved ones.
7 RETRAUMATIZNG RESPONSES: THINGS NOT TO SAY
1: Focusing on Yourself
Talking about sexual trauma can feel icky, gross, and distressing. It’s too much to recount the trauma and then take care of someone else’s emotional reaction. Sexual violations are inherently about someone else putting their needs ahead of your own. Don’t make someone put their own needs aside to take care of your emotional reaction.
“I’m angry you didn’t tell me sooner.”
“Let me tell you about my sexual assault experiences.”
“I’m freaking out!”
“Why did you keep this a secret from me?”
2: Denying that Sexual Violation is Sexual Violation:
Sexual violation is any sexual or physical contact where consent was not given or could not have been given (under consent age, too intoxicated, asleep). A person can continue to stay with their assailant, and it is still a violation. If a grooming process (a series of subtle boundary transgressions) was involved, each transgression is a violation.
Violation is designed to feel like the victim’s fault. Most of the time, an assaulter doesn’t tell their victim they are being violated nor is it as clear cut as a stranger dragging you into an alley. What the victim experiences, while frozen in shock, is radically different than the reality maintained by the assaulter. Whether the assailant is gaslighting or acting entitled to sexual gratification, a victim can feel crazy. They know that they didn’t consent, the experience was awful and now they feel bad, but it’s not always clear to them what happened.
The healing process often involves reconstructing a narrative where the violation is acknowledged and the responsibility is put back on the violator. If you deny that they were violated, you reinforce the trauma.
“Are you sure that’s what he meant by it? I think he’s a nice guy.”
“That wasn’t assault. He just didn’t know what he was doing because he was inexperienced.”
“You wanted more sexual experience, so maybe this was a good thing?”
“You stayed with him, so it couldn’t have been rape.”
“You can’t change your mind once you start having sex.”
“That’s just how guys are.”
“But you like it rough!”
“Guys can’t be raped!”
“It doesn’t count if he didn’t use his penis.”
3. Victim Blaming & Shaming:
Victims are naturally disposed to blame themselves instead of their assaulter, especially initially. Don’t say anything that implies that anyone other than the violator is responsible. Saying things that implicitly or explicitly blame the person for what happened reinforces the most shaming aspect of the trauma, that somehow they are responsible for this devastating experience.
“How much had you been drinking?”
“You didn’t say no.”
“Why did you go to that party alone?”
“Well, you let him into your bed.”
“You must have done something.”
“Why do you feel shame if it wasn’t your fault? I don’t get it.”
4. Downplaying the Impact of Sexual Violation:
Sexual contact without consent leads to significant mental health symptoms, such as shame, increased sexual promiscuity, decreased interest in sex, panic, avoidance, lowered self-esteem, disrupted gastrointestinal functioning, nightmares, intrusive memories, compulsive behavior, profound sadness, social isolation, and difficulty concentrating, to name a few. Symptoms persist for years, and if untreated, decades. When your reaction minimizes the impact of the violation, it reinforces the trauma.
“Why are you still having panic attacks?”
“Well, that doesn’t sound so bad. Maybe you are too sensitive.”
“That was long ago; can’t you just get over it?”
“You were unconscious for most of it, so why is it still upsetting you?”
“Why are you still depressed?”
“It’s just a date. Chill.”
It takes psychological stamina to talk about a sexual assault or violation. The telling requires a grueling sorting through of the experience. Don’t confuse their account by asking challenging or doubting questions, especially not when they first tell you about it. Sometimes people think that challenging an account will lead to clarity, but in practice it leads to confusion and hurt. You might think that if you can demote the experience from “assault” to a “misunderstanding” then the person will feel better. They won’t. They will feel much, much worse.
“How do you know that’s what happened?”
“Are you sure?”
“I know you think you are telling the truth, but you have to think about it from his perspective.”
“If you really were raped, you’d be more upset.”
“If you can’t remember all of it, how do you know what really happened?”
6. Deciding Action for Them:
People keep their stories private or secret as a way of regaining control. Encouraging someone to take action can overwhelm them. Remember, that telling authorities about sexual assault can cause more psychological damage. Rape victims seeking legal redress have to talk about their bodies, their sexual experiences, their most shameful and painful moments in front of strangers, repeatedly feeling exposed. If you insist on the actions they should take, you take away their autonomy and reinforce their trauma.
“You should have reported it to the police! Let’s call now.”
“I’m going to kill him.”
“You have to tell more people! He could hurt someone else!”
“Let’s call a therapist right now.”
“You should start dating again. It would be good for you.”
“My sister went through the exact same thing. Here is what you should do.”
One of the fears that victims and survivors of sexual violation have is of telling the details of their trauma and then being left with a big pile of shame and other intolerable emotions, like disgust, self-loathing, and grief. If you, as the listener, disengage, then the person sharing can feel more alone and more overwhelmed than when they started.
“I need more details before I know what I think about all this.”
“Um….what do you want me to say?”
“Let’s talk about something else now.”
7 HEALING RESPONSES: WHAT TO SAY
Instead of replicating the trauma, you can help with the healing process. When you talk about the universal impacts of sexual assault, you take the burden of explanation off the victim. When you assert that there is a baseline level of pain that goes along with all violations, you demonstrate that you understand, which feels supportive and reduces isolation.
Additionally, traumatic memories are encoded in memory differently than non-traumatic memories. Recalling trauma will generally flood a person’s amygdala, the part of the brain in charge of primal emotions like anxiety. Once the amygdala is too activated, a person’s ability to think, reason, or do cognitive tasks goes down. Be responsive, receptive, and gentle to help the person sharing stay grounded.
3 TIPS BEFORE YOU SPEAK:
TIP 1: Identify any intense feelings or sensations you might be feeling in your body. Take a deep breath and don’t freak out.
TIP 2: Refocus on the person talking to you. Think about their personality and vulnerabilities before you answer. Be warm, kind, and soothing. Stay focused on them.
TIP 3: Don’t rush to physically comfort or touch. While recalling sexual trauma, the body itself feels vulnerable. Even slight touch can feel invasive. If you ask someone if they want to be touched, also ask if they do not want to be touched, to make it easy to say no.
1: Instead of Focusing on Yourself → Focus on Them:
Start by focusing on what the person you are talking to feels in the moments after they tell you their story. Remember that shame and terror are common reactions. Try to attune to what’s going on for them. Help them label their emotions to reduce distress. Make it safe for them to address how anxious they feel now that they have told you.
“What was it like to tell me?”
“How hard was that to say?”
“What are you feeling right now?”
“Thank you for telling me. I know that took a lot.”
“It’s okay if you feel anxious now.”
2: Instead of Victim Blaming & Shaming→ Externalize Blame & Shame
Be completely clear through all conversations that only the person(s) who committed the violations is/are completely responsible. They are the only ones who could have made the choice not to harm. The person you are speaking to is not in any way responsible for someone else choosing to violate them.
“We are past ‘no means no.’ It should be ‘yes means yes.’ You didn’t say yes.”
“I’ve heard that when people talk about sexual violations they tend to feel shame. So I want you to know that none of this was your fault and that I am not judging you at all.” [Only say the last part if you are actually not judging.]
“Only the person who hurt you could possibly be responsible.”
“It’s normal to freeze. We talk about flight or fight, but it’s more like fight, flight or freeze.”
“Biological arousal and physical pleasure are NOT consent. That wasn’t consent — that was biological self-protection.”
3: Instead of Denying→ Affirm the Sexual Violation was Sexual Violation
Simply calling something rape, sexual assault, or a violation is already helpful. Affirm that they really did experience something horrible. Try to use words that they have used.
“That was assault.”
“You were violated.”
“What they did might not feel clear cut, but it was clear cut.”
“Are you comfortable if I use the word rape, or would you rather I use a different word?”
4. Instead of Downplaying the Impact→ Witnessing The Impact
Listen attentively, while still giving them room to breathe. You can’t make the pain go away and you can’t make the past different. But you can witness the pain now. When you witness you commit to seeing the emotional truth of and empathizing with their experience. Witnessing the pain is holding the pain, which reduces the pain. Witnessing heals because when you hold the pain with them, they have more space inside of themselves. This space allows them to look at the trauma instead of drowning in it. Witnessing also increases interpersonal connection, which can reduce shame.
“That must have impacted you in so many ways. Do you want to tell me about any of them?”
“Your scars, pain, and suffering were invisible to those around you for too long.”
“You had to carry that burden with you for days/months/years/decades.”
“There are many layers to your experience.”
“It must be hard to trust people/men now.”
“I know that sexual trauma can cause problems in many different aspects of your life.”
“You can’t always predict when the painful memories come up and take over.”
5: Instead of Doubting→ Confirming
Reinforce that their reactions make sense given their experiences. Reinforce the healthier narrative they are building. Be aware that they may have had symptoms of trauma for years before they even knew that they could call it assault or a violation.
“Of course that’s how you felt!”
“Of course you reacted like that!”
“There wasn’t really another way to have experience that.”
“None of what happened was your fault. Even if it feels like your fault.”
“Because your body remembers the trauma, sex can be super anxiety-provoking.”
“Of course you’ll have a panic attack when you see your rapist on campus.”
6: Instead of Deciding Action for Them→ Deciding Action With Them
Help the person feel empowered. You can offer a variety of resources and support. Introduce only what you can follow through on comfortably.
“You get to be in charge of the pace, so don’t feel pressured or rushed.”
“You get to choose when and whom you tell or don’t tell.”
“If you decide to report it, I will go with you to the police station. If you decide not to report it, I will listen to you talk about it in the future.”
“If you think it would be helpful, I’ll send you links to RAINN and the Samaritan crisis hotline.”
“If and when you want, I’ll help you look at therapists’ online profiles. I can also go with you to your first appointment.”
“After we talk, what would feel good? Do you want to do something distracting or fun or just to curl up at home?”
“When you are ready, I would be comfortable sharing my own experiences of being violated sexually.”
“You don’t have to go to any family functions if your abuser will be there.”
“I will not be inviting the abuser to any functions that I organize. If you decide to go to family events where he will be, then let’s problem solve how I can be a buffer for you.”
7: Instead of Disengaging→ Engaging
Demonstrate your capacity for interacting with them about their emotional pain. Try to be aware of your own boundaries and needs so you don’t offer something you can’t provide.
“I am comfortable continuing to talk about this, but I want to be
mindful that this can be exhausting and overwhelming for you.”
“Where are places that make you feel more safe?”
“I want to hear more.”
NOTE ONE: If you have experienced sexual violations yourself (and if you are a woman there is a 20% to 25% chance that you have): “I want to focus on you. I also need to acknowledge that my own memories are coming up and that may make it harder for me to listen the way I want to. Let’s take all the time we both need for this conversation.”
NOTE TWO: If you have said any of these harmful things to people you love in the past, you can always tell them: “I’m sorry that my reactions in the past made it harder for you to live with trauma. I’m learning how to be more supportive. We don’t have to talk about any more details, unless you want to.”