10 Questions You Shouldn’t Ask Sexual Assault Survivors
By Jessica Huynh, Storyteller for RU Student Life
Content warning: this article discusses sexual assault and victim blaming.
In light of the #MeToo hashtag circulating social media, with many sexual assault survivors coming forward to share their story, here’s an important reminder to be mindful of the language you use when talking about sexual violence. Please be cautious of your wording — an innocuous comment or question on the surface can actually be quite triggering for survivors. Whether you’re talking to a survivor directly or commenting on the topic as a third-party observer, here’s a small reminder that what you say can come across as victim-blaming (even if that’s not your intention):
1. “Who did it?”
A seemingly simple question with a not-so-simple answer. While your first instinct might be to ask a survivor who their perpetrator is, please consider whether the person who confided in you (or posted #MeToo) has purposely omitted this information.
According to SexAssault.ca, most sexual assaults are committed by someone close to the victim, not a stranger. A survivor may be uncomfortable naming their perpetrator or require more time to process their trauma. Other survivors choose to stay silent for their own safety. Whoever confided in you may not trust your response if you found out who did it. They might not think you will believe them. There’s even a possibility that whoever assaulted them is someone you know (and perhaps consider a friend).
As a supporter, you should be respectful and supportive by reminding survivors that you believe them until they feel comfortable enough to confide in you.
2. “What were you wearing?”
Some people have this misconception that women and folks wearing revealing clothing are “asking” for it. Nobody “asks” to be sexually assaulted. A woman’s decision to dress sexy has nothing to do with her willingness to have consensual sex with you — and it certainly does not warrant harassment. When you ask a survivor what they were wearing at the time of their assault, you place responsibility on the survivor instead of focusing on the violent act committed.
Photographer Katherine Cambareri did a great job at documenting clothing articles that students wore when they were sexually assaulted to challenge victim-blaming ideologies surrounding clothing worn by survivors. Sexual violence is not about sex; it’s about power and control. What a woman wore at time of her assault is irrelevant. Let’s try to steer the conversation away from what she was or wasn’t wearing, and focus on what matters.
3. “Were you drinking?”
Asking a survivor if they were drinking implies they are responsible for what others do to them and their body. Intoxication does not justify harassment.
Drinking responsibly is important, but let’s not kid ourselves into forgetting that most men get belligerent every weekend and never think twice about being taken advantage of. Rape culture is perpetuated in nightlife culture. Perpetrators believe they have a better chance of taking advantage of someone if they’re drunk. Alcohol is not the problem; the problem is that there are people who commit acts of violence to a person when they need help the most.
4. “Why did you stay/continue seeing them after they assaulted you?”
There are many reasons why a survivor might continue seeing their perpetrator that you, as an outsider, may never understand. Sexual violence isn’t about sex; it’s about power and control. A survivor might stay because:
They are fearful to leave.
Many abusive relationships are not as simple as leaving. There might be physical, financial, and emotional repercussions for leaving that make staying appear safer for the survivor.
They haven’t fully processed the situation.
Sometimes, the person they love did something so heinous, that they haven’t come to terms with what happened (or refuse to believe it happened). It can take time to digest and name a traumatic experience. A good example of this was shown in the show Mad Men (S2Ep12) when Joan Harris was raped by her husband. Even so, she remained married to him for several years.
They’re trying to normalize a shitty situation.
Lucy DeCoutere described this when she testified against Jian Ghomeshi. Ghomeshi’s lawyer showed DeCoutere photos of her cuddling Ghomeshi days after DeCoutere said Ghomeshi choked and slapped her. While Ghomeshi’s lawyer claimed DeCoutere had “convenient memory,” DeCoutere justified that she was “trying to normalize something that was so strange.” When someone you trust (or want to trust) assaults you, you might not want to believe what happened. You wonder if you’ve blown it out of proportion so give them the benefit of the doubt. You normalize the situation, and part of normalizing trauma is acting like everything is okay. You dust everything under the rug like nothing insidious occurred when deep down you know something wasn’t right.
There are many reasons why a survivor would stay with their perpetrator and none of the reasons diminish the act of violence that occurred.
5. “Did it hurt?”
Asking questions like, “Did it hurt?” or “Did it feel good?” is invasive and insensitive. You’re essentially asking a survivor to re-imagine and relive a traumatic experience for your own curiosity. That’s not okay. What matters is that it was unwanted and non-consensual.
6. “Why didn’t you report it?”
Some reasons as to why a survivor might not report their assault were touched upon earlier. Additional reasons include:
The hours you have to set aside to report a case and follow-up with paperwork, testimonies, lawyers, etc. can be long and stressful. If you have other more important commitments in your life (like work, school, and extra-curricular activities), you might not have time to devote to laying charges. Not to mention the actual monetary costs of pursuing justice.
Having strangers probe at your memory and ask you to relive a traumatic experience can be exhausting. Some survivors would rather not be cross-examined about something they know to be the truth.
Just because you report an assault, doesn’t mean that your perpetrator will be arrested. In fact, only 18% of sexual assault reports lead to arrest. That means there’s an 82% chance that your perpetrator may walk away free. That’s a scary notion that some survivors would rather avoid, especially if their perpetrator knows where they live, work, or frequent.
The system is not set up to protect women and survivors. You only have to look at public cases like Brock Turner to see that the system is unjust.
There are many reasons why a survivor would rather not report their assault. That’s not your decision to make for a survivor. People heal differently. For some, that might mean justice through the judicial system. For others, it might be something else. The best thing you can do as a friend is to show your support for whichever decision a survivor pursues.
7. “Don’t you want to warn other people about your perpetrator?”
While you might be thinking of how other lives might be affected by a perpetrator continuing to get away with causing harm, you are placing a lot of responsibility on a survivor who is learning to come to terms with their own assault. They are putting their mental health first and that’s perfectly valid.
Reminding survivors that they are responsible for their perpetrator can make them feel guilty, on top of a slew of other emotions they are already feeling. It is not the survivor’s responsibility to stop a perpetrator. If anything, it is society’s responsibility to shape a better world for survivors to feel comfortable enough to come forward.
8. “Did you say no or try to fight back?”
We’ve all heard about the fight-or-flight reaction, but did you know there’s also the “freeze” reaction? In a terrifying situation like sexual assault, you have no idea how your body will (or won’t) respond.
There are many ways that somebody’s body language and state of mind screams “no” even if they don’t say it out loud. Is your partner crying, shaking, or silent? Are they unconscious? Are they in a position where they can’t say no out of coercion? There are many reasons why someone might not have said no or fought back. A survivor doesn’t have to justify any of these reasons to you.
Asking a survivor why they didn’t say no (or didn’t say it louder, clearer, or repeatedly) or didn’t fight (harder or longer) is very shaming. It implies that they didn’t “try hard enough to not be assault” when we should focus on the fact that someone caused harm to another person.
9. “Why were you alone with them?”
Asking a survivor why they were alone with their perpetrator shames the survivor for not having foresight into being assaulted. How where they suppose to know?!
Honestly, it’s hypocritical the way we interrogate survivors for being too trusting, yet criticize their fear of men at night, in private settings, alone on the streets…
10. “How come you don’t seem bothered by the assault?”
There’s this one-dimensional idea of what a survivor looks like, behaves like, and reacts like that is simply not accurate. Everyone heals uniquely and digests traumatic experiences differently. Survivors might use different words, labels, and voices to talk about their experience, or they might not talk about it at all. Some people take a long time to heal while others move on quickly. How a survivor deals (or don’t deal) with their experience is not for you to judge. Some folks may not even identify with the word survivor. As a friend, your role is to a be trusting supporter, not an investigator.
Next time a friend, a colleague, or a peer confides to you #MeToo, think twice before you ask questions. Try listening first. ❤
For support or resources on how to provide support, visit ryerson.ca/consentcomesfirst.