10 Questions You Might Want to Ask Sexual Assault Survivors That You Shouldn’t
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 so many sexual assault survivors coming forward to share a simple but powerful statement, it’s important to be reminded of the language used when speaking about sexual assault. Reading about sexual assault can be triggering for many people. Please be cautious of your wording — an innocuous question on the surface can actually can be quite hurtful to a survivor. Whether you’re talking to a survivor directly or commenting openly about sexual assault as a third party observer, here’s a small reminder that what you say and ask can come across as victim-blaming (even if that’s not your intention):
1. “Who did it?”
A simple enough 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 chosen to omit this information. You might be curious as to who could have done such a thing to your friend or peer, but that someone might be somebody the survivor doesn’t feel comfortable naming.
According to SexAssault.ca, “most sexual assaults are committed by someone close to the victim, not a stranger.” As such, it can take some time for a survivor to come terms that someone they trusted had caused them harm. Not to mention they might be experiencing internal and unwarranted shame for speaking openly about their perpetrator. Some survivors fear they might experience backlash for naming their perpetrator. 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.
2. “What were you wearing?”
Some people have this misconception that women and folks wearing revealing clothing are somehow “asking” for it. Nobody, no matter how little or much clothing they have on, asks to be sexually assaulted. When you ask a survivor what they were wearing at the time of their assault, you shift the act to be something that could have been within their control. Being assaulted never is and never will be their fault.
A woman’s choice to dress sexy has nothing to do with her willingness to have consensual sex with you— and it definitely does not signify that she wants to be harassed. A women’s wardrobe is not a warrant for sexual violence. Do we really want to believe men are animals that can’t control their urges when a women is dressed provocatively? I sure hope not.
Photographer Katherine Cambareri did a great job at documenting clothing articles that students wore when they were sexually assaulted in order to challenge victim-blaming ideologies surrounding clothing worn by survivors. Sexual violence is not about sex; it is about power and control over someone else. What a woman was wearing has nothing to do with her assault, so let’s try to steer conversation away from what she was or wasn’t wearing, and focus on what matters.
3. “Were you drinking?”
Is being blackout drunk justification for a rapist to rape? Of course not. Asking a survivor if they were drinking implies they are responsible for what others do to them and their body. I don’t know about you, but anytime I’ve over drank, the only thing I feel responsible for is my own hangover the next day.
People don’t get wasted and “ask” to be assaulted. Drinking responsibly is important, but let’s not kid ourselves into forgetting that some people get belligerent every weekend and never have to think twice about being taken advantage of. Rape culture is perpetuated in drinking culture, in which 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 assistance 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 completely understand. As I mentioned, 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 what happened.
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 really 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 publicly 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 merely “trying to normalize something that was so strange.” When you’ve been assaulted by someone you trust (or want to trust), you might not want to believe what happened. You wonder if you’ve blown it out of proportion. You want to give them the benefit of the doubt, so you normalize the situation. You pretend it didn’t happen so you can continue life without labeling yourself a victim. Part of normalizing 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 initially occurred.
5. “Did it hurt?”
Asking questions like, “Did it hurt?” or “Did it feel good?” is extremely invasive and insensitive. You’re basically asking a survivor to re-imagine and relive a traumatic experience for your own curiosity. What matters is that it was unwanted and non-consensual.
6. “Why didn’t you report it?”
There are many reasons why a survivor might not report their assault. Some of the reasons we’ve touched upon earlier. Other 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 extremely 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 a 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 explanations as to why a survivor would rather not report their assault. That’s not your decision to make for a survivor. People heal differently and 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 chooses to pursue.
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 and acceptable.
Reminding survivors that they should be 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 back (harder or longer) is very shaming. It implies that they didn’t “try hard enough to not be assault” when really we should be focusing on the fact that the perpetrator committed an assault to begin with.
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 knowing that they were going to be assaulted. How where they suppose to know?!
Quite 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 t all. Some people are affected deeply and others move on quickly. Every survivor is unique and how they deal (or don’t deal) with their experience is not for you to judge. Some folks may not identify with the word survivor, either. 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 start asking questions. Try listening first. ❤
For support or resources on providing support, visit ryerson.ca/consentcomesfirst.