“Why Didn’t You Tell Someone?”
Yeah…no. Don’t ever ask that question of a sexual abuse survivor. From experience, I can honestly say that question will cause the victim to feel more like they’re being blamed than supported. It’s as if you’re saying, “You messed up,” rather than, “I’m here for you.”
So what should you say and do if you find yourself being trusted with someone’s darkest secret? When it comes to understanding sexual abuse, it helps to consider what the survivor may be thinking and feeling.
What If It Were You?
If you think about it, you can probably make some accurate guesses as to why survivors keep quiet. Imagine it happened to you: sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, or date rape. What would you do? Who would you tell? As the saying goes, “Put yourself in their shoes.”
When Trying to Understand Sexual Harm, Count to Six
I know several women, and a few men, who have sexual trauma in their past. You do too. Statistics from RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) indicate one in six women will experience some sort of sexual trauma in their lifetime, and one in 33 men. Sometimes when I sit in a circle of women, I count them: 1-2-3-4-5-you. 1-2-3-4-5-me.
Silence Is Not Golden
According to a survey quoted in The Telegraph, 80% of women do not report rape or sexual assault. On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. Silence protects the perpetrator, not the victim. Actually, there are many reasons to grimace and bear it in silence.
At the beginning of this summer, I sent out emails to several friends, all co-survivors. I asked each of them why they waited years or even decades to speak out. Here’s the list of their answers:
- What if no one believes me?
- I feel shame (Read Brene Brown’s definition of “shame” here.).
- What he did was wrong, but I don’t want to get him in trouble (“…because he’s a good guy.” Or, “He was just drunk.”).
- Was I somehow to blame?
- He didn’t technically rape/sexually assault me (Read technical definitions of both words here.).
- If I tell, it will destroy my family (This response tends to be specific to incest. See details about incest here.).
- Everyone will think bad of me.
- Everyone will feel sorry for me.
- Who would want me after that?
- I “blocked” it (Common with incidents of childhood abuse. Read more here.).
- FEAR (That’s all one woman wrote, but really, it says everything.)
- I didn’t want the scrutiny and the possible probable blame.
- Why bother? Even if abusers are caught, punishment is often nothing more than a “slap on the wrist.” According to RAINN, only six out of every 1,000 rapists will end up in prison.
What Should You Do?
If a survivor tells you their experience, how can you best help them? For starters, know that it’s a compliment, a beautiful thing, for someone to trust you with their trauma story. Don’t panic. Try not to look shocked. Instead, dip into a deep well of compassion while they are sharing.
Your job is not to fix the situation. It’s simply to LISTEN. And love.
What Should You Say?
After I told my story to a counselor for the first time, she told me two things: “I am so sorry this happened to you.” And, “What happened to you was wrong.” Even if she hadn’t said those words, the tears in her eyes would have communicated them.
Due to her appropriate reaction, a weight sprang off of me when I broke my three decades of silence. I remember thinking, “She’s on my side.” I’d felt alone for so long.
There are other helpful things to say. According to Goodtherapy.org , the most important thing you can tell a survivor is, “I believe you.” Their article includes additional helpful tips.
RAINN.org also lists a number of phrases you can offer a survivor who confides in you.
What Not to Say
Certain questions will wound a survivor further. Do not ask if they fought. Don’t question what they were wearing or if they were drinking. Chances are, they already wonder if they weren’t somehow to blame.
For more excellent counsel on how to support a friend in crisis, click here. This incredible essay by a friend of mine is absolutely worth the eight minutes it takes to read.
Your Secret Is Safe with Me
If you’ve never been sexually abused, praise God. But if you have, dear, sweet friend, I am so very sorry. Please trust me when I say it does help to tell someone—a rape and domestic hotline (National Sexual Violence Resource Center, RAINN), a counselor, a close friend.
You can even tell me if you want. Email me. I promise I won’t peep. Across the miles I will send you much love and virtual hugs from my deep well of compassion. Rest assured, I will not ask: “Why didn’t you tell someone?”
Newsflash: My new children’s book, The Brave Knight, is now available. This book empowers kids to protect themselves in multiple ways. Purchase details in this post.
Theresa Imhoff-Gannett says
Great thoughts on a sensitive topic. I know someone who experienced sexual abuse. Initially when I first learned it, I probably said the wrong phrases, however, recovered my composure and hopefully, was more supportive.
I totally understand, Theresa. It’s hard when someone tells you a difficult story like this. Your mind starts spinning and sometimes your mouth gets ahead of your brain. That’s why I love the options in the links I provided. A lot of them I’d never thought of before. It’s good to be prepared.
eva Steortz says
Thank you for sharing. Someone very close to me suffers in silence and it breaks my heart to see the hurt they carry. The more we talk, the more we heal. The more we share, the more we know we are not alone.
I’m sure it’s hard for both of you:( I hope and pray that one day your loved one will seek help.
Cole// Cole Smith Writes says
Wow, powerful post, Diane. I have not experienced sexual abuse, but have witnessed its terrible consequences in my work. People find out I work with teens and often smirk and ask how I maintain discipline. That’s not the hard part. This is. Thank you for the resources.
Oh, Cole, thank you so much for being a teacher. I think it’s one of the most important careers a person can have. You have so much influence!
Survivors can often recognize other survivors, whether they talk about their situation or not. You notice it in their behavior or things they say. I bet you can too.
Diane, thank you for speaking out. If one out of 4-6 of us women have been abused, then truly…everyone knows someone…maybe it’s me, or the woman next to me…but in a room of ten women, there are probably two if us at least. We all need to be more gentle with each other, better listeners…
I am wondering, with so many of “us” who have experienced abuse…what keeps us from not being cynical…even when we feel like we have sincerely forgiven…
You’re absolutely right, Ruth. The good news is the number of sexual assaults has been falling since 1993. I read that on the RAINN site too. But still….