3 Insensitive Things You Should Never Say To A Victim Of Rape Or Sexual Assault (And How To Comfort Someone The Right Way)

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3 Insensitive Things You Should Never Say To A Victim Of Rape Or Sexual Assault (And How To Comfort Someone The Right Way)
Self, Heartbreak

Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted or raped and 90 percent of those victims are women, according to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).

These statistics are alarming. Bear in mind that they are only based on what has been reported to authorities.

RELATED: What I Needed To Hear After Being Sexually Abused

There are millions of traumatized men and women all over the planet who are sitting in silence with the stress of post-trauma that produces long-term effects of illness, substance abuse, and difficult relationships.

The price of not speaking up is innumerable and how you treat survivors is invaluable.

The statistics for sexual violence are so high in the U.S. and we know most women have been through it. When a person is sexually violated, the shame, guilt, and fear about speaking up make it extremely difficult to do.

If someone in your life trusts you enough to tell you about what happened to them, there are some things you should know about what they are going through.

Most importantly, you should know what not to say to them when they find the courage to talk to you.

Here are 3 things you should never say to a sexual assault or rape survivor.

1. "It could have been worse."

There’s a tendency to compare the severity of one trauma to another that seems much worse. These comparisons might begin the sentence with, "Well at least..."

This is unhelpful to a sexual trauma survivor as it minimizes or even dismisses their experience along with their post-trauma symptoms. This can make the person feel very alone, unseen, and unheard.

Your best bet is to be as non-judgmental as possible to be in support of the victim.

The symptoms of trauma include:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Flashbacks
  • Sleeplessness
  • Heightened fears
  • Nightmares
  • An inability to focus
  • Extreme irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts

The symptoms are the same whether the person was beaten, raped, and put in the hospital or they were able to get away from their violator without a visible scratch.

It's the invisible scars that produce the most damage. Keep in mind that there are emotional injuries that you cannot see.

We are all different and our reactions to difficult situations are informed by a complex web of personality, past experiences, sensitivity levels, cultural beliefs, how a person was raised, and self-perception.

If you have had a similar trauma and you did not have the same symptoms, consider yourself fortunate.

When your friend shares hers, it will be very important for you not to share notes that may make her feel terrible about how her own post-trauma symptoms are progressing.

One thing remains the same: the symptoms of trauma are universal whether you witnessed the atrocities of war or you were sexually assaulted on the corner of your street.

We all respond differently. Just be there for your friend as she navigates this difficult territory.

2. "I don’t believe that really happened to you."

This seems like a very obvious thing not to say to a sex trauma victim, but you would be surprised how often this is said.

Some people will not believe you and when they don’t it’s usually for reasons of their own. This typically happens if the perpetrator is someone that person also knows. They may not be able to see your attacker in that way.

For instance, if a family member sexually assaulted you and another family member refuse to believe you, it just may be that they’re unable to process that it could have happened to you.

They may be using denial to help them through this news. The bigger problem is that it leaves the trauma survivor in more pain than they already are.

If this is the case and you’re in a position of disbelief, do not minimize or dismiss the person in trauma. If someone tells you something so personal, it means they trust you.

Most sexual trauma survivors have an extremely difficult time with trust and talking about what happened to them.

Denying or dismissing their traumatic experience can be as potentially damaging as the trauma itself. It is best to keep your disbelief to yourself and you may want to examine why you feel that way.

3. "Why do you think you attracted that experience?"

People everywhere are having a conversation about personal responsibility. It’s an interesting and potentially important thing to examine if you’re looking at your part in an argument or a difficult relationship situation.

But that’s just it, it’s a question for you and you alone. But, when it comes to sexual assault, it is the worst question you can raise.

Blaming the sexual assault and rape victim has been normalized all over the world for centuries — it's part of rape culture.

Ask any rape victim who has been to court and they will tell you that they were questioned about what they were wearing, how much they had to drink, and if there was anything they could have possibly done to provoke the attack.

It’s a sad reflection of the way a culture thinks that the responsibility of a sexually motivated attack can be placed upon the victim. You may be buying into this perception without realizing it.

Make sure you do not ask it of a sexual trauma survivor. Chances are, she’s asking herself and it’s already intensely painful.

If you were mugged and you were wearing a Rolex and an Armani suit, no one would suggest you were asking to be mugged because your possessions are extremely expensive.

The thief who stole your property is responsible for the whole thing. Open and shut. Plain and simple.

Suggesting that a perpetrator has zero control over their sexual impulses because the dress you were wearing was too tight or your skirt was too short takes the responsibility of this reprehensible act and places it squarely on the shoulders of the victim.

The person doing the attacking is one hundred percent responsible for their actions. End of discussion.

Victim blaming is a huge setback for the sexual trauma survivor. It makes them feel like they’re alone in their pain, shame, fear, and sadness.

It can make them feel abandoned by the people they love most and that’s an extremely painful place to be.

If there are other sexual traumas in the persons' past, the old wounds get opened up and the healing is that much harder.

Consider what they have already been through when speaking to them about how they are navigating the current trauma.

Most people do not understand trauma and the effects of a traumatic experience. They don’t know what to say or how to be supportive in the face of difficulties they may never have gone through themselves.

Even if they have also been there, they may not want to talk about their own experiences and may shut down in the face of yours. That’s about them and what they haven’t processed.

Empathy can be difficult to access when you have no frame of reference for truly understanding what certain experiences are like.

RELATED: The Actual Definitions Of Sexual Abuse & Sexual Harassment For People Who Think The Rules Have Changed

If you want to know how to comfort someone after sexual trauma, whether they're a friend or family member, there are 2 things you can say.

1. "I’m sorry that happened to you. How are you feeling now?"

Asking an open-ended question beginning with "how" or "what" after a sympathetic statement can give the person the room to open up and share. It says, "I hear you and I am available to listen."

Listen to what they are saying and identify the emotions behind their statements. Then reflect it back to them with an, “It sounds like...” statement.

For example, your friend is telling you she’s having nightmares when she does finally get to sleep after keeping herself up for as long as she possibly can.

You can say, “It sounds like you’re terrified.” Identifying this emotion for her can open her to share more with you. Your job is to listen.

2. "How can I support you in your healing?"

Ask the question then follow it with an idea if she can’t think of one.

When post-trauma symptoms are loud, they can be all-consuming. She may be completely out of touch with what she needs and may not feel present to her basic needs.

Making comforting suggestions like the following may also help her get grounded in her life and in her body again.

1. Offer to take her to therapy sessions.

2. Offer to go to the police station if they need her to identify a suspect.

3. Research resources for rape and sexual assault trauma survivors in your area for her. Some counties will pay to relocate trauma victims, offer free trauma therapy, and sponsor support groups she or he can join.

4. Suggest taking your friend out to a funny movie, or to do something she loves.

5. Offer to stay with her or have her come stay with you for a few nights so she won’t be alone.

6. Text or call her each day just to check in.

7. Clean her house, do her laundry, pick up her dry cleaning, make her dinner, or take her car to be washed. Take some chore off her hands to help reduce overwhelm in her life. Basic tasks can seem like too much for the trauma survivor.

Many victims of sexual crime don’t want to leave their homes much after they were assaulted.

Feeling safe becomes a priority of the highest concern. They may need some help to leave the house or just want a visit from a friend who makes them laugh.

Reaching out to your friend might be the most important thing you could possibly do for her.

Being reminded she's not alone and you’re there for her can provide some of the best medicine for healing. A simple, “I love you. How are you?” text can make a huge difference.

The fallout from sexual trauma is complex. Victims have different needs and ways of dealing with what happened.

Symptoms can last for weeks, months, or years. Ignoring the trauma is the worst-case scenario for the victim. Your presence and help could be the most important part of her healing.

The way you speak to her can shut her down leading to isolation and worsening of symptoms. It can also open her up and help her heal.

Remember that the best thing we can do for anyone is to be there for them in a way that makes them feel seen, heard, understood, and loved. Love is the true healer of all things.

A person in post-trauma needs that more than anything else you can provide.

RELATED: Oral Rape Is Real — I Would Know, It Happened To Me

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Dr. Meg Haworth is a seasoned doctor who offers holistic wellness solutions using food and the power of the mind for abuse survivors with chronic illness. To access her free e-book and her Whole Person Integration Technique, 10 Steps to overcoming the Effects of Victimization, go to her website.

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