You just found out she was sexually assaulted. Now what?
Whether it happened yesterday or many years ago, loving a woman who has been sexually assaulted or raped requires learning about her experience and developing skills that support her and your relationship. Between the #MeToo movement and the Christine Blasey Ford testimony, both of which gained notoriety during the trump era, a multitude of articles have been published discussing sexual assault, its prevalence, and the problematic ways these types of crimes are processed by our legal system.
While our society’s new willingness to openly address sexual assault feels like a huge win for women, there needs to be more discussion around the long-term effects that survivors experience (long-term being the keyword here). I’m sure many of you remember rapist Brock Turner, the former Stanford University student who was found guilty in March 2016 of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on campus. His POS father famously said his son should not go to jail or have his life ruined for “20 minutes of action.”
Anyone who lives with, or loves, a woman who has been sexually assaulted knows that 20 minutes of action—the kind of “action” Brock Turner inflicted on his victim—completely alters a woman’s life forever.
While living through the experience of rape/sexual assault is horrific and results in long-lasting effects, survivors are true sheroes. Many go on to create incredible lives for themselves and do wonderful things for others (like Chanel Miller--Turner’s victim). The following are some tips and insights for partners, friends and family members who love them and want to know how to best support them.
8 ways to love and support a woman who has been assaulted
I know, this seems obvious, but it’s more complicated than it sounds. Where victims of sexual assault suffer the most, in some ways, is in the recall around details of their attack. When under great stress, memories become fragmented and the minutia gets lost. Perpetrators and their defenders often capitalize on this. When a victim can’t recall exact details of the events surrounding their attack—or even the attack itself—they are torn apart by skeptics.
“How couldn’t you remember who all was in the room when you were attacked?”
“How could you possibly forget the exact date and time of your rape?”
Gaps in memories after an assault are normal. As someone who loves and supports a survivor, it’s important to believe her, even when she is unable to answer all of the questions surrounding her attack. If you find yourself questioning the validity of her claims, keep it to yourself. Your lack of confidence in her, if shared, will translate to her increased lack of confidence in herself, which is more harmful than helpful.
And if you need the perpetrator to admit his abuse to believe her, perhaps you need to reconsider how much support you actually have to offer.
Don’t Blame Her
Again, this sounds straight forward. But, I’m asking you to look at the subtle things you think, say and do. Support people often blame victims of sexual assault without meaning to. Have you caught yourself thinking things like:
“Why was she even there?”
“Why didn’t she call me for a ride home instead “of walking?”
Or, “Why would she let a strange guy buy her a drink?”
If so, you may be subtly conveying your sentiments to the victim. The truth is, it doesn’t matter where a woman is, who she is with, what she is wearing or how much she has had to drink. She has the right to NOT be sexually assaulted…ever. If you want to be supportive, make sure your loved one knows that no matter what, her assault is not her fault.
Control Your Anger
When you first find out that your loved one has been sexually assaulted, you are likely to feel angry regardless of how long ago it took place. Make sure not to direct your feelings at or to the survivor. If you need to take some space before talking about it, let her know that you hear her and want to be there for her, but you need a couple of minutes (or hours) to process on your own. When you are ready, remember to approach her with compassion and love.
Don’t Tell Them What to Do
Your first instinct after finding out someone you love has been sexually assaulted may be to tell them what they should or should have done about it. Your job is to listen and give support, not take over. When a woman is sexually violated, her power is taken from her. Giving her the support she needs to make her own decisions about what is best is the best thing you can do. Ordering her around and chastising her for not doing things the way you want her to is simply another form of victimizing.
Don’t Minimize What Happened
It’s natural to want to tell your loved one that nothing has changed and that you still feel the same about them. The reality is that things have changed and it’s important not to minimize the situation. Listen to what the victim has to say. Let her know that you understand the weight of what has happened, but that it hasn’t changed your commitment to being there for her.
Telling a survivor that it doesn’t matter and you don’t care, is guaranteed to come across in a way that makes her feel belittled and misunderstood.
Be Flexible Around Sex
Some survivors are unable to have sex for a long time after an assault, others become hypersexual. Communication is key. If your partner is assaulted while you are together, she may need an extended break from any kind of sexual touch. You may also experience your own confusing feeling around having sex with her. It’s important that you both consider seeking help separately and together.
If you are with a woman who has been sexually assaulted in the past, you may discover that certain sexual acts or situations are a trigger for her. This means they may cause anxiety, depression, and symptoms of PTSD to emerge. It’s important to be able to communicate about these experiences so that you know what to avoid in the future.
The reality is that there are no rules when it comes to how rape and sexual assault will affect a woman’s sexuality immediately afterward or down the road. Being open and flexible about when and how sex occurs is key. And listening to your partner’s thoughts and feelings about sex without judgment will help you move forward in a way that is best for both of you.
Don’t Forget There is More to Her
One of the many fears that women have after experiencing a sexual assault is that the assault itself will take over every aspect of their lives. The days and months after a rape or sexual assault occur are likely to be tied up in dealing with the details of reporting, recovery and possibly prosecution. During this period and long after, it is important to allow a survivor to be more than just the survivor.
Women who experience sexual assault are also mothers, CEOs, lovers and wives, scientists, politicians, artists, sisters, friends and so much more. While it is absolutely important to acknowledge what a victim has been through, it is the survivor who needs to move beyond the assault and become something bigger and better despite it. That can’t happen if all of your attention is focused on the assault. It’s a delicate balance for loved ones: always acknowledging what happened, but encouraging what is and can be simultaneously.
Finally, if you are going to love and support a woman who has been raped or sexually assaulted, you have to get good with the fact that she will never be the person she was before. There will always be reminders. She may have to live with reoccurring PTSD, depression, and/or anxiety. She may walk out of movies with scenes that trigger uncomfortable emotions. She may get mad during sex at random times, or not want to have it at all for long periods of time. Her eating patterns may change. How she dresses may be altered. Or perhaps, she will seem fine for years and then one day suddenly break down out of the blue for what seems like no reason at all.
Loving someone who has been sexually assaulted requires educating yourself, learning to communicate and be patient, and gaining skills that you can use in your relationship and elsewhere. As with any relationship, there’s a lot of work to be done, but in the end, you might find what you end up with is a beautiful relationship with the woman you love and a better understanding of yourself.