It usually takes a brave, brave woman to put her thoughts on the internet, especially when they concern feminism, sexuality or any of the trifecta of harassment, assault and rape. And it takes an even braver one to tell her own story of such events, to lay herself open to the taunts, ridicule, correction, victim-blaming, defenses of her attackers, accusations of lying and anti-woman and anti-feminist cliches that are in such abundance online. How hard they must hit when it is not only her own thoughts that are laid bare to thoughtless critique, but her own story.
Not all commenters are intentionally cruel, of course. There’s little I can say to the disgusting hordes of trolls that seek to cause only pain and frustration to those who have already suffered so much. I am not speaking to them here.
But to the rest of you: caring, compassionate friends of a writer who has just published an essay, blog post, tweet, etc. in which she tells the world of her experience of sexual violence, you sometimes unintentionally do harm too. You sometimes repeat hurtful ideas perpetuated by an uncaring culture. You sometimes attempt to give advice that turns into an accusation. You sometimes condescend or patronize.
I don’t think you want to. So let’s talk about how to stop causing unintentional harm to the people you know, love and care about.
Note: All of these points are relevant to survivors of all genders. However, it is my understanding that the experience of a woman survivor is different than that of a man survivor, the the experience of being a cis survivor, man or woman, is different than being a trans, genderqueer or otherwise gender noncomforming survivor, because of our society’s approach to femininity, masculinity, rape culture, and cisnormativity. I do not yet know enough to address these differences here. Because my understanding of this issue has been informed by my being a woman, and by all the survivors I know being women, I have consistently used feminine pronouns.
Without further ado, The Only Appropriate Responses to a Publicly Shared Story about Harassment, Assault or Rape.
1. Sympathy and Support: I said this already, but it bears repeating: it is really, really hard to tell these stories. They are personal, they are private, and the writer has no idea how people will respond. And that’s all on top of the story itself, some awfulness that happened to this person in your life, something you might just be finding out about now. For facing all of that, for facing terrible life events, getting through them, and still having the courage to write about them publicly, your friend deserves all of the sympathy and support you can muster. Tell them you understand (if you do). Offer whatever you can give. Try to imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. Remember that it’s about them, not you. Rage against the culture that put them in their situation. Congratulate them on their bravery; praise their strength.
1b. (Cautiously!) Give helpful suggestions: Your friend may have everything under control. She may have all the resources she needs. She also may not. Recognize that you do not know. If you think you have a worthwhile idea that may help, say so. Things like what worked for you, if you went through something similar (see #2). Resources like therapy, RAINN, hotlines. Support groups that you know to be reputable. Make sure you are careful to note that you know that your advice will not work for everyone, and that everyone should do what they feel appropriate in consultation with friends, family and relevant experts. This demonstrates sympathy and humility in the face of their personal experience while still helping them to the best of your ability.
2. Similar stories: If you feel it appropriate, and you’re comfortable doing so, tell your own story. Such a response will show your friend that she is not alone, and that she can count on your support, both of which are extremely welcome and comforting. Your story can also expand the conversation, making it easier for even more people to come out with their own. Every additional story shows all readers and onlookers that your friend’s story is not unique, that sexual violence of all types is all too common and that all of those who have undergone it, along with their supporters, stand together.
3. A statement of change: Our culture does a pretty bad job of caring for victims of harassment, assault and rape. We dismiss their experiences, accuse them of lying, call them names, blame them for their own struggles, and don’t send their perpetrators to jail. Some of that can’t be fixed by just one person. But if your friend’s story compels you to reconsider your attitude to victims or survivors, encourages you to see the world differently, makes you newly aware that life can look different for women (and it should), definitely say so. If your behavior is going to change as a result of knowing this story, and knowing that you probably know someone who has experienced sexual violence, say so. The change wrought by the telling of stories matters, and any author would appreciate the knowledge that she had made a difference in the culture’s perceptions of people like her.
4. What the author has asked for: Most of all, listen. This is your friend, right? Make sure you’ve read the entirety of what she’s written, and that you’ve done your best to understand what she’s tried to communicate. If she asks her readers not to use explicit language in their responses, don’t. If she asks for sympathy, give it, and if you cannot muster it, don’t say anything at all. Be a friend.
I may have missed something, but by and large, this is the list. This is it. If the response you’d like to give to someone you know who is writing about their own sexual harassment, assault or rape isn’t on this list, and you care about not hurting this person, my advice is not to give it. Remember that it’s not about you. It’s about caring for the hurting, and leaving things better than you found them.
P.S. Much of this might apply to people dealing with harsh circumstances stemming from mental illness stigma, racism, or many other forms of systemic harm and oppression. I know less about those things, and this was focused for a reason, so I leave those pieces to others to write.