How Not to Respond to a Publicly Shared Story about Harassment, Assault or Rape

Two days ago, I wrote about how to appropriately respond when a friend publicly shares her story about harassment, assault or rape. But, in the natural way of things, appropriate, loving, sympathetic responses have their nasty counterparts: inappropriate, hurtful, mean responses.

It’s unfortunate that so often it’s well-meaning people who give these responses. They may use tropes from popular culture as a guide to how to respond, and popular culture doesn’t deal with sexual violence well. They sometimes overgeneralize from their own experiences. They may simply have just not considered how their comment will come across. I want to make it easier for these well-meaning people of the world to respond helpfully to their friends.

Here, then, is a list of what responses not to give when someone you know has been brave enough to share her story, along with explanations. If you recognize your own past comments in this post, I ask you not to react defensively. I am not attacking you; I know you were doing your best. I am sharing my understanding of how you can do even better.

If curious, see my note from last time on my use of feminine pronouns.

How Not to Respond to a Publicly Shared Story about Harassment, Assault or Rape

1. Don’t Apologize for or Defend the Perpetrator: Your friend has just invited the entire internet to peer into an incredibly private and hurtful event in her life, something awful that someone did to her. Please, please, please do not respond to her by defending what was done to her. You may think she has a bad read on the situation. You may know the person she’s talking about. But if you are trying to be a friend, know that there is essentially nothing more harmful you could do. You are defending harm that was done to her, an unwanted sexual experience of some kind. You are placing yourself on the side of someone who did her wrong. That’s not what friends do.

2. Don’t Question the Experience, or Her Interpretation of Events: Let me be careful about this one. I do not mean that your friend could not be wrong about how certain events transpired. I do not mean that she could not have interpreted an action or behavior in a way different than was meant. What I mean is, the fact that your friend is hurting should be enough to warrant sympathy, not interrogation. This holds even if you know that the thing that made your friend uncomfortable is something you do sometimes and you don’t mean anything by it. Even you know the person in question and you know he or she didn’t mean to make anyone uncomfortable. Even if you think your friend is being kind of sensitive.

Because none of that erases the fact that she was made to feel uncomfortable, or violated, or hurt. When you question that, you make it seem like you don’t particularly care that she’s hurting, or worse, that it’s her fault she’s hurt. Even simple factual corrections take the focus away from what happened to her and how she felt and put it on whether she got the order of events right. It’s not the point, and it’s not the time.

If you really feel that you must give a correction (and really, do so with care), here’s how to frame it:

Original comment: “Michael always puts his arms around people. It’s not a big deal”

Better comment: “This doesn’t make it ok, but just for the record, I happen know Michael, and I know he doesn’t mean harm when he puts his arm around girls. But he should have asked you before he did it, so it really sucks that you were made to feel uncomfortable.” [Addition in italics credit to Ami]

2b. Corollary: Don’t argue that the experience was actually a good one: If your friend doesn’t feel like the harassment, assault or rape was a compliment (hint: usually not), then it’s not. It’s not good that “at least [she] can get a date,” as Ami points out. If your friend tells a story about something unpleasant that happened to them, and you play it like it was some blessing in disguise, it comes across like you’re not really listening, and also that you don’t really care about how your friend says she feels. Please, listen to your friend. Trust her. Credit: Ami

3. Don’t ask about irrelevant details: What your friend was wearing, how drunk she was, whether she was alone and anything else she has chosen not to share with the world, don’t matter. Just as in #2, whatever the answers are, your friend has still experienced discomfort, violation and/or pain at the hands of someone else. That’s the most important thing. Focusing on the details again makes it seem like you don’t much care about the event itself, or how your friend feels. And when you specifically focus on details like the ones I used as an example, you come perilously close to implying that if she were wearing a short skirt, drunk, or alone, that it is her fault. That’s not fair to your friend, and it’s extremely hurtful. Just don’t.

The examples I used above are pretty specific to the post-sexual violence questions addressed at women, and especially cis-women. If your friend has a nontraditional sexual violence narrative, all the analysis still holds. Don’t ask about irrelevant details. Don’t pry if your friend doesn’t share. Even if you’re just curious. That last part holds especially when your friend doesn’t have the standard story, because they probably already feel different. So if your friend has a penis, don’t ask if they got hard. If your friend is trans, “don’t ask about their genitals, or …how they could have been raped with the genitals or body that they have.” It’s nosy and blame-y and unsympathetic. Let your friend tell what they are comfortable with. Credit for the ideas in this above paragraph: Ami

4. Probably the most important: Don’t tell your friend how she could have done better, or what she should do in the future: 

Part A: I know you’re trying to help. I know you’re sure it’s good advice, that it’s helped you before.  But remember that to have experienced something frightening or traumatic and then to be told that if only you had done something differently, it wouldn’t have happened, hurts. It hurts a lot, and it comes off as blame, even if you don’t mean it to.

Consider telling a story to your friends about how a boss yelled at you all day for no reason and you were really upset about it, and their response was, “Well, you should always try to have a good relationship with your employer.” Even if it’s true, it’s incredibly unhelpful now. Also, it changes the subject from the mean boss and the awful day to whether your friend is a good employee. That’s mean, and it tends to imply that they deserved what they got.

Now imagine how much harder it hits when you call into question not whether your friend is doing their job correctly but rather whether they are living their life correctly. And because we’re talking about a publicly shared story, other survivors and victims will see what you’ve written, and see that your first thought was to correct the behavior of the victim, and they will know that their story will likely be met the same way. That hurts.

Part B: Further remember that women are constantly told about all the ways that they can avoid sexual violence, which means that the odds that you will say something your friend has not heard before are vanishingly small. Don’t walk alone at night? Heard it. Always watch your drink? Heard it. Don’t engage with strange men? Heard it. So even if your advice is good advice, it’s just not the time.

Remember that the time right after going public with a story of sexual violence is a sensitive and scary one. If your friend hasn’t asked for advice, you are more likely to hurt her than help her by giving it. If you are close friends, and you really think there’s something you can say that will make your friend safer in the future, there might be an exception, but please give your suggestion privately, sympathetically, and in a thoroughly unblaming way so as not to fall into this category.

Part C: Finally, please remember that your friend is not the only person in her story. There is a perpetrator, a harasser, assaulter or rapist. And if your comment, or even a part of your comment, ignores the rapist’s wrongdoing in favor of the victim’s wrongdoing, that hurts immeasurably. I realize that it seems like the perpetrator’s wrong could go without saying, and yet it so often does not. Rape apologetics is everywhere. So by focusing on what your friend could have done better, you are telling her that she has not lived her life rightly enough that people will not correct her behavior before correcting her attacker’s.

I will continue to add to this list based on the ideas of my wonderful commenters, with credit always given. 

5. Don’t say how you would have made it better had you been there: I know this one seems really supportive (“I totally would have beat up that guy”, etc.), but it’s another one to be careful with. It takes the attention from your friend and her story and makes it about you and your (rightful) anger at what happened to her. This makes it harder to tell stories, since it feels like no one is really paying attention. As Ami says, “I’m really tired of guys trying to make me sharing something like this into some heroic fantasy of theirs where I’m the damsel to be saved. :\” Credit: Ami, Ellen

6. Don’t tell your friend she’s doing it wrong: Kind of a corollary to #2, and also #4. These experiences are hard, and people respond to them in all kinds of ways. The only people who are really qualified to decide whether your friend is reacting “correctly” are her and the people she most trusts to talk to about it (including possibly a professional of some kind). This all holds double if you yourself experienced something similar and have reacted differently. That’s great for you, especially if the experience didn’t cause lasting harm. But your experience isn’t universal, and it’s not fair to assume that it should be. Let your friend respond how she needs to. Again, trust her. Credit: Miriam

Too many people experience harassment, assault and rape every day. Some of them manage, through the pain, to tell their stories. It is unconscionable not to respect that brave decision. So if it is your friend who has endured that pain, please consider this list. Please think about not contributing to a culture that blames women for the sexual violence aimed at them. Please think about what has happened to them instead of what they may have done wrong. Please think, first and foremost, about what they need, and what you can give them. Remember that your words have power; be careful with them.


Anything else you think should be on the list? Any responses you’ve given or would like to give or have seen given that you want my take on? Put it all in comments.

13 thoughts on “How Not to Respond to a Publicly Shared Story about Harassment, Assault or Rape

  1. This is really great 🙂 I would add another, which is something I get a lot from male friends, which is making it about them, specifically “If *I* were there, I would have saved you!” or “*I* want to beat him up, you deserve a better guy than that.” (usually with some sort of hint that that better guy is him). I’m really tired of guys trying to make me sharing something like this into some heroic fantasy of theirs where I’m the damsel to be saved. :\

    Another is to not say “at least you can get a date”, which is what a friend told me recently when he read about the things that have happened on my dates (including rape and stalking.)

  2. Also, if you’re responding to a trans person sharing this story, don’t ask about their genitals, or some question about how they could have been raped with the genitals or body that they have. Some people seem to think it’s okay to ask if you just want clarification about the details of how a rape/assault could have happened. (For that matter, don’t ask for these details if they’re not shared. And don’t play internet detective to see if the physical positioning “makes sense”.)

    (This also applies to anybody some people might not think fits the usual narrative of assault, including cis guys. Don’t ask “Did you get hard?” or anything.)

  3. I think I’d also like to add to the “how to rephrase” part, that maybe adding “he should have asked you first” would also make it so it sounds like you’re not making excuses or saying that it is the other person’s fault for feeling that way. I know for me, if I just heard what was said, I’d feel as if it was a nice way of defending the person, whereas “he/she should have asked you first” would make me feel supported. I’m speaking for myself, of course, but I thought I’d share it in case people wanted another idea of how to phrase it. “He hugs everybody, but he still should have asked you even if he meant no harm.” To me sounds the most supportive while also explaining that the person obviously meant no harm.

  4. I love this.

    I agree with Ami as well on the “don’t play the hero” card. I don’t want to hear how things would be different if you were there. You weren’t and bad things happened anyway.

  5. […] Chana, who really should blog more, writes about how not to respond to survivors of sexual assault who choose to share their stories. […]

  6. Miriam says:

    I have one!

    Don’t talk about how you went through a similar experience but YOU’RE totally fine and/or not complaining about it.

    Like, I’m glad you didn’t find your assault/harassment traumatic or life-changing. But don’t play it off like that makes you better somehow.

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