Things to never say to a friend who has experienced any kind of sexual violence

Best advice on what not to say... 

Too often we still see a lack of sympathy toward victims and doubt about their experiences. Sometimes people who experienced sexual violence have trouble defining for themselves what happened because they get caught up in legal definitions of what to call it rather than focusing on the impact the event had. There is also stigma about being a victim and how bad a situation has to be before it can be called sexual violence. Many people prefer the term “survivor” or "thriver".

Any kind of unwanted touching or suggestive, coercive, harassing behaviour has an impact that is different for each person. The frightening sense of powerlessness is what makes it an act of violence.

Three simple ‘Do’ rules for support[Compiled and adapted from a number of lists. See: Susan Storm: 10 Things Not to Say to a Sexual Abuse Survivor. Sarah Bessey: 21 Things… Alexander Mulconnery: 10 Things… Dani Bostick: 9 Things]

1. Believe them – less than 2% of rape allegations are false. It takes a lot of courage to tell someone about sexual violence.

2. Support them – if they have come to you immediately after the event, ask what you can do to help. If you have a car, ask them if they need a ride to the hospital, to the police, anywhere. Keep being their friend and check in to make sure they’re doing okay in the days that follow. Keep in mind they may need some space.

3. Listen – without interrupting, judging the account or asking questions. Just listen… it’s a powerful way to support someone.

The ‘Don’t’ List

Support is so important – learning to be supportive is an ongoing process.  Learn more about how to be an ally, a peer support and a friend.

Survivors of sexual violence should never have to hear questions and comments that challenge them, especially when their experiences are the kind not typically classified as assault or rape and ESPECIALLY from people they look to for support. If someone tells you about an experience of sexual violence – don’t tell anyone else, it’s not your story to tell. Telling another person is a betrayal of trust. Also, don’t ask for details. Allow the story to come out however your friend wants to tell it. Be respectful of what they share and don’t share. It is their story to tell.

These are things you should never say to someone:

  1. “So… did he/they rape you or not?” The statement suggests that anything less than rape is less worthy of concern.
  2. “Well, I have a friend who [had a worse thing happen], so…” The idea that someone else’s experience was worse completely trivializes the situation being discussed. It’s unhelpful and hurtful to the person you are talking to – it won’t make them feel better to know someone else has it worse. And, everyone experiences trauma differently. Don’t compare rape stories.
  3. But you didn’t seem upset about it at the time.” There are many reasons why a person may act like ‘nothing bad’ happened. It might be because of messed-up messages about consent that get in the way of recognizing assault or harassment.
  4. “You should feel lucky it didn’t go any further.” The idea that a person should feel ‘lucky’ for what happened is disrespectful.
  5. “I’m not sure I’d consider that assault.” You’re not entitled to that opinion. It’s insulting to ask people to recount their experiences according to your interpretation of what qualifies as assault.
  6. “Are you sure you weren’t asking for it?” Engaging in foreplay isn’t asking for sex. Going to someone’s room isn’t asking for anything besides hanging out in that person’s room. Rather than treating one action as “asking” for another, both parties need clear consent before doing anything new.
  7. “Well did you tell them to stop?” The idea that anything goes until someone says “stop!” is an old idea. And… lots of people struggle with how to communicate about sex. Consent means both parties are enthusiastic about the “yes”.
  8. “You should have reported it.” Reporting is a hard personal decision. Even when assault is reported and a charge is laid, only 3 out of 100 cases results in a guilty verdict. Having to testify in court can be re-traumatizing.
  9. “I thought only girls were raped.” 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18, and this is probably underestimated. If a male confides in you about a sexual assault, take them very seriously. It took a lot of courage and bravery for them to tell you.
  10.  Finally - don’t ask if we’re “over it” or tell us to “get over it”. Recovery takes time. and a survivor may change a lot in the aftermath of sexual violence and throughout the healing process. They may never be able to go back to the way you remember them. Try to do some research on the effects of trauma to see how you can be supportive. Accept who they are now.

If you have been a victim of sexual violence, reach out for support. Don’t give up if someone makes a hurtful comment like the ones listed above. Find support that is actually supportive. You don’t have to be alone. 

Further Reading & Resources