What to do when a friend opens up about sexual assault

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Part of the silence surrounding sexual assault is that we don’t know how to react to someone who tells us that they’ve been harassed, assaulted, or raped. These are a few dos and don’ts to keep in mind. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) The #MeToo movement went viral late last year, but the fear of sexual assault has defined the female experience for a very long time. 2017 finally saw the beginnings of a paradigm shift in how we treated and talked about harassment and assault. #MeToo was more than a trendy hashtag, it was an honest acknowledgment that we as a people are fundamentally broken. That the world we know was built on violence against women. That misogyny and rape culture are so interwoven into the fabric of our society, we can’t just throw out a few bad apples — we need to throw out the whole system.

Local statistics paint a painful picture: three in five women have experienced sexual harassment; one woman is raped in the Philippines in every hour. With these numbers, it’s very likely that there are people in your social circles who are survivors, whether or not you know it. Part of the silence surrounding sexual assault is that we don’t know how to react to someone who tells us that they’ve been harassed, assaulted, or raped.

Helping out a survivor starts with understanding exactly what they are struggling with. Multiple studies have proven that sexual trauma has the power to cause psychological harm. “I couldn’t sleep on my own bed for over a year. I also got agitated when people would touch me,” Aly* shared. Many survivors report intense feelings of stress, guilt, terror, and shame after the experience, which can lead to long-term mental health problems like depression, anxiety, or even post-traumatic stress disorder.

The female experience of assault and harassment can range from a catcall on the street to spousal rape. Regardless of what it is, it’s harmful to tell someone how they should feel.

Sharing what happened can help alleviate some of the negative emotions and help them heal. “I’ve seen a very strong sense of relief come over them once they’re done sharing,” says Kenneth Yu, the page administrator of Catcalled in the Philippines, a Facebook page dedicated to raising awareness about sexual assault and supporting survivors. Yu says that opening up helps them process what’s happened to them and get advice on the next steps they can take, whether it’s legal action or personal recovery.

Opening up in the age of social media is particularly powerful because survivors can form a community around their shared trauma. “It took me a while to assert my presence as a rape victim,” says Luna*, a writer and activist. “When I realized that talking about it gave other women the courage to approach me and talk about their own experience for the first time, that was the dealbreaker. Being able to establish that small but safe place for us to talk about our shared experience with someone who understands and listens without judgment … that is incredibly affirming.”

However, the decision to come out as a sexual assault survivor is not an easy one to make. “It’s always a difficult choice because talking about what happened to you can kind of bring up old pain or trauma. Not everyone is ready for that,” says Luna. There is also a lot of stigma around being sexually assaulted. Victim-blaming is well and alive in the Philippines; just last month, morning talk show host Anthony Taberna came under fire for blaming a 19-year-old woman for her own gang rape.

It’s a very obvious example of how not to react to rape and assault, but even well-meaning people struggle with the appropriate way to deal with it. If someone does open up to you, here are a few dos and don’ts to keep in mind:

Listen. “They’re just looking for someone who would listen to them, so that they wouldn’t have to feel so alone or ashamed,” says Marco Sumayao, co-founder of Deus Sex Machina, a comedy erotica performance group that promotes consent and sex-positivity.

Don’t judge. It’s important to be careful about asking questions or making statements that hold them responsible for what happened. “What were you wearing?”, “You shouldn’t stay out late”, or “Did you do anything to provoke him?” all point to the survivor’s behavior instead of the perpetrator’s. Remember: it’s never the victim’s fault.

Believe and validate them. False allegations are rare, and it’s not your role or responsibility to judge their truthfulness. Many survivors don’t even believe themselves at first, or experience gaslighting from their perpetrators or other people. “I was in that moment trying to process … or more like deny that it was rape because who would want to be raped in the first place,” Luna says. Acknowledge what they said, and how difficult it is to go through it and talk about it.

Don’t minimize their experience. The female experience of assault and harassment can range from a catcall on the street to spousal rape. Regardless of what it is, it’s harmful to tell someone how they should feel. Don’t tell them that it’s not a big deal and to move on, only they can decide that for themselves.

Thank them for trusting you. Sumayao says, “They're looking for someone they can trust, because someone else broke it in a terrible way.” If they open up to you, it means that they trust you enough to be vulnerable around you, even if it’s scary for them to allow themselves to be vulnerable with someone.

Don’t force them to share details. Ask questions about how they feel, but avoid questions that force them to relive their painful experiences. This puts a lot of pressure on the survivor, makes them feel that they have to prove their trauma, and actually hinders them from healing. Elora* says, “I had to talk to everyone who wanted to hear ‘The Story.’ I never got the chance to actually sit down and process what happened … Sana there could have been somebody who was there to tell people to back off.” Let them decide what they’re ready to share with you.

Offer support. Everybody has different coping mechanisms, so ask them how you can help. Some survivors might appreciate physical warmth and affection, while others might understandably recoil. It’s best to ask first, and assure them that you will help in any way they need you to.

Don’t try to solve it. It’s not your problem to fix. Discuss what their options are, but don’t pressure them to do anything about it. If they came to you for support, they obviously value your input and advice, but what they do next is ultimately their decision to make.

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Survivors of assault, harassment, rape, and other kinds of sexual violence can get in touch with one of the following hotlines for help: Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) / (02) 931-8101 to 07; DSWD-NCR Ugnayan Pag-asa Crisis Intervention Center / (02) 734-8639/ 734-8654/ 734-8626 to 27; Philippine National Police (PNP) / 723-0401 to 20; PNP-Women and Children Protection Center (WCPC) / 410-3213; NBI-Violence Against Women and Children Desk (VAWCD) / 523-8231 to 38 / 525-6028.

*Names have been changed to protect their privacy.