If someone you know tells you that they have been sexually assaulted simply listen. That is the most practical and most caring thing that you can do in that moment. And by listen I mean be fully engaged and focused on that person. If they hare choosing to tell you there story take it and hold it like you would a precious piece of treasure. It is a scary moment, no matter how well you know the person it is hard to share. When I tell someone either that this has happened in my life or a detail of what happened it is always accompanied by a racing heart, a lump in my through and a pit in my stomach. And it sits there until I know what I have said has been received and handled with care.
It is normal to want to know more or what happened, but don’t ask those questions. The person will tell you about it if/when they are ready and want to. Sometimes there aren’t words, sometimes thinking of what happened is overwhelming or too much, sometimes there is a desire to protect those from the details, sometimes it’s foggy or can’t be remembered clearly. There are many reasons that someone may not want to share the details of what happened and it is okay. The details really aren’t important, what is important is that someone chose to tell you what happened and that they survived. Some questions that you can ask. How are you doing or feeling now? Is there anything I can do for you? Do you need anything? These are all caring heart listening questions. It shows you heard and your focus is on them.
It’s okay to not know what to say. Be honest and say that. Let the person know you still care about them, reassure them that it won’t change your relationship. Tell them you believe them. It may seem simple, but it makes a world of difference.
I shared that I had been raped rather quickly, I was still in shock and had no feelings towards it really, it was like I was watching myself tell but could not feel anything. But as some people found out or I told them I was met with a few different responses some of the were more helpful than others. I want to break them down a little for you and share my experience with them.
One response was a flood of questions. Have you talked to the police? Did you know him? What happened? Why were you out at night? Why did you go out alone? Did you fight? Did you do a rape kit? What were you wearing? Why didn’t you run? Did you go to the hospital? Do you know did he use a condom? Did you take the morning after pill? There were all kinds of questions. And I have no doubt that they were not ill intended. However, as these questions were asked in the back of my mind I wondered if I was believed, I wondered if I had done things wrong and it made the guilt and the shame grow. I felt anxious as my heart beat playing the details over as the questions were asked but couldn’t answer the questions because there were no words. Mostly sheer terror at thinking of those details or the things that I thought I could have done differently. I didn’t feel heard because I couldn’t answer the questions and that left me feeling like that meant I wasn’t understood.
Another response was immediately making recommendations, trying to fix it. Saying things like: we should get you signed up for a self defense class so you aren’t worried. You need to talk to someone about this and make an appointment. Let me show you how to use a gun and that way you don’t have to worry. Maybe you should look at moving to another area since it was close to your home. Again the people saying these things were just trying to help. However, I could barely make it through the moment let alone thing ahead to any of this. To me it also implied that I wasn’t okay where I was that I was going to have to do something different and it was probably something I should have done different that would have prevented this all from happening.
The best responses were the ones where a friend took a day off of work to just come be with me the next day, asking what I wanted to do. Making food so that it was there for me, and letting me sleep whenever I dozed off. Or when someone said I don’t know what to say, I’m sorry and let me know if you need anything. Simply listening, not offering solutions or asking questions about what had happened, but letting me be where I was at. That to me said that I had permission to be upset, or withdrawn, or anxious, or whatever I was feeling at that moment. Being asked about how I was doing or gestures that took of my basic needs, the things that seemed like they would talk too much energy to do, like making food, those things said I love you and I don’t think any differently of you. Being told I believe you without being asked for anything else, when all I said was I had been raped, that pierced straight to my heart and calmed the fact that maybe no one would believe me. It told me it didn’t matter what I was wearing, where I was, who I was with, or what I had done. That was listening. That was when and how my story was handled with care. It was when I was in control and didn’t feel pressured by questions or comments, I didn’t feel like I had to share anything more in that moment. They heard what I was saying between the words and they met me there. When I was ready those were the people I shared more and more with because there was no fixing, no questions, simply listening ears, caring hearts, and loving actions. That is how you listen well.