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Things you shouldn’t say to survivors of abuse or sexual assault

Things you shouldn’t say to  survivors of abuse or sexual assault


Recently there has been a chorus of women’s voices testifying to their experiences of either rape/sexual assault by men in powerful positions.

It started with the Weinstein scandal that involved a few women accusers, and an undercover police sting operation. Then more women came forward, detailing inappropriate behaviour from men in powerful positions across a spectrum of professions. These men either promised or suggested that in exchange for sexual favours, they could provide a career boost for the women, and in some cases, young men, whom they exploited.

In speaking their respective truths, these women unsettle the public with the sordid details of the actions taken by their opportunistic exploiters.

They confront difficult issues with bravery, often providing traumatic details, and it appears that our public is not quite sure how to react or handle these inconvenient truths.

I have been thinking about these reactions and, bearing all of this in mind, I compiled a list of 15 things you should not say to survivors of abuse or sexual assault, and the one thing that you should say that might be helpful:

1) What did you do?

2) Did you provoke him?

3) Why didn’t you report it back then?

4) Why are you reporting it now?

5) Who put you up to this?

6) You want the man to go to jail?

7) He going to lose his work.

8) You want to bring shame on the family?

9) You letting us women down, though.

10) If it was me, I would have done… (x, y, z.)

11) Monkey know which tree to climb.

12) You shouldn’t have answered him like that.

13) Allyo woman hard to go with.

14) Man does get beat too.

15) He loves you, but just don’t know how to show it.

This list is by no means exhaustive. These utterances are examples of how people in the public sphere engage the survivors of abuse; whether it be via talk radio or comments on social media and other on-line platforms. These comments do little, if anything at all, to help the victims. They speak to how ill-equipped we are to empathize with survivors, and how uncomfortable we are with confronting issues relating to sexual assault and physical abuse.

Nevertheless, if there is a genuine wish to help, then a better way to engage would be to first listen, and to listen without (pre)judgement. Truly listening means not interrupting, not talking over the survivor, not trying to tell a survivor how they should feel, react, or view their experiences. After the listening, the next question should be “How can I help?” with follow through.

The point is, people who experience assault/abuse are battling through psychological wounds, some of which might not be fully healed, to speak their truth in public. As we have seen recently, when one survivor speaks their truth, then others feel emboldened to speak theirs. The issues that they force us to confront need the light their testimonies demand. We, as their audience, just need to become better at bearing witness.

Zora Neale Hurston is famous for saying “If you are silent, they will kill you, and blame you for your pain.” I pray that we could move towards a day when we do not blame survivors of abuse/sexual assault for their pain, even after we have spent decades silencing them.