Here’s What Men Need To Know About Supporting Survivors Of Sexual Assault
One night during my junior year of college, I found myself sobbing in the closet of my dorm room. In the middle of coming to terms with a childhood of sexual abuse and recent date rape, I was full of intense emotions that were often visceral and always intense. That night, I refused to come out of my closet, and was crying too hard to speak. My roommates were concerned, so they called my best friend.
Derek* showed up at my dorm right away. He asked me if I needed anything. And then he started doing his physics homework. It was the 100% perfect response. Eventually, I calmed down, and when I was ready, we talked about what triggered my intense emotions that night. A few hours later, we were laughing and joking, wrapping up our assignments for the night.
A few months earlier, Derek wouldn’t have known what to do — which is why he asked to meet my therapist. He came with me to an appointment, and in her office, we sat and talked about what it was like to be a survivor of sexual trauma. He shared how helpless he felt when I was sad. He asked what he could do to fix it.
“You can’t do anything to fix it,” my therapist said to his surprise. “It’s not something that is fixable.”
“Well, then what do I do?” he pressed
“You can just be with her.”
I don’t think Derek really believed her at first, but figured she was an expert in such things so he might as well give it a try. He also thought that being with me seemed pretty doable. It turned out that his loving presence — his being — was exactly what I needed to heal from sexual abuse and assault. His constant presence, reassurance, and acceptance transformed my life and my relationships. Through our friendship, I also learned a lot about what sexual violence — and sexual violence survivors — look like in men’s eyes.
Too many men find themselves in the position of supporting a friend or girlfriend through sexual violence without having the skills they need. Loving a survivor of sexual violence — as a friend or as a romantic partner — teaches you many important lessons about yourself, about women, and about the world.
1. There Is Nothing You Can Fix
You can’t make it so she wasn’t raped. You can’t personally bring the rapist to justice. You can’t feel her feelings for her. You can’t make her stop hurting herself. These are all things she has to do on her own. By empowering her to chart her own healing pathway, you are giving her back control she didn’t have as a victim. You can offer resources, support, referrals — but she has to be ready to do the work it takes to recover.
2. Feel Your Own Feelings, So She Can Feel Hers
Witnessing another person’s pain evokes powerful emotions. You may be raging at her abusers. You may feel powerless and sad. Just make sure you feel your feelings — take baseball bat to a pillow, lift weights, write in a journal. Even the most intense feeling will eventually pass. Knowing that in yourself will help you support her through strong emotions as well.
3. Being Is An Action, Not Inaction
Being is a powerful thing. The message you are sending is that you can handle her emotions, and she can too. You are willing to bear witness to how she really feels — that is an important and real job. You are saying you believe there is light at the end of this dark tunnel. Just breathe, and remember that no one ever died from crying.
4. Read Everything You Can On Supporting Survivors
If you need to take action, take action to educate yourself on sexual violence. Apply your sense of competition to be the most informed support person out there — though try to stay humble. Learn about empowerment. Learn about active listening. Learn about mindfulness. Learn about self-care.
5. Channel Your Anger Into Social Change
It’s totally OK to rage about sexual violence. But channel your anger into action. Talk to your guy friends about sexual violence. Share the gospel of how to support and empower survivors. Show up for a rally, a fundraiser, or a walk/race that raises money for the cause. Share your experience supporting survivors (keeping identities confidential, of course).
RELATED QUESTION: Have You Ever Supported A Victim Of Sexual Assault?
All men encounter survivors of sexual violence throughout their lives — sometimes they know it, and sometimes they don’t. But you don’t need to be a superhero to make a difference in a survivor’s life. In fact, it’s probably easier than you think.
Sarah Beaulieu is a board member of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and founder of The Enliven Project. She is working on a practical guide for men to comfortably advocate against sexual violence. You can find her on Twitter at @sarahbeaulieu.