Recent sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein prompted a widespread response on social media: the #MeToo campaign.
For survivors who chose to share, the campaign has been a powerful tool for bringing awareness about a widespread issue and sparking cultural change.
Yet, when survivors share their stories with others, knowing how to sensitively respond, or whether you should respond at all, can be unclear.
Beth Enterkin, a trauma therapist and clinical training specialist at Rape Victim Advocates in Chicago, offers her expertise on ways that untrained listeners can best support someone who chooses to share a sexual trauma story. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What should you say if someone feels comfortable enough to share a sexual trauma with you, but you feel unqualified to help?
A: There are three go-to statements if you don’t know what to say: “I believe you,” “It’s not your fault” and “You have options.” Many survivors are questioned, and with disbelief comes victim blaming. The third (statement) speaks to the trauma of feeling that your options were taken away from you, like being able to say no, or advancing your career without enduring unwanted advances. Survivors should be re-empowered with the right to make their own decisions.
Q: Asking questions can communicate care but, in this case, it can seem insensitive. Should the listener ask questions?
A: Disclosing trauma should be at the survivor’s pace, so we tend to steer people away from asking questions. That can feel invasive, and we want survivors to feel in control of what they share. But if they allow you to ask questions, make sure they are not phrased in a way that insinuates victim blaming. Asking “How did it happen?” feels a lot different than “Why did it happen?” or “What were you doing when it happened?”
Q: Are there other ways to show compassion, then, perhaps with body language?
A: Don’t fold your arms or look angry. That reaction is understandable, but you don’t want your anger to seem directed at the discloser. Also, it might feel natural to rest a hand on a shoulder or offer a hug, but explicitly ask for consent before jumping to that physical touch.
Q: Should your response differ based on your relationship with the discloser, such as a co-worker versus a loved one?
A: It’s important for survivors to still feel accepted and not viewed as dirty, damaged or different just because of what someone did to them. Respond to the people in your life who have been harmed as if they still are themselves, because they are.
Q: How should someone navigate receiving a disclosure across gender lines?
A: Men who hear disclosures from women should remember this isn’t about them. Some men can feel judged in these things and have a reaction of “don’t lump me in.” Keep things focused on the person who just disclosed, by being mindful of what feels comfortable to them.
Q: How do you tell someone you can’t provide additional support and suggest professional help?
A: The person who suggests getting help from a rape crisis counseling center should be sure to present it with love and care, articulating concern and a desire for their loved one to receive good support. They can say, “I’m not experienced in these things. Would you be open to going to counseling.” Or, “Is there some other way I can help you find another way of support?”
Q: What if you’re not comfortable talking through this with the person because you’ve been through something similar and aren’t ready to share?
A: That’s where it’s even more important to say, “I believe you,” “it’s not your fault” and “you have options.” If that’s all you can say because you’re dealing with your own trauma, and saying anything beyond that feels too triggering or too much for you, that’s OK. Know that you’ve done a world of good with those three phrases.
Q: What do you do when someone tells you the harassment or assault is still happening?
A: It can be tempting to swoop in, find the answer and rescue somebody who’s being hurt. But when you rescue somebody, you imply that they’re not able to help themselves, and that can reinforce the trauma of feeling as if they don’t have control over what’s happening to them. Let them know you’re there for them, that you value their safety and that you would like to help by connecting them to options.
Q: What should you do if the person sharing is younger than 18?
A: That depends on your role. If you’re a teacher or a health care provider, you are a mandated reporter by law. But if you have no legal obligation to hand over the report, keep their age and social context in mind. For young children, the abuser is either a family member or a close family friend. This child might have caring feelings for the abuser, and that can be extremely confusing and hard for them to come forward. If they’ve trusted you with this information, know that it was hard for them and it’s important to believe them.
Q: Can you talk about the differences among harassment, assault and rape?
There are legal definitions that differ in each state. In Illinois, legal terminology covers harassment (verbal or threatening without touching), abuse (anything that involves nonconsensual touching or fondling) and assault (anything that includes penetration). But I mirror the language that the person in front of me is using. However they feel about their assault and whatever term they use to describe it is whatever term I’m going to use when talking to them. Again, that re-empowers each person to take back control over their lives, starting just by how they talk about what they’ve been through.