Do you have a friend, relative or lover who survived childhood sexual assault? Here’s 6 of the top 10 things not to say or do.
1) Breaking the kvetching order – Don’t expect the survivor to provide emotional support to you about your feelings about their trauma. Go to other people with that. Support her or him, but refrain from offering advice or judgement.
2) Giving advice. If you haven’t survived childhood sexual abuse, really you’ve got nothing useful about this. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Keep your advice, particularly about forgiveness, moving on, or dealing with abusive or complicit relatives and parents to yourself. For more information on why this is so, please read this post on what it’s like to have PTSD and complex PTSD.
A related issue is platitudes. Phrases like “Parents do the best they can with what they know at the time.” “Mothers/fathers always put their children first.” “Family comes first.” for example, are often completely false in families containing abusers and can make your loved one feel like they are an alien from another planet.
The closest experience a non-survivor can get to what a survivor is going through are experiences of deep loss and grief. Think about how you felt when someone close to you died, or the biggest tragedy you have experienced or could imagine experiencing. That’s probably closest to the experience your loved one is having. If you’ve had one or more experiences of trauma then you might also be able to relate. By trauma, I don’t mean just stressful events. Here’s what I mean by trauma:
direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing anevent that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threatof death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate(Criterion A1). The person’s response to the event must involve intense fear,helplessness, or horror (or in children, the response must involve disorganized or agitated behavior) (Criterion A2). (p. 463 The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR; American PsychiatricAssociation [APA], 2000))
3) Investigating – It’s not your job to determine if your loved one is telling the truth about what happened to her or him. She or he is probably doing a good job doubting his/her own reality right now. Just stay out of grilling her him for details and trying to make sense of it. She/he will sort most of it out eventually, but based on how the memory works in cases of trauma, it’s not as straightforward a process as you might expect.
4) Not wanting to talk about it – Yes, child sexual assault is disturbing, but it’s a fact of your loved one’s reality, and part of her daily existence. She/he should be able to refer to it in conversation without a big ‘disturbance in the force’ or you changing the topic. It’s a big deal, but don’t make a big deal of it either.
5) Trying to fix it. – You can’t. The best you can do is to walk beside your loved one, to listen and to care.
6) Expecting it to be over quickly or completely – grieving childhood sexual assault, particularly recurring assault, takes about 10 years from the time the person is actively healing. Think about people who have tragically lost one of their children to accident, illness or murder. Do you expect them to ever stop grieving? Yes, it may die down, but there will always be times when grief is active.
I am sure there are more of these – anyone got any others to add?
33 thoughts on “What not to say to survivors of childhood sexual assault…”
Hi, I’d like to give a couple of examples of a really unhelpful response by partners… first is minimising your experience in favour of their own. My (soon to be ex) husband’s response was that he was more of a victim than me because he had to go without sex while I went through therapy. Second very unhelpful response was being angry with the abuser on my behalf as it messed up our relationship (I think he meant his sex life). What a tosser. Well he is now anyway! For me, the positive about recovering memories of abuse is that it has helped me to make sense of some of the stuff I did in my 20s and 30s and it has helped me to start to sort the wheat from the chaff, at long last. I’m in my 40s and have just recently had memories of sexual abuse when (I think) I was about six. It is so helpful to read other people’s posts. Thank you for the site and for being a true warrioress, it is very inspiring.
Thanks for the examples. People can be dicks sometimes about this stuff. “Gee, I’m sorry my getting sexually assaulted messed with your sex life. That must be so hard for you.” Would he say the same if you got leukemia or into a car accident if it messed with his sex life? Probably. I’m glad this is helpful for you, it’s a big part of why I do it.
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Thank you Nop, that’s really heartening to hear and you’re very welcome. It’s a big part of why I do this. I wish you deep and speedy healing. SDW.
SDW, I’d just like to tell you how much of a comfort your blog is to me in dealing with my own PTSD, just because the simple fact that you talk about it makes it a little easier for me to acknowledge the fact that it’s an issue in my life. Thank you. <3
Absolutely spot on! I especially like the part about a survivor being able to refer to the event with out folks changing the subject. That is the reality in my family. It is the elephant in the room and when I approach it, the subject changes or they scatter like roaches! Excellent points that I’m sharing on my FB page….
Yeah, that gets in the way a lot for me too. Thanks for the share!
Okay, this is my blog and I’m shutting down the raping men discussion. I don’t want triggery rape descriptions on my blog, that’s why I posted an off site link for Meredith, which explained pretty much what you’d need to know. You both have a point. It’s possible for a woman to rape an adult man. If you want to read about how, Google it. I don’t want to read it on my blog. If you don’t believe adult men raping adult women is overwhelmingly more common than adult women raping adult men, then I think you have some denial and minimization going on. Grab some common sense or at least Google the stats. And no, unreported rapes are going to be very common on both sides so it doesn’t fix the stats imbalance at all.
All future posts on that topic will be deleted. Let’s behave like allies here, please.
Another thing to never say: Never call not-rape a “rape.” There’s nothing that gets my blood boiling like when a person has a bad deal with a car repair and they say, “Oh, my car mechanic totally raped me.” Or destruction of the environment as “raping Mother Nature.”
That’s not rape.
You know what’s rape?
I always make a big deal about this, until everyone is uncomfortable and I’m convinced they would never make this mistake again…
Word. If someone forced something into a body orifice (I’m not picky about which one) to get themselves off or exert power over someone else, then it’s rape. Anything else, people can find another term for, please. The raping Mother Nature thing I can kind of support, although I do get your point, because as a religious Pagan, I do experience Mother Nature as an actual Goddess/being and the things done to her body are both extremely invasive and threatening her life.
The six points are really great. Forgiveness, ha, yes. “You should walk the high road and understand he’s nothing but a poor man, and reinitiate contact with him, aren’t you a better human than him, won’t you take pity on him, all alone now ?” is another good one.
@Pen After I disclosed, I had a therapist tell me, “Well, you certainly have an admirer”. And I was : “Er… Who would that be ?” I was married at the time, to someone who was abusing me, but not physically, so it took me years to recognize it was indeed abuse, since I thought I was worth shit and deserved everything thrown at me – but I already doubted very much my then-husband could be an admirer.
She answered : “Well, your father.” I was very shocked, I thought “is she a pervert herself or what ?”. But I was still too used to people telling me horrible stuff and making me feel guilty for provoking such bad thoughts in them, by simply existing, to quit that therapist on the spot. Now I’m done with both her and the husband.
I know of no rape jokes in my country – even “rape” is a word that is used sparingly, since it carries a much bigger emotional charge that “murder” or “kill”. Newspapers will tell about someone being “sexually molested”, as an euphemism for “raped”.I could of course be unaware of such jokes, since I don’t associate much with woman-haters.
@Andrea I know of one man who has disclosed to me having suffered from childhood sexual abuse – as had his elder brother. It was at the hands of their stepfather. Also there was his male sport coach and a random male vagrant. Very disturbing. But all males.
” It’s not your job to determine if your loved one is telling the truth about what happened to her or him. She or he is probably doing a good job doubting his/her own reality right now. Just stay out of grilling her him for details and trying to make sense of it. She/he will sort most of it out eventually, but based on how the memory works in cases of trauma, it’s not as straightforward a process as you might expect.”
People never understand this part.
That is so true, Kate. People should never joke about sexual assault, especially around survivors. Since there are so many survivors out there, and many of us do not disclose to everyone in our lives, that means that people should never tell rape jokes anywhere, to anyone.
Yes, it’s incredible that anyone would ever think rape was something to joke about!
Yup. But they do.
A good rule, for me, and unfortunately one that my family of origin, who are aware of sexual abuse in our immediately family, refuse to comply with is and choose to misunderstand is, understand that rape and sexual assault is not something that should ever be repeated as a joke. Loving others means we want to grow in our sensitivity to their issues, not to trigger and exploit them.
It should never be used in a joke, it demeans everyone, male and female, who have ever been sexually offended against while a child, a teenager, or an adult and it demeans every man or woman by extension, diminishing them and normalizing sexually invasive and inappropriate comments into the human dialogue. All of us deserve better respect than that.
Great post! As for additions: The fucking forgiveness bullshit. I think people should stop that too.
I totally agree! That forgiveness crap is really just because they want us to shut up and make nice so they don’t have to think about it. Notice it’s only people who are supposed to lack power who are told to forgive . Nobody tells Dick Cheney to forgive!
I have never actually heard of even a single man getting raped by a woman. I think men who bring that up are watching too much humiliation porn. Men who try to bring that up really piss me off. Not only are they being dishonest, but they are being stupid. Even if women did rape men, and even if they raped them at the same rate men rape women, that still wouldn’t mean that rape wasn’t bad! (Can you imagine what would happen if one out of every three men were getting raped? All of a sudden rape would be a big national priority!)
What I had to deal with with my own family was a combination of not caring and not believing me. They really just didn’t want to know, because that might be unpleasant for them. They obviously did not care how unpleasant anything was for me, but then again I guess this is not a surprise in an incestuaous, abusive family.
I have never heard a man tell me he had been raped by a woman. I have had the honour of witnessing several men be brave enough to tell me of being sexually assaulted by men. I have been in 12 step groups and therapy groups with men, where they disclose some very personal stuff, so I’m thinking I would have heard a disclosure by now if it was as common as rape of women by men is. I have however, met a woman who says that her male partner disclosed this kind of sexual assault to her, and I have no reason to believe she was lying. I believe it can and does happen, but that it is rare. Child sexual assault of male children by their mothers is probably a lot less rare (I made a typo in my original comment, when I said ‘rarer’ instead of ‘less rare’), I would think. Rapists like to abuse physical or systemic power. Women very seldom have either of these in relation to men.
I do know three men that were raped by women. It happens. I don’t like the direction of this argument, “If it happened to men more, it would be more of a national priority.” People don’t want to talk about this at all. This is why the cycle continues through generations.
My original point is that people try to minimize and shut down discussions of rape of women by men by saying (inaccurately) that rape of men by women is just as common, as if that would male violence by women thus not a real problem. To me what is offensive about it is not that they are wrong, but that they are trying to shut down discussion of sexual assault and deflect responsibility from perpetrators. So I think we agree, complicatedwalz – people don’t want to talk about it and they should get over that.
I literally do not understand how a man can be raped by a woman.Can you explain to me how that would work?
Well, basically, forcing sexual activity on someone is sexual assault. http://ca.askmen.com/dating/love_tip_3800/3838_men-raped-by-women.html
I hear you, sworddancewarrior. I think the problem of male victims is vastly underreported, due to shame and guilt… as well as the masses that can’t understand that male rape can and does occur.
Meredith, the World Health Organization defines rape as: physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration – even if slight – of the vulva or anus, using a penis,
other body parts or an object.
I’ve removed some comments on the thread of men being raped that got ornery. Here’s why. This is my blog and I’m shutting down the raping men discussion. I don’t want triggery rape descriptions on my blog, that’s why I posted an off site link for Meredith, which explained pretty much what you’d need to know.
You both have a point. It’s possible for an adult woman to rape an adult man. If you want to read about how, Google it. I don’t want to read it on my blog.
If you don’t believe adult men raping adult women is overwhelmingly more common than adult women raping *adult* men, then I think you have some denial and minimization going on. Grab some common sense or at least Google the stats. And no, unreported rapes are going to be very common on both sides so it doesn’t fix the stats imbalance at all.
Children of both sexes, are, of course abused frequently by adults of both sexes. Women perpetrators are rarer there too than adult male perpetrators but some abuse boys instead of or as well as girls.
All future comments on that topic will be deleted. Let’s behave like allies here, please.
I sensed that person who kept pushing for specific answers just wanted to trigger everyone. I’m sorry. — I think it was the sweeping denial that triggered me. Over-arcing generalizations about “all” this or that, and denying its existence, is so very similar to the denial I experienced.
Apology accepted. We all get plugged in sometimes.
Hi Pen, nice to meet you.
Yes, there’s something there too about public discussions and “talking about rape when you haven’t experienced it as if you know all about it.” my unfavourites are the people who insist that men get raped by women as much as women get raped by men because they know of one instance and somehow don’t want to deal with reality about gendered violence. I can’t really argue with them effectively without disclosing and I don’t always want to do that, so the non-informed get to dominate the conversation. It feels like something akin to ‘mansplaining’ (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/mansplaining) when a non-survivor talks about sexual assault and the systemic issues around it like they know anything about it to me.
These are great. You’ve really pinned it down. Especially the “Families First” bs. I had an actual therapist who went that whole direction of “oh, but your father just *loves* you *so much*”.
Right. And I’m done with you as a therapist.
I would also say that being “obviously dodgy” about the topic after the survivor was brave enough to confide about it. Like, starting a conversation, realizing it touches on sex or violence or something, staring at the survivor and going “Ohhhhhhhhh….right. That isn’t something I can even talk about in front of you because of the stuff you had happen.”
First of all, I can actually tolerate unsavory topics more than you’d think. And if it happens to be a problem, I’m an adult (now). I can remove myself from the conversation.
Seriously though, please don’t make a huge effin’ deal of it at least. If you’re worried about causing offense, just say “This might not be appropriate conversation. How do you feel about that? Maybe another time?” Give me a chance to remain somewhat anonymous. Especially in social groups.