Sexual assault is a sadly common experience for women. Nearly 1 in 5 women in the US are raped in their lifetime and their attackers are almost always men. This kind of violence can leave a woman deeply unsure of which men to trust. It’s a problem good men don’t create but good men can help mend.
Over the past years, I have been heartened to watch a groundswell of men take an interest in reducing violence against women. Men are beginning to act as powerful agents for change by tackling rape culture. I believe that healthy, empathic men are well placed to help women survivors recover and rebuild after sexual violence. It’s that priceless opportunity to help in healing that I wish to discuss and I urge you to take part in.
When I was 24 years old and living abroad, I was raped by a group of young men. I had thought one of those men was my friend.
Following the rape, I was frequently too terrified to sleep without the assistance of medication and a safe person beside me as I let go of consciousness. Going out into the world to work, shop for groceries, and so on was a huge and humiliating task because sensory triggers would trip me into brutal flashbacks of the event that would have me hyperventilating and struggling against men who weren’t there. Revisiting the rape in any context invariably tipped me into a frantic or stunned state of denial, in which I would become highly confused and unable to comprehend how such a series of events could have occurred.
“There must be some mistake,” I would repeat in my dazed state. I wished that every trace of the events of that night could be erased, myself and my body included. I wondered if it would be possible for me ever to feel pretty or clean again.
Like the overwhelming majority of reported cases, my experience with the justice system did not lead to any convictions. In the United States, for every 1000 rapes, only 7 will result in a felony conviction. Knowing how ineffective justice systems are in stopping sex abusers placed a fear in me that can never entirely be erased.
On the other side, I came to realize that even though the likelihood of conviction for an act of sexual violence is so very low, most men never rape. Many men are visibly appalled by the notion. It’s not the risk of adverse consequences that prevents men from committing this violence; it is empathy, decency, and morality that negates the very possibility of rape. Recalling this helped reaffirm my faith in men and human nature more generally and diminished my fear enough to let me lead a normal life.
My recovery was greatly aided by the solidarity and support of my close male friends. My trust in men had been profoundly shaken by the men who raped me and further by the justice system’s tepid effort to halt my attackers. Trust in half the population is a mighty asset to lose, so I reached out to my three dearest male friends to help and they gave me their support. They weathered my intense emotions without judgment. They listened and responded to every word that I needed to say. They made sure that they were with me when I felt unsafe. They believed in my ability to recover and reminded me of it daily. They felt with me. They stood with me. They cared for me.
So my message is this: if you are a man and a woman reaches out to you to speak about sexual violence, you are being given a priceless opportunity to do something wonderful, to reaffirm trust and self-worth, to change a life. And you can do it! The recipe is quite simple. With an unhindered willingness to listen and learn and be with her on her journey, you can sway the outcome toward a much brighter future for her.
If you still fear that you might say or do something wrong because you don’t fully understand the female experience of sexual violence, here is a short list of suggestions for making yourself approachable for open conversations around sexual trauma, and for offering life-changing support if a survivor reaches out to you for help.
And if any of these tips seem simple or condescending to you, please don’t be offended. I am answering a variety of misconceptions I have encountered along my journey; some of them are misconceptions made by kind-hearted men who could be invaluable champions in helping women hurt by sexual violence.
- Don’t engage in jokes or conversations that trivialize rape or other violence toward women.
- Don’t use language that praises or excuses sexual aggression in men.
- Don’t harshly judge women for enjoying the same freedoms you support for men.
- Understand that women desire and expect to have full bodily autonomy just as men do and the emotional fallout of losing full bodily autonomy is tremendous.
- Understand that sexual violence, in any context, is a traumatic experience.
- Understand that not all men possess the integrity that you do. Men who hurt women are often very talented at convincing other men and potential female victims alike that they are stable, kind men.
- Understand that there are many survivors around you and you rarely know who they are. A sexually aggressive comment or action may be meant to be funny and might even be well-tolerated by some women but it has the potential to inflict deep distress on many survivors.
The initial conversation
- Don’t try to minimize the horror of her experience by defending the motives of her attacker or otherwise questioning her perception of the facts. It won’t minimize the horror for her. It may, however, extend it by making her feel that a trusted man is unfazed at her being brutalized, greatly diminishing her trust in the world overall.
- Don’t compare the degree of violence she endured against that endured by others. Any act of sexual violence has the capacity to emotionally shatter and traumatize a victim, no matter how high or low it might appear to sit on a scale of brutality.
- Don’t try to take control of the situation. The salient issue in rape is that her control was taken away. Simply be supportive.
- Show your willingness to have the conversation. It takes great courage to speak. Match her courage by listening. Show that you believe her, that you care, and that you want to help.
- Understand that this is a conversation about violence and its fallout. It’s not actually about sex, so try not to feel embarrassed about her sharing facts that might feel more personal or intimate.
- Understand that reporting and usually being the main witness for the prosecution in a rape case is a traumatic experience and it is her choice to make. So rather than demanding to know if she has reported the crime, ask instead. Listen to her reasons and offer your support, whatever her decision may be.
- Be considerate but also be open about your emotional response. I am grateful for the highly emotional responses I received, including expressions of anger toward the perpetrators. The calmer responses that I will carry with me always were from my three dearest male friends who cared for me in the immediate aftermath of the attack. One asked me to give him as much of my pain as I could because if we carried it together, we would surely make it through. My other two friends sat beside me for hours, visibly heartbroken and keen to come up with practical ways to help. The greater pain for the survivor is when there is no emotional response at all. Silence can be felt as suspicion or judgment. Silence shows anything but solidarity.
- Understand that suicidal ideation, dissociation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression are common responses to sexual violence. Be ready to assist her in finding professional help if needed.
The path to recovery
- Don’t put deadlines on her recovery.
- Don’t take it personally if she fiercely protects her personal safety, even around you. A sense of vulnerability can be distressing in the aftermath of sexual violence. Her hypervigilance and heightened risk aversion will subside as trust in the world is regained. Reassure her gently that you would never hurt her, but always let her set the boundaries until she feels safe.
- Don’t belittle her judgment if you think it is impaired by her trauma response. Instead, help her work through her thinking and gently guide toward a healthier line of thought.
- Help her feel safe.
- Help her feel worthy.
- Help her feel hopeful.
- Make her feel welcome to express her thoughts and feelings.
- Understand that some people will make ignorant, insensitive, and offensive remarks that will attack her sense of worth, safety, and hope. Be the voice that helps her build herself up.
- Understand that particular sensory experiences can suddenly and powerfully trigger flashbacks or painful memories. Be patient.
- Assist with a psychological injury just as you would with a physical affliction—treat it without judgment and have faith that it can be alleviated or healed.
- If you are a sexual partner, be patient, be protective, be kind, and reassure her that she is worthy and lovable. (Sexual violence teaches the opposite of worth and love.)
At 24 years old, my predominant fear was this: I couldn’t tell which men presented a serious danger to me and which men would look the other way. I feared that I was not only worthless in the eyes of my attackers, but in the eyes of many men. My close male friends were uniquely positioned to help me rebuild trust and a sense of safety and they did exactly that by listening and letting me lead the way for my healing.
Patiently and compassionately, they listened to my repeated recounts of my experience and my trying to make sense of it. They asked how they could help and did so without hesitation. They commended my efforts to heal and celebrated my progress. In doing so, they helped me to rediscover my own strength and worth and to trust in the power of us. It altered my trajectory in a remarkably positive way.
My experience tells a hopeful story—a few good men helped change a life with simple kindness. Any good man can do the same.