Sexual violence — an umbrella term which encompasses sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape — has become a pervasive issue. However, it is not a problem that suddenly emerged from nowhere. Sexual violence has been an epidemic for centuries, but only now are people starting to speak out and receive acknowledgement.
Open and honest discourse about sexual violence is the best way to start repairing our broken culture. We must be educated about consent. We must stop victim blaming. We must support survivors.
I know what you are thinking: We heard all this during freshman Opening Days. We hear the same advice on the news all the time. This is not revolutionary thinking here. You are right. Nothing I am saying is particularly enlightening in theory, but what about in practice?
What would you say if your best friend told you they had been assaulted? What about your girlfriend? Your boyfriend? That kid from your general education course you had lunch with a few times? And what if it is not just a one-time confession? What if they want to talk about it over the course of your friendship? How would you support them?
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. Every human being is unique, and different survivors need different forms of support. Nevertheless, there are a few good first steps to take.
Listen. Take in what they say, and give them a judgement-free space to talk. Try not to interrupt, even if the topic makes you feel uneasy. They need someone to whom they can open up.
Do not victim-blame. It may seem obvious not to blame the victim of a crime, but sometimes, when it comes to sexual violence, victim blaming is second nature. We may wonder if they were sober, if they agreed to go back to the other person’s place, or if they said “no” clearly enough. A million questions and scenarios may run through your mind. Do not ask them. Sexual violence is not the victim’s fault, and your role is one of comforting, not questioning.
Validate their trauma. Do not downgrade it by saying things could have been worse. No, not all sexual violence is equally severe, but all forms are deeply harmful to the victim. Saying their trauma was less significant because of the physical form it took can prove harmful.
Do not let personal feelings for the accused get in the way of supporting the victim. Considering seven out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, chances are high that you may know the perpetrator if you and your friend run in the same circles. Do not let personal attachment prevent you from being a support to someone who may really need you.
Do not take unilateral action. You may think that reporting the assault to your school or involving the police is an obvious step, but the decision is not yours to make. Some people prefer not to report. Some people prefer not to seek justice through legal means. For many, the process is too painful and not worth reliving their trauma. You may not agree with this choice, but you must respect it.
Supporting a victim of sexual violence is not easy, and should not be dismissed as an effortless part of being a friend. There is no shame in struggling to help in the right way.
I have been in this position, and it can be trying. Learning that someone you care about was violated is heartbreaking and infuriating. I got angry. I wanted the bastard to pay for what he did. I wanted the institution that allowed it to see consequences.
However, in my case, unleashing these emotions in front of my friend would not have been helpful. I needed guidance in order to provide support. Sometimes these topics are too heavy to handle on your own. I leaned on my mom, and she helped me to be a good ally. Telling someone helped ease the burden, and it made me feel like the responsibility was not mine alone. While I would never have told another friend, as the choice of whom to tell is the victim’s alone, for me, my mother was a confidential, outside party who could guide me. Finding outside help, be it a parent or counsellor or advisor, may be beneficial because dealing with sexual violence is difficult and uncertain territory for most people.
Sexual violence is never easy to confront. But we need to try. Start the conversation when you can, and be a listener when you need to be. We all must strive to be allies to those who have suffered, even when it is difficult. If we build networks of support, we can tear down the isolation and silence that perpetuate this epidemic.
Romy Dolgin ’20, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Lowell House.