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How to Listen to Women When They Share Their Stories of Sexual Assault

Gentlemen, I come in peace. I’m not here to attack you; I’m here to be of assistance. In my experience, I don’t think anything makes a man feel more helpless than when a woman he loves — or even a stranger on the internet — shares her story (or stories) of being sexually assaulted, harassed, molested and/or raped.

Unfortunately, I speak from experience. I was raped, and every time the media exposes another lecherous Weinstein or Ailes, it triggers awful memories for me and millions of other women. It also triggers another round of conversations with the men in my life about what happened to me (as well as fresh conversations with the new men in my life).

Typically in these instances, they revert to doing what they know how to do best: solve problems. If they can’t fix it, they feel weak or helpless, which can lead to defensiveness and misunderstandings. I hear a lot of the same things from other women who have been raped or assaulted.

But here’s the thing: It’s not your job to fix a woman who’s been assaulted; she’s internalized enough shame without having to worry about you.

I understand the impulse, though. And in defense of these men, there’s no handbook for them about how to best communicate with us when we confess some of our deepest pain and trauma. So allow me to help start such a playbook by giving you some tips that may put you on the path to sensitively supporting survivors of sexual assault — online and off.

Resist the urge to be defensive. For some reason, particularly online, the knee-jerk reaction to women sharing their stories of assault is the cliché, “But not all men.” My non-expert opinion is that it’s a complex interplay of a guilty conscience, ignorance and powerlessness (more on that later). Recognize that saying something like, “But what about men who aren’t perverts and don’t abuse their power for sexual gratification?” instantly shifts the conversation from a woman opening up about her trauma to protecting you and your feelings. In this regard, always remember: THIS. ISN’T. ABOUT. YOU.

Don’t take it personally. One man said in response to a piece I wrote, “Stop making all men guilty for the crimes of a few.” Highlighting a problem doesn’t automatically lump you into the behavior. If I say, “People are starving,” I’m not blaming you for global food shortages and complex geopolitical forces out of your control. The same goes for when women highlight the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment we face daily. Try to respond to this crisis the same way you’d respond to others: “This is really upsetting. How can I be a part of the solution?”

Take her word for it. There are a million passive-aggressive variations of victim blaming — from “maybe it’s not as bad as you’re remembering it” to “whataboutism,” the Soviet-era habit of charging your opponent with hypocrisy in order to deflect from actually addressing the point. Personally, I constantly see gems like: “But what about all the rich and powerful women who are complicit in covering up for their bosses for 25 years because they wanted more power and wealth?” Or: “What about all the women who make this stuff up?” Then, of course, there’s good old-fashioned skepticism, usually wielded from behind the safety of anonymity: “You lying whore.”

Obviously, there are always exceptions, but for every false accusation, there are hundreds of real, unreported ones that are never resolved or come to light. So give her the benefit of the doubt.

Educate yourself. Before you say things like, “Why didn’t you come forward sooner?” I highly recommend you read up on topics such as secondary victimization, victim shaming, re-traumatization and PTSD. One of the best books I’ve read on the topic is The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. The psychology of each (more or less) is layer upon layer of stigmatization, shame, sexual taboos and institutionalized misogyny — to name a few. Truthfully, it deserves its own essay, but all you need to understand is: Even 20 years later it’s hard. There’s no good time. It’s always traumatic to come forward.

Check your privilege. If you flinched when you read this, I get it. I hate this phrase too, and I realize that it’s become like “thoughts and prayers” on white male ears. All I’m asking is that you think about the privilege you received physically when you were born a man. Living life as a woman is living life as prey. We don’t know that the man who catcalls us isn’t going to follow us home.

If you want to fall down a rabbit hole of what the daily experience for women is like, search the hashtag #YesAllWomen and read some of the accounts. Try to put yourself in our shoes. (In fact, thanks to virtual reality, this is becoming easier and easier to do.) Recognize that you aren’t living your life looking over your shoulder and that means you have an entirely different worldview.

Resist the urge to white knight. Without fail, almost every man I’ve been dating when I’ve told him about my rape has launched into, “Did he get prosecuted? Who is this asshole? Where is he? I’m gonna fucking kill him.” I give men the benefit of the doubt on this one because I know you want to get angry and the response is appropriate. Also, I get it, you want to show me how tough you are and how much you really care.

But when you’re all fired up and enraged, I’m suddenly taking care of your emotions. I’m calming you down. I’m appeasing you. I’m answering questions I don’t want to answer. Step outside of yourself when you’re feeling reactive and keep repeating the mantra, “This isn’t about me. This isn’t about me. This isn’t about me.”

Don’t push her to share more. Whatever a woman shares about her assault is what she shares. Don’t push her to share more or ask for details — they will come out over time, as she’s ready to reveal them. In many cases, the details are repressed and buried deep. I promise you whatever she’s sharing is exactly what she’s capable of sharing at that moment.

Resist the urge to say things like “as a husband” or “as a father of daughters.” I understand that your heart is in the right place and that thousands of years of evolutionary biology are at play. I also realize that when men have kids, especially girls, they suddenly see the world from a perspective of a woman in a way they didn’t before.

But it’s still machismo. And you’re still viewing assault through the lens of your emotional experience. You shouldn’t need daughters to know that sexual harassment is bad. The “as a father/husband/brother” qualifier is unnecessary. If you truly want to become part of the solution, try to view things from a woman’s emotional experience and see all women as people, not just the ones related to you.

Don’t tell women to “calm down.” Here’s a fun tip: If you’ve never been sexually assaulted, maybe hesitate before you tell those of us who have to chill out. From the time we’re little girls, we’re taught to behave, be quiet and not to make a fuss. If I fought every man who touched me while I was waitressing or grabbed me on a bus or at a bar, I’d be dead from exhaustion. We pick our battles — daily — and so when a nasty woman does rise up and make a ruckus, don’t be surprised when it unleashes decades of suppressed rage on behalf of women everywhere.

In fact, just shut up. I get it—you feel like a failure and you want to fix it. Or this topic makes you uncomfortable and requires self-examination. Or you want validation that you aren’t like that, so you interrupt women speaking out to get that validation. Whatever the reason, resist the urge. Silence, empathy and vulnerability are your best friends right now. Get comfortable sitting with discomfort and not filling space with words.

Listen. I mean really listen. Active listening. When you’re really hearing what a woman is saying without needing to comment, she will feel her experience and emotions are safe with you. You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to do anything. You’re simply holding space for the emotional distress she’s in.

Ask the right question. There’s only one: “How can I be supportive?”

Make compassion your default emotion. When someone dies, you don’t tell grieving friends or family to get over it, or that they’re overreacting. You treat them with compassion. Do the same for us. Check in. Ask us how we’re doing. Bring us food. If we’re not doing well, just say, “I’m sorry that happened to you. I can’t imagine what it was like. I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.” It’s that simple.

Seek outside support. Recognize that feelings of your own are going to come up and you should absolutely talk about them with someone. Just not her. Even if she asks for your opinion, the right thing to say is, “I’m going to take care of myself emotionally so I can be here for you.” Connect with resources like a therapist or your friends and family. You’re there for her; she cannot be there for you. Don’t put the responsibility of your emotions on her.

Remember your mantra: This isn’t about me.