Women's Freedom Center: If someone tells you "me too"

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With floodgates flying open, and record numbers of sexual assault victims from 85 countries coming forward to share their stories on Twitter, we'd like to offer some suggestions on how you can respond if someone confides in you. We all know survivors: one in five in women, and one in 71 men experience rape, and the numbers skyrocket even higher if you add other types of sexual assault and harassment.

As advocates, we work with all survivors. We see them sometimes just moments after an assault at the emergency room, or perhaps many years later, in a support group. And it's clear that at any point in their healing journey, the support of other trusted humans in their lives can have an enormous, even life-saving, impact. Moreover, `non-disclosing' survivors are all around us too (and have no obligation to ever share). Yet they're likely to be alert to, and affected by how we talk about rape culture in general, and current news in particular.

It's hard to imagine how these headlines might land for a survivor, but if someone reaches out to you, there are ways to help. First, believe your friend. Know that it's a mark of courage, and a sign of trust, to even share this traumatic experience with anyone. Sexual assault is still the least reported and most stigmatized crime in our culture. With the added layer of blame and shame that may be heaped on survivors, disclosure hasn't felt safe for many, or seemed worth the added risk and ordeal. So someone telling you "me too" may be breaking a hurtful silence, and overcoming a bit of isolation. You can say how sorry you are that the assault happened, and thank them for opening up about it. Also, if they're expressing any self-blame, please remind them that it's only perpetrators who cause an assault, and create victims — not the other way around. The victim is never to blame.

Let your friend go at their own pace, to share only what feels okay in that moment. It can be helpful to just let disclosure happen without asking questions or seeking further details, because even unintentionally, the wording of a question like "why did ...?" can feel like (or be) a note of blame. If your friend does invite a much fuller conversation, asking how questions is usually less fraught — how did they get through that experience, how have they been doing since then, or, what would feel supportive to them now, are all good ways to let them know that you care, and that you'll let them call the shots on both the content of sharing, and your connection going forward.

Whatever response you're able to offer, know that attentive listening, just bearing witness, is itself a gift. And whatever feelings you may have, please keep the focus on your friend during that exchange — they shouldn't have to worry about anyone else's coping with the news. Acknowledge the work they're doing to recover, and if you'd like some support around your friend's experience, please call us to talk about options. Likewise, you can remind your friend that they don't need to go it alone: we have a 24-hour hotline and an ongoing support group, among other resources.

Ultimately, survivors don't `have to' do anything, and it's vital that they're not nudged in any particular direction. They don't have to call the police unless they choose to. They don't have to personally shoulder the burden of "getting this guy off the streets." That's everyone's responsibility. Only survivors can decide what to do, and how to best heal themselves.

The Women's Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham and Southern Windsor County working to end domestic and sexual violence. Find the Women's Freedom Center on Facebook or visit at www.womensfreedomcenter.net. You can reach an advocate on our 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954.

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