How To Support A Woman Who Has Been The Victim Of A Sexual Offence

The #metoo campaign has highlighted the shocking volume of women facing sexual harassment and assault in the UK. Here, leading female writers and campaigners share their view on the do's and don'ts of trying to help

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One in five women in the UK are victims of sexual offences, and with the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent #metoo campaign - in which thousands of women have shared their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault on social media - the issue is having an important and long overdue moment in the media spotlight.

The natural response for most men will be to ask themselves: what can I do to help? The broadest answer is simple, if sometimes surprisingly difficult: listen. Not to try and fix, fight or interrogate, but to offer support. But what does offering real support actually look like?

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Here, we've asked female writers who have campaigned on the issue to give us their view on what constitutes a helpful response from men trying to support a friend or partner who has been the victim of a sexual offence.

Below that you'll find a recommended reading list of recent articles which can help you gain a better understanding of a complex issue, and the person it is you're trying to help.

Don't say you want to enact revenge

"When someone you love is a victim of sexual violence, it's understandable to feel angry and upset. You might even fantasise about enacting revenge on the individual(s) responsible. For the victim, though, those sorts of comments are likely to only increase their stress and trauma. They may already feel guilty about how speaking out about their experiences has affected people around them.

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"As far as possible, try to focus on supporting them – allowing them to talk through their feelings if they want to, but also offering space if they require it. If they want to take their mind of things and concentrate on more pleasant topics, definitely don't bring it up yourself. And don't assume it means they're entirely recovered. Even years later, seemingly benign events can trigger unpleasant memories.

"If you need help working through your own feelings, perhaps try to find a trusted friend or family member you can talk with. The last thing I'll say is: please don't tell survivors they're reacting in the wrong way – that they're too angry, or not angry enough, or that they should otherwise be dealing with it differently. My partner has sometimes struggled to understand my conflicted feelings towards my attacker, but humans are complicated and it's not helpful to be told your emotions are somehow wrong."

- Abi Wilkinson

Little practical gestures can really help

"The best thing a male friend or boyfriend can do to genuinely support a woman who's been harassed or assaulted is make it extremely clear that he believes her. If she's spoken about it in any public capacity at all, someone will have accused her of lying; it's just a desperately sad inevitability. So she needs to feel validated and buoyed by the people in her life. Solidarity from women is incredibly important, but it really matters from men, too.

"When I spoke out recently, my boyfriend made a point of sending me little messages throughout the day to reiterate that he was proud of me and that he had my back. He also made me dinner and stepped up the cuddles - just basic reiterations of love. I've had little notes from men, both friends and strangers, saying they appreciate my bravery. It's helped enormously.

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"Ultimately, the issues here are extremely complex but the act of being supportive is quite simple. Understand that the woman in your life may be shaken, scared, and angry. It's not your place to fix the situation or take those feelings away. You can't. She will need time and space and if possible, justice, to heal. Being there for a drink, sending reminders that you're there for her and being willing to listen without judgment (and please, without sanctimonious advice) are little practical gestures that can really help.

"Go ahead and acknowledge how awful her experience must have been and how hard it must still be for her - like grief or depression, there's great relief in knowing you're not imagining the gravity of the situation. It's OK to say "I don't know what to say, but it must've been awful and I'm here for you". Every woman is going to be different in the her need for support, so it's actually also OK to just ask her what she needs. It might be a hug, it might be someone to accompany her to the therapist, it might be a cupcake and a distracting story. You can just ask, if it doesn't come intuitively to you. That's so much better than being paralysed by not knowing what to do."

- Kate Leaver

Survivors still want to enjoy sex - with someone who respects their boundaries

"The stigma of sexual assault is suffocating. You want to shout it from the rooftops, castrate, scream and cry but the shame is so overwhelming it stops you dead in your tracks. Many of us lock the experience away in a Pandora's box or downplay the severity in our heads. Both legally and culturally the system is rigged against women so that we blame ourselves.

"When we do tell the men in our lives it's too often met with pity. Despite the most sincere platitudes, the contempt men are socialised to have for a woman's sexual history translates into a lingering sense that to have survived rape or assault is to be "damaged goods". You are tarnished in the most humiliating way possible.

"While it's true sexual assault is something that stays with you no matter what, it should not be a life sentence. When I can't sleep I'll think about it. Every time I wash, the scars are there, though they've faded. But I am still me. I am not and will never be defined by what I've experienced.

"Chances are you have already been intimate with someone who has been assaulted. However, I can understand why it's hard to reconcile that a woman would want to return to the very situation in which they were violated. But every single person who has survived rape or sexual assault wants to return to a modicum of normality, no matter how difficult getting there is. And for many that means being an adult human being who wants and enjoys sex, with someone who respects her boundaries be it long term or for one night."

- Jo Fuertes-Knight

Try not to ask intrusive or provocative questions

"Taking the time to let your friends know that you're willing to listen to them can go a long way – and that's listening without adding qualifiers, without asking intrusive or provocative questions, without even a hint of playing "devil's advocate". What women need when talking about their own experiences of assault is not a debate – or, perhaps even worse, a lecture – on the wider politics of misogyny: we just want to be heard.

"Which means the most important thing you can do to support women's voices in these conversations is simply believing us. Believing that what we're saying is true, believing that things really are as bad as we've been telling you they are, believing that our experiences didn't just happen the way we said they did but happened full stop. The stories women are telling about assault aren't new: what's new is how much attention they're being paid. It's vital we don't let that opportunity go to waste."

- Emily Reynolds

Suggested reading

Here are some articles written by women - including the contributors above - that we have found insightful and helpful in recent weeks. If you agree, please take the time to share them with your social followers and friends.

5 numbers to remember when you read a woman's account of sexual assault

Amelia Tait, Newstatesman

We're all mad here: Weinstein, women, and the language of lunacy

Laurie Penny, Medium

Yes, we all know

Stephanie Boland, Medium

How men like Harvey Weinstein implicate their victims in their acts

Jia Tolention, New Yorker

Short cuts

Lucy Prebble, London Review of Books

The culture of shame around sexual assault is not just Hollywood's problem

Abi Wilkinson, Huck

What happens when you publicly name a man when discussing #MeToo?

Kate Leaver, The Pool

An incomplete list of all the men in the media who have wronged me

Emily Reynolds, Medium