Sarah Beaulieu struggled to find the right way to tell people she was a sexual assault survivor. Here’s how you can support someone who opens up about sexual assault.
As a survivor of sexual violence, I always found it challenging to “come out” to a potential love interest about my history. It never seemed to come up naturally in conversation on a date.
There is no right or wrong approach to telling a date that you are a survivor of sexual violence. It’s a completely personal decision, and you have to figure out what works for you. In college, one of my big motivations for sharing my story publicly at Take Back the Night was to share it with the entire universe of potential love interests all at once, so I didn’t have to tell it again and again every time I met someone new.
As the years went on, I experimented with many different tactics. Sometimes, I told people on the first date. Sometimes I told them BEFORE the first date. Sometimes I told them over coffee. Sometimes I told them after a second round of drinks. Sometimes, the relationship fizzled out before I had a chance to share my story at all.
On the one hand, I never felt like I wanted to hide my history of sexual violence from dates, just like I wouldn’t hide the death of a parent or a bad car accident. Being a survivor—and the resilience that goes along with it—is such a deep part of who I am. I knew I needed a partner with an appropriate level of spiritual depth, emotional intelligence, and empathy to join me on my lifelong journey of being a survivor. On the other hand, it was a personal story and one that I didn’t necessarily want to share in detail with someone unless I saw a future together.
Ultimately, I learned to open the door to my history a little bit at a time, in ways that tracked with the developing intimacy with the relationship. For example, I referred to “darker times,” or mentioned that I saw a therapist regularly. When I started volunteering at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center as a medical advocate and then as a survivor speaker, I found ways to drop volunteer experiences into the conversation. I found ways to start the conversation, and decided how deep I wanted to go based on the response.
As a survivor and as a human, I can only be the expert in my own experience. But throughout my decade of dating, I picked up a few pointers when it comes to encountering a survivor of sexual violence on a date.
DO educate yourself. If you have never encountered a sexual violence survivor, please, please educate yourself before going on any more dates. One out of four women and one out of six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Chances are, you will go on a date with a survivor, so do yourself and your future dates a favor and start learning about the issue now. There are lots of places where you can go educate yourself at a place like RAINN, National Sexual Violence Resource Center, or 1in6, and here’s a link to a fact sheet from the Center for Disease Control. That way, you won’t put yourself in the positions of asking your date to be your teacher and you are much less likely to say something that will later regret.
DON’T assume it’s baggage. I remember the look I would sometimes get from dates, “Oh god, this chick has baggage.” Newsflash: All humans have baggage, it’s what makes us human. Being a survivor of sexual violence does not make you inherently damaged. Sure, it’s a trauma, but with proper, professional help, survivors can live and thrive in the world. And like I now tell my husband when we go away for the weekend: I may have a lot of baggage, but I’m strong enough to carry it myself.
Don’t try to fix it. Even if this person is at the beginning of the process, you do not need to save or fix the person. Sure, sometimes the person sharing might be doing so because they need some help, in which case you can refer them to a professional. You are probably not a therapist. And even if you are, you are on a date, not in a therapy session. If you want to fix something, try fixing the issue of sexual violence by talking about it more openly, volunteering with an anti-sexual violence organization, or attending an awareness or prevention workshop or event.
Do say something. This might be obvious. But stunned, open-mouthed silence was something I encountered far too often. You might be afraid of saying the wrong thing, but say something, anything. Try saying thank you. Whether it’s the first time or the 50th time sharing a story of sexual assault, it’s a hard thing to do. This person trusted you—yes you!—enough to tell you, so be grateful—and pumped—that you are that kind of person.
Here are some other suggestions if you find yourself at a loss for words:
- Wow, thank you for telling me that. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for you.
- I’m so grateful you trusted me enough to share that part of your life.
- No one has ever shared that kind of story with me before, but I’m really glad you did. I know sexual violence impacts so many people.
- I’m so sorry that happened to you. What kinds of things helped you along the way?
Don’t put your foot in your mouth. If you have taken the time to educate yourself, you probably won’t say any of these things: What were you wearing? Why were you alone? Were you drunk? Was there a condom? Are you sure? That’s can’t be true. Who was it? How can you still speak to your family? Why didn’t you report it to the police? That must make sex really hard for you.
Do call to follow up. If you decide you don’t like the person enough to continue dating them, call them. Go the extra step to let them know that you think they are brave/courageous/insert true and positive adjective here but that you don’t feel that special something you want to feel in order to go out on another date. Don’t make your date wonder whether you thought he or she was damaged goods because of sexual violence.
Don’t blab. Keep his or her confidence, even if you don’t continue dating. While we continue to reduce the shame and stigma around sexual violence, it’s still a personal story. It’s not to announce to your friends and families, or to gossip about online or in person. Hold and honor this story with respect and confidence. It’s not your story to tell.
Now that I’m married, I don’t have to share my story on romantic dates, but I still meet new friends and colleagues all the time. And while I don’t have to tell them about my history of sexual violence, I often do because I think it’s an important way to make the issue more accessible and personal. By doing so, I hope to make it easier for friends, dates, and regular people to talk openly about the things that make them who they are.