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April 3, 2017

How do we Talk about Sexual Assault on Social Media?

I witnessed some interesting and somewhat troubling exchanges today on the ol’ Facebook.

The threads I saw reminded me of the challenges I faced a few years ago when speaking publicly about my experiences with sexual assault and the incredible frustration I felt about the way I was met (or more accurately, not) by others.

Yes, this is a uniquely challenging topic to discuss, especially in any kind of public forum. From what I’ve noticed, the only people who ever seem to write or speak about sexual assault are the victims themselves—sometimes not until years have passed.

That was one of the things that frustrated me most when I was in the midst of my own personal hell: “Why is everyone not talking about this?!? Why do I have to be the one to not only experience this incredible trauma, but then educate everyone about it??”

On those occasions when someone finally does break the silence, many of the responses are shockingly inappropriate. I saw some comments posted today that simply blew my mind in their ignorance and thoughtlessness. Still other people responded with stories of their own traumas of sexual assault, and others cast an inappropriate levity on the tone of the conversation. Unfortunately, none of this was new or unexpected information to me, as I had witnessed the same mind-blowing phenomenon in the responses I received to my story.

So, here are some things for you to consider when deciding if/how you are going to respond when someone posts something so incredibly vulnerable on social media.

Ask yourself:

What are my motives for responding to this post?

If it’s unconditional support and love, phrased in a compassionate way while holding a clear energetic container of whatever may or may not be coming up for you as a result, go ahead! If it’s anything else, ask follow-up questions.

Does this story trigger my own, personal wounds?

If so, please think carefully before responding. When reaching out from a place of trauma, even with the best of motives, it is possible to unintentionally burden the victim with your own story. This might sound like, “I’m a survivor, too. I experienced __________ and it was really hard.” This effectively makes the whole thing about you. It is always okay to ask for support, but ask somebody who is not in the midst of their own trauma. There are many resources available for survivors of sexual assault.

Am I offering unsolicited opinions?

These might take the form of judging the way in which the person chose to share their story, criticizing the way they are handling the situation, telling someone how they should move forward, and so on. I hope this should be obvious—do not respond.

Am I a dude?

Yes, I know that men can be victims of sexual assault as well, and women can also be perpetrators! However, statistically speaking, the person sharing their story is probably a woman who was assaulted by a man. Guys, please understand that your perspective will be different, merely by the fact that you have probably not spent most/all of your life living in a society that victimizes your gender.

Please hold this in mind when choosing how to respond. I have seen plenty of well-intentioned comments (especially from men) that came off as patronizing, unintentionally victim-blaming, or otherwise completely oblivious. All men can be amazing allies for the women who have experienced sexual assault—please respond from that place of empowered compassion and understanding of your perspective.

Am I specifically violating whatever requests the person may have made in sharing their story?

If so, do not respond.

Am I responding with a joke?

Unfortunately, this is a thing. Do not respond.

Am I questioning the validity of the person or their story?

Yes, this is also a thing. Do not respond.

“Okay, Michelle. Great advice. What might be some compassionate things to say that let the person know I support them without causing any unintentional harm?”

So glad you asked! Here are a few basic phrases to get you started:

>> I hear you.
>> You have my love and support.
>> I am sorry you experienced that.
>> If you feel called to extend an invitation: Please let me know if you need anything. I am available to talk.
>> If it feels appropriate to include this in the response (but don’t let this be the only thing you say): Thank you for sharing your story.

This is by no means a comprehensive document. In short, if you can respond from a place of compassion and support without imposing your views/opinions or making the situation about you while taking full responsibility to manage your own energy and reaction to the story, then go ahead!

If not, silence is probably the better option—not because you don’t care, but because it’s important to recognize that the victim should not have to be responsible for educating people about how to respond appropriately to their trauma, or managing the reactions of people who were triggered by their story.

I know it’s tough. This is one of those tricky, heavy topics that holds a lot of wounding for a lot of people. The best thing we can do is respond from kindness and compassion and continue to bring this topic out into the light. The more we talk about it, the less taboo it becomes. We all deserve that. All people deserve to have the opportunity to share their stories and trust that they will be held and supported. Let us hold each other in the light of compassion and offer love to those who bare their wounds.

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Author: Michelle Hawk

Image: elephant journal Instagram

Editor: Travis May

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