What To Say When Someone Tells You They've Been Sexually Assaulted Or Harassed

There's a good chance you saw someone you know post the hashtag #MeToo on social media this weekend. In response to the growing number of women coming forward about Harvey Weinstein, people have been using #MeToo as a way to share their own experiences with sexual assault and/or harassment, and to "give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem," as Alyssa Milano wrote on Twitter.

Using the simple hashtag gives people an opportunity to share their experiences without disclosing all the details of what happened to them, which can be empowering for some people, says Rachel Goldsmith, LCSW-R, associate vice president for the Domestic Violence Shelter Programs at Safe Horizon. "But I want to caution us not to think better or worse of someone who chooses not to participate in this," Goldsmith says. And as people on Twitter have pointed out, just because someone posted #MeToo, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're ready to share their whole story. "It's important that survivors are given choices to do what they want to and disclose when they choose to in their lives," Goldsmith says.

Of course, it can be jarring to see people you know — friends, family members, distant acquaintances, coworkers — coming forward about their experiences with sexual assault or harassment on social media. "It's not always easy to know what to say when someone tells you they've experienced sexual assault or harassment, especially if that person is a friend or loved one," says Sara McGovern, a spokesperson for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).

So, ahead are some tips from Goldsmith and McGovern for how to handle the tough but important conversations sparked by #MeToo.

If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

I appreciate that you told me.

"I appreciate that you told me."

It's important to communicate that they can trust you, and that you're glad they felt comfortable sharing with you, Goldsmith says. Let them know that there's no pressure to share more until they feel absolutely ready, she says.

You can get counseling and support whenever you're ready.

"You can get counseling and support whenever you're ready."

Every survivor has their own story and their own experience, and they have different needs at different times in their life, Goldsmith says. Regardless of when this person experienced sexual assault or harassment, remind them that they have access to counseling whenever they choose to be ready. And be patient, because if they're not ready to explore further, that's okay too.

I'm here to listen.

"I'm here to listen."

Acknowledge their bravery in telling you, because survivors often feel ashamed or embarrassed when telling others about their experience. "One of the most important things you can do is believe your friend, and listen to them," McGovern says. "For a survivor, disclosing can be difficult, even to a close friend, so it's important to be as supportive and non-judgmental as possible."

You are not alone in this.

"You are not alone in this."

Thankfully, #MeToo has given people a tangible sense of just how many people have been affected by sexual assault and harassment. But in the heat of the moment, it can be helpful to remind someone that this is an experience that many people have had, and that they are not alone, Goldsmith says.

What can I do for you?

"What can I do for you?"

If you saw someone close to you (like a family member) post about #MeToo, and you want to reach out to show your support, the best way to do that is to ask them what you can do to help, Goldsmith says. They may not be ready to tell you the rest of their story, but the most important thing is that they know you're willing to listen if and when the time comes.

Your feelings are valid.

"Your feelings are valid."

People deserve the same attention and support regardless of how "big" or "small" their experience was, Goldsmith says. "If someone has gone through an experience of sexual assault or sexual harassment, it can have a lasting impact on that person," she says. "They may choose to seek support to heal and move forward from that experience — and both are traumas, and you can have very similar reactions to different traumas."

There are resources available to you.

"There are resources available to you."

Again, it's crucial that survivors understand they are given choices for when and if they disclose, Goldsmith says. Let them know that there are 24-hour hotlines that they can call or text for confidential help. When they call, they won't be forced to do anything that they're not ready for — experts are on-hand to support during a crisis or long afterwards.

If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).