What to say (and not say) to people who've been sexually assaulted


The disturbing trend of unsolicited advice started soon after I walked into a Long Island City police station. There, I told officers about the man on the 7 train who felt entitled to reach up my dress, and cup his hand around my vagina during rush hour.

“What were you wearing that day?” the officer taking my report asked.

I paused, taken aback by his very first question. On my way to the station, I mentally rehearsed a succinct description of the assailant in question (a heavy, middle-aged man wearing a red T-shirt and khaki shorts). I didn’t immediately see how my clothing fit into the investigation, but told police I was wearing a dress.

“Look,” the officer continued. “You seem like a nice girl who smiles in public and makes eye contact with people on the train. From now on, don’t.”

While this wasn’t the reaction I expected (or hoped for) from the New York Police Department, it was less distressing than the well-meaning, but patronizing, “advice” given by family, friends, and acquaintances.

Such common-sense suggestions are fine if you’re telling a sick person to rest and drink plenty of fluids, but not so much if you’re telling a sexual-assault survivor all the ways they could’ve avoided an attack.

Your “tips” only serve to stigmatize and shame us.

Trust me: At this stage, we’ve gone over the incident in our head hundreds of times, obsessing over everything we said and did, imagining every possible scenario where the assault didn’t happen. Your “tips” only serve to stigmatize and shame us.

Doling out this kind of “advice” conveys two messages: first, that we’re somehow too stupid to know about these so-called precautionary measures; and second, that the assault was our fault because we could’ve prevented it.

Everyone I told about the NYPD’s victim-blaming could tell it left me feeling even worse, so I was shocked that those who knew me personally reacted much the same way.

Given that people are so eager to give advice to survivors of sexual assault, here’s a list of everything you should (and shouldn’t) say:

1. Don’t ask us what we were wearing
For some reason, my outfit on the day of the assault was of utmost importance to the officers investigating my case. When I told them I was wearing a dress, one very helpfully informed me that “wearing dresses makes it easier for subway perverts to grab your crotch.” But we can’t go back in time and change our outfit—nor should we have to.

2. Don’t comment on our weight
My weight was a frequent topic of discussion that day at the police precinct. One officer said many men like “larger women,” which makes me an easy target for gropers. He didn’t specify whether this was because we literally have more surface area to grope, or because of our supposed lower self-esteem, but he casually mentioned that losing weight could help me avoid similar situations in the future.

3. Don’t tell us to buy or carry a weapon
Suggestions I received after my assault included (but weren’t limited to): carrying a gun and/or pepper spray, hitting the assailant with a heavy handbag, and walking around with my keys in hand, pointing outwards at all times. Telling survivors that they should buy or carry a weapon rests on too many assumptions: one, that we’re comfortable carrying and using it, and two, that the assailant isn’t armed. If everyone who took public transit carried a gun and fired anytime they felt an inappropriate touch, our commutes would be deadly to say the least.

4. Don’t ask why we didn’t get a photo of the assailant
One officer asked if I was able to snap a photo of my assailant mid-grope. Again, I was caught off-guard by his question. At that moment on the subway, my first and only thought was to get out of the car—not rummage through my bag for my phone. When I said I hadn’t, the officer’s face fell, and he informed me that in the future, “it would really be helpful and make things easier if you were able to take a picture of the guy.”

I didn’t realize that having a phone with photographic capabilities put the onus on me to initiate my own investigation.

5. Don’t force us to explain every little detail so you can pinpoint what we did wrong
One of the first questions the officer asked me was about my location in the subway car. When he found out I was standing up during rush hour, the officer told me that in the future, it’d be better if I sat down, thereby making my vagina less accessible to the public.

6. Do tell us that you’re sorry it happened
This may seem obvious or simple, but you’d be surprised by how seldom people told me “I’m sorry that happened to you.” It should, however, be your default response. When in doubt, a simple “I’m sorry” is compassionate without being accusatory or condescending, and allows us the opportunity to elaborate if we want to—or just move on. If you can’t say something supportive, don’t say anything at all.

7. Do say you believe us
Chances are, survivors have been blamed every step of the way—and that includes self-blame. Although well-meaning, all the aforementioned questions about attire, weight, and location puts the onus on us to prove we weren’t doing anything to encourage the assault.

In addition to victim-blaming, survivors are sometimes accused of fabricating their assault. But we don’t, in fact, secretly plot to ruin the reputations of innocent people. Even by publicly discussing the assault, survivors know they run the risk of being criticized, so why go through all that just to ruin someone’s rep? What could we possibly gain from that?

So, don’t underestimate the simple act of saying you believe and support us.

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer who specializes in reproductive and sexual health ethics, the ethics of human enhancement, and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Salon, The Establishment, Ms., and Refinery29.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin