“My Dad used to make do things I didn’t want to.”
“My co-worker stares at my breasts, and it makes me uncomfortable.”
“My boss tried to make stay after work, and then he pushed himself onto me.”
These are the stories and traumas of many female clients with whom I’ve worked and helped. While on occasions men have shared stories with me about being sexually abused, harassed or taken advantage of – more than 90% of my clients who have these stories are women.
As a man, it makes me sad to know that every day women are being abused at work, home, and on the streets. As a counselor, it saddens me that we still have such a long way to go before men understand healthy relationship dynamics. As a husband, it brings up a whirlwind of emotions to have heard how my wife to has been abused by men.
In today’s article, I’d like to give men, whether you’re a son, co-worker, husband, or friend – I want to provide you with some suggestions on what to do when a woman shares with you how she’s been harassed or abused.
I’ve chosen to discuss this topic today because I’ve seen too many ill-equipped men be confronted with these stories. The many emotions that arise as a caring man when listening to the battle scars of women are complex and can quickly derail the privilege you’ve been given when a woman feels safe enough to open up to us about this topic of abuse.
The First Step
To Helping Someone Recover After Sexual Abuse And Sexual Harassment
Some years ago a friend of mine told me how his girlfriend had been abused by her uncle. Despite the positive element that his partner had opened up, he felt perplexed about how to best support her. Although he wanted to listen, he felt uncomfortable, angry and overtaken by his emotions. The resulting argument that ensued after he shared further confused him and brought him to tears.
When I inquired about what he did, he said, “After she told me, I felt angry and told her I wanted to kill her uncle.” He felt confused as to why she wouldn’t want her relative beat to a pulp, but instead, she was defending him.
Feeling confused and distraught, he asked me for advice. While I wanted my input to be simple, it wasn’t. When listening to him, I could tell that her trauma had become his. I felt and saw that what clinicians call, “Secondary Trauma.” Now, just like her, he was feeling similar sensations that a victim feels when they are traumatized. His trauma had become his, and now it was a secondary trauma that impacted his ability to help her heal.
While he may have thought it was productive to show his anger towards her attacker – it was counterproductive. In many cases being empathetic is like salve to wound, but when it turns into taking in the other’s feelings so deeply that you can’t separate your experience from theirs – it becomes detrimental. In his efforts to protect her from a past wound, he was recycling the pain and escalating it to a more grave sentiment. Instead of reacting to her story, he would have done best by following these suggestions – while they may seem confusing – trust me, they will help you immensely. In my line of work I’ve heard the worst of the worst stories that range from kids being sodomized by their parents, co-workers being coerced to do things to keep their jobs, to the smallest of wounds – and in each case, the healing solution is the same.
My friend wanted to offer his girlfriend healing, but by getting upset, he only escalated her shame, guilt, and pain. To help him I suggested that he calm himself down, remind himself that it happened to her and not him. I listened to his frustration to give him the palpable experience of what the most healing solution is when our partner tells us they were sexually molested, harassed or hurt by someone.
If a woman in your life comes to you and shares that she was sexually harassed, abused, or sexually coerced – your first and most healing response is to listen. Empathize and ask questions. Fight the strong urge to immediately fight their battle – you can do this later. Despite your well-meaning intentions, when you barge into talking about how you’re going to fight and take action to protect her and retaliate – it doesn’t help the situation. When you stop that urge and just listen and empathize with her pain, you give your partner space to open up, feel the sadness and you help her expel all the hurt associated with being abused. Healing first starts here and later you can move towards actions that will protect her.
The Second Step
What To Say When She Tells You She Was Sexually Abused And Harassed
If you imagine your listening to being like a soft blanket being placed over a cold-wound, you can help your partner open up. Now consider that your words of love and understanding are a sweet song that calms her and tells her she’s safe – no one will hurt her. If you’re unsure of what to say, you can try simple and yet powerful phrases such as;
“Honey, I am sorry someone hurt you. You know I love you, and it’s not your fault. That should have never happened to you; I am sorry someone took advantage of you. What else would you like me to hear about what happened?”
These words of acknowledgment work to help your partner feel safe. By sharing her wounds, she exposed herself and when you respond with love, empathy, listening, and attention – you tell her that she is safe. If you react with anger, you only trigger her wounds and force her to shell up and feel further shame.
When you listen, hold her, ask her what she needs and give her loving-presence and tenderness – you communicate to her that she’s safe. She does not have to feel the pain anymore, and the world is safe.
After you’ve listened, you can ask how she’d like your support. Now is still not the time for action. If it’s imminent that you take action and make a report, then do that, but often it’s not what she’ll want nor is what is most healing at first. If the attack had recently happened, I would still advise you ask her or inform her that you need to take action. In many cases, she will fight it, and it may not be the best initial response. I call on you to make this decision and consider my advice her when I say that your first line of help is listening and making her feel safe. In some instances, the abuser may no longer be in her life, and the only thing you can do is listen and offer love.
If the scenario is recent and something like an issue at work – I’d still advise you first to make your partner (friend, or coworker) feel safe. Once you’ve done this you can suggest she reports it, you can push the topic and even let her know you feel compelled to stand up for her. She may need your help but start with listening.
As a former counselor, most stories I hear are ones that happened a long time ago. There is not much I could do if I were to report it wouldn’t do anything. Similarly, if I were to retaliate, it may be of no use because the issue occurred so long ago.
In my experience, when talking to a victim of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, or molestation the best way to help is to listen – then after that, I can begin to offer advice which will be listened and acted upon.
In my previous work as a Director, Manager, or Team Leader, I was obligated to take action. While I may have listened, empathized and cared for my employee through attentive listening – I still followed up with the appropriate action of reporting it and if needed firing the offender. That being said, the reports that came across my desk only arrived because staff trusted me to listen and make them feel safe. If I hadn’t helped them feel that safety first, they would not have felt secure reporting such severe work issues.
If you want to help your partner heal from any sexual wound, start by letting her know she’s safe now, you love her, and that it’s not her fault. Give her space to share and allow her to open.
The Third Step
Tell Her Thanks For Sharing And That It’s Good She Opened Up
When we are abused, there’s this weird thing that happens – we often feel like it’s our fault. Just like a child who is hit for being bad and he feels guilty – an abuse victim somehow twists the strange experience into, ‘it’s my fault.’
When we let our partner that everything is ok, that we are not angry at them and that we welcome them sharing – we communicate to them, it’s not their fault. We also begin the healing process that can later lead them to be empowered to take action.
If we want our partner to feel safe enough never to let such abuse happen, we have first to help them feel secure sharing that they were abused. According to research 2 out of 3 sexual assaults go unreported. My theory is that most victims don’t feel safe talking about what happened, they stay scared and never really recover. When someone shares with you what happened, the healing starts with your listening and your words.
The Fourth Step
Take Action And Help Your Partner, Friend Or Co-Worker Be Protected, So It Never Happens Again
It’s important we’re clear here – I’ve saved this step for last. In most cases, it’s our tendency as men to jump straight here – but healing doesn’t happen here. There’s never been a case where the full healing happened here. That being said, there have been many situations where this had to happen, and I am not saying don’t report the incident or take decisive action to protect your partner, spouse, friend, or co-worker. I am simply saying often the solution of taking action won’t truly help if you can’t first listen and help your partner open up.
When a relationship, professional or intimate, is founded on first creating safety and trust – there is much more room for all types of healing and opening to occur.
The actions you can take are fairly straightforward. Report the situation to the police, file a complaint at work and tell the superiors and escalate if necessary, leave the job or company, or ask to be moved into a position where the victim and attacker are not working together. As a bystander, it can be hard to idly sit by while your partner, co-worker or friend navigates what’s best. In some cases you may need to step in, I encourage you to only once you’ve fully heard what’s happening and you’ve listened to my above advise.
If the situation of abuse is happening to your daughter than by all means listen and take fast action. But even then, action won’t cure the trauma that has already occurred. If it’s happening to your wife or co-worker I encourage you first to follow my above advice and then take action as needed – if you do as I’ve suggested you will be met with more cooperation by the person who told you what happened.