The boyfriends’ (and girlfriends’) guide to #metoo
Talking about an incidence of sexual assault with your partner can be awkward. We asked some experts what to do—and what not to do.
Not very long ago, if you were a teenager whose coach was touchy, a jogger who’d been assaulted on the sidewalk, or an employee who’d been coerced by a boss, there was a good chance you would have mulled over what to do, considered how difficult life has been for women like Anita Hill or Kesha—who called out assailants and were promptly dragged through the mud for it—and concluded that the best course of action was probably to just stay quiet.
In October 2017, the hashtag #metoo went viral. A long list of powerful assaulters and harassers were outed, and the floodgates of silence were flung open. Women—and occasionally men—began talking more openly about experiences with assault and harassment, both in the media and in private conversations between friends.
But, even though the topic of sexual assault went quickly from being swept under the rug to being proclaimed in the headlines, discussing it can still be awkward.
“We are in a morass of weirdness and discomfort,” author Holly Weeks told the Harvard Business Review in December. “People are struggling terribly and so afraid they’ll make a mistake.” Weeks was talking specifically about communicating with coworkers. But it’s also easy to stumble when discussing assault with partners.
If you’re new to the idea of having upfront conversations about assault that don’t implode from awkwardness, don’t worry. Two local experts shared a few strategies that you can learn by the time you reach the end of this article.
Let’s start with accounts of people doing it wrong. Here are a few reports from women about what happened when they told a partner about a past assault:
“An ex-boyfriend responded to my stories with, ‘Wow, every woman I’ve been with has a similar experience. I must attract broken.'”
“One partner, female, said I shouldn’t have dressed so skimpy.”
“He was upset I hadn’t told him sooner. He said he would have killed [the perpetrator]. … I think he just felt helpless. Isn’t that how we all feel when someone we love gets hurt?”
“Most times, they just don’t listen. It’s like you’re speaking a different language. I don’t know if that means they don’t believe what you’re saying, can’t process it, or can’t handle it.”
“I’ve never once gotten a supportive or even satisfactory response. Mostly silence, sometimes changing the subject. It’s never brought up again. You can see why these things become like dirty secrets.”
“The male partners I’ve bothered to talk to about it pretty much just ignore it.”
OK, now we’ve got a good running start on how not to handle the situation. Here are a few more tips on what to avoid—and some specific strategies for how to be a good boyfriend or girlfriend if this topic comes up in your own relationship.
… Ask, “What were you wearing?” or “Were you drunk?”
“None of those are helpful,” said Anna Duffy, director of programs for Crisis Call Center’s Sexual Assault Support Services.
… Say you know how it feels
“I’ve never experienced a sexual assault before,” said Briana Younkin, sexual assault programming coordinator at Safe Embrace. “I sit there with girls and women who have experienced that. I can’t tell them, ’I understand where you’re coming from.’ That’s one of the biggest things. I think the right way to do it is just be honest with people.”
… Offer to go bust some heads
If you learn that your partner has been violated or hurt, your gut instinct might be to want to fix the situation or seek revenge. That’s a pretty common reaction.
“It might be a natural thought for people to be protective of a loved one,” said Duffy. “But it’s really up to the survivor to decide how they want to go forward. Being overprotective doesn’t necessarily help the survivor, and some of them may not even appreciate being treated like a kid or coddled.”
… Just listen
“Sometimes people just want to talk and have someone listen to them,” said Younkin. “She might not want advice. She might not want a counselor. She might just want to get it off of her mind.”
… Say the right thing
If you’re thinking by now that this topic seems like a minefield that you don’t even want to deal with, you’re in good company. Ignoring the disclosure or changing the subject because you don’t know what to say are common reactions. But that can just make people feel disregarded.
There really are a few right things to say. Younkin has your back on this one.
“One of the things I’ve learned to say is, ’I’m sorry to hear that,’” she said. “Also to say, ’I can’t imagine what that would feel like, but I’m here for you.’” For real—a lot of the time that is all it takes to let someone know you heard them.
… Ask what you can do
“Whether it’s a historical assault or a current assault,” said Duffy, some productive questions to ask are: “What can I do for you?” “What do you need?” “Would you like to talk with a therapist or counselor?”
… Take care of yourself, too
“Another thing people can do, if you’re going to be a support person—whether you’re a husband, a boyfriend, a family friend, a mother, a sister—is make sure to take time for yourself,” said Duffy. “It’s kind of like the airplane analogy with the air mask coming down, where you put the air on yourself before you put it on your child. You can’t help another person if you’re empty inside yourself or if you’re still trying to grapple and deal with the situation yourself.”
She said that rape crisis centers and sexual assault lines offer support and resources not only to assault survivors, but to friends and family members as well.
Call for help
Here are a few local resources to call if you or a partner or friend has experienced sexual assault:
Counseling Services, University of Nevada, Reno
Safe Embrace Crisis Hotline
Crisis Call Center/Sexual Assault Support Services