What do we lose when we always support survivors who disclose?

Short answer: Nothing.

Every so often when discussing rape, someone will bring up the myth that zillions of women falsely report rapes and ruin the lives of trillions of amazing men who have never even so much as hurt a fly. Involved in this myth, they will accuse the persons who are contradicting those myths of convicting all persons accused of sexual assault of being guilty before any evidence is weighed.

That's largely not what supporting survivors is about, not least of all because we know most survivors do not report the crimes committed against them to the police and that these cases will never be tested through the courts.

What is meant by believing and supporting survivors always, is that it takes nothing away from us to listen to people's disclosures and sit with them in that moment and support them. Maybe you don't believe everything they're telling you. Maybe what they're saying sounds too far-fetched that you don't understand how it could happen. That's really immaterial, because their disclosure isn't about you.

Going through crisis line training taught me a lot about feminism, and the legal system, and about abuse and it's forms and tolls it takes. The most important thing that I feel I took away from all of it, though, is how to be a better friend. To be a good crisis line volunteer and a good friend, we need to stop talking and start listening. It's ok to not have all (or any) of the answers. In many cases, just having someone to listen and bear witness to their disclosure is what survivors are looking for. Someone to believe them, not interrupt them or interrogate them, just to listen to them.

I know that it's hard for many of us to turn off that part of our brains that wants to fix things and make everything all better. But, just because we mean well, it doesn't mean we have all the answers or that we can reasonably kludge together a workable solution.

One line that gets repeated over and over to crisis line volunteers to help us turn that off is: people are the experts in their own lives. Seriously. We may be able to come up with potential solutions, and we can certainly recommend them, but in the end the person we are giving the advice to knows a heck of a lot better whether or not that will work. Or if they're willing to try to make it work. Or if trying that will put them in further danger. Or if you are completely off base and have no idea what you're talking about.

Let's try to put this theory into an example:
  • Person 1: Last night at the party our friend did stuff to me I'm not cool with.
  • Person 2: I'm sorry to hear that. Are you ok?
  • Person 1: I'm not sure. I'm really hung over and feel like shit. I don't know entirely what happened, but I just feel really weird and have been getting these flashes from last night of them doing things that I know I wasn't ok with.
  • Person 2: Do you want me to come over and bring you hangover foods or take you someplace? Do you want to go to the hospital or the police? What can I do to be helpful right now?
  • Person 1: No, I don't want to go to the police or the hospital. If something happened it's my word against theirs. Did you see anything happen to me last night? I don't remember if you were there.
  • Person 2: No, I'm sorry, I didn't. I was there until the end, but I was drinking, too, and don't remember much of the night.
  • Person 1: Ok. I don't know, maybe I'm crazy.
  • Person 2: I don't know what happened, but I can come over and sit with you and try to help you figure it out if you like.
  • Person: Yeah, I would like that. Thanks.
After a conversation like that, Person 1 is quite possibly having a bit of a meltdown and freaking out. Hearing these kinds of disclosures from strangers is difficult, and from friends and loved ones it can be absolutely heart-breaking. The urge to fix and to come up with the solution that makes everything better may feel neigh on irresistable, but this isn't something that can be fixed. Any solutions are up to the person making the disclosure.

Alternatively, maybe you're not heartbroken. Maybe you don't believe the person, maybe you think they're blowing things out of proportion. Maybe you're worried about them falsely accusing someone of something. This still isn't about you. Consider what your priorities are. If your priority is supporting your friend, just be there. Just listen. If your priority is to go over there and gaslight this person and bully them into making sure they don't tell anyone about what happened to them, it's ok to sit this one out. If you cannot possibly manage to just sit on your hands and listen, you don't have to get involved, and it's probably better if you don't pretend you're emotionally mature enough to try.

If you are prepared to support your friend, confidentiality is super important. This person chose you to disclose to. Not the whole world. If you want to talk to someone else about it (which is entirely reasonable, because handling disclosures is hard and it hurts like hell), then I recommend calling your local rape crisis line or speaking to a counsellor. It's ok if you're not the one who was victimized. They can provide you with resources to pass along, they can support you in your feelings, and they can listen this time as it's your turn to vent.

The reason I don't recommend talking to other friends or family members about the friend's disclosure, is that unless you know that the second person won't gossip, you could be doing far more harm than good. Your friend that disclosed has no reason to be ashamed of suspecting someone assaulted them, but that doesn't mean there aren't people who will use that against them. We don't always know who those people are, either, until they've proven themselves to be untrustworthy.

If you are lucky enough to not be familiar with some of the not-ok and really selfish and fucked up ways people react when they're informed of abuse, here are some articles from Captain Awkward that will be eluciding (and quite possibly unspeakably infuriating):

#209: My mom is pressuring me to invite my molester to my wedding, and it sucks BIG TIME.

Reader question #87: How do I talk about a molesting grandparent?

#393: My friends keep inviting my abusive ex and me to the same parties, despite being asked directly not to.

I think that the last post is especially relevant to this issue of supporting survivors regardless of how they've personally decided to deal with the person who victimized them. It's so frustrating that sometimes people aren't willing to even go the tiny step of not insisting someone is forced to be around the person who has assaulted them.

Whatever could be lost by respecting the survivor's requests and boundaries is surely far less substantial than what is lost by feigning ignorance. When so much more should be expected, the least (seriously, the very least) we can do is listen to people and not put them in harm's way.

Thanks for hanging in there with me through this heavy topic. Here's some MST3K and lolcats.


  1. Thank you very much for writing this post. Very recently, someone whom I thought was my friend confronted me in an extremely aggressive manner, shaming me and bullying me, expressing over and over that they didn't believe our mutual friend did anything to me and that I was lying about the whole thing to "seek vengeance because the rapist didn't want a relationship". I clarified that I'd never wanted a relationship with the rapist but that didn't seem to matter because our mutual friend was in complete denial.

    I have never in my life felt so shamed, belittled and utterly beaten down as I did after the repeated attacks by this mutual friend who refused to believe someone they knew could be a rapist.

    Your post is validating and something I very much needed to read. Thanks again.


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