A staggering 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men report experiencing sexual harassment and/or assault at some point in their life. Given how prevalent these experiences are, there’s a chance you might match with someone on Bumble who’s a survivor. Knowing what to do or say in these situations can be tricky, whether you’ve been on one date with the person or 20. Bumble talked to some experts to get their best advice on how to be supportive when dating someone who is a sexual assault survivor. Read on to learn how to build a connection and relationship in a way that’s best for both of you.
Lead with compassion
When someone is opening up to you about something traumatic they experienced, like a sexual assault, it can be easy to let your emotions of shock, anger, and disbelief show through. But what they really need in that moment after they share their story with you is compassion. “It takes a lot to share that kind of intimate detail and be that vulnerable with someone, so it’s an honor when someone does that,” says Jake Crowther, communications associate for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Before continuing with the conversation, make sure you take a moment to thank them for sharing and acknowledge how difficult the experience and talking about it must be for them.
Let them share at their own pace
The most important thing when supporting any sexual assault survivor, according to Louise Curtis, therapist partner for online trauma support platform Bloom, is to make it clear to them that you believe them and know they aren’t at fault for what happened to them. What you don’t want is to make them feel as if they are being interrogated or pressured to answer for the experience. That’s why Curtis recommends letting survivors share at their own pace, and resisting the impulse to push for any additional details. Just talking about it can cause their “trauma response to kick in,” Curtis explains, “potentially causing them to disassociate or panic.” Help them restore the sense of control that was taken away from them by allowing them to lead the conversation.
Ask how you can best support them
Every sexual assault survivor will move forward in their own way, which means the support they want will be just as individualized. That’s why Crowther says it’s best just to ask the person you’re dating how you can best support them. “As the conversation is winding down, it’s okay to ask them, ‘How can I support you in this?’” he says. Is this something they might want to talk about later? Do other people know, or should you keep it to yourself? Would they like your help researching therapists or support groups to talk to? Would they prefer that you do nothing and allow them to heal in their own way? Then, whatever they say, make sure you follow through. “That gives them agency and control over what happens during that moment, and also after they share,” Crowther explains.
Keep checking in
It can feel awkward to bring up “heavy” topics with someone you’re dating, especially if your relationship is new. But continuing to check in is the best way to support someone who’s experienced a sexual assault; it demonstrates that you care and aren’t going anywhere. Crowther recommends choosing a setting that allows for “privacy, intimacy, and comfort,” like going for a walk or inviting them over for a chat. Use direct language, like: “We had a pretty tough conversation last week. How are you doing emotionally and physically?” That way, you avoid any confusion. “If you’re being direct and open, they may feel more comfortable being direct and open with their response,” says Crowther. And if they say they don’t want to talk about it, that’s okay. Let them know you’re ready to listen when they’re ready to share, then move on to other topics.
Have an honest conversation about intimacy
Another follow-up conversation to have if you’re dating a sexual assault survivor revolves around sex and intimacy. As always, consent is paramount, and especially in this case, it’s necessary to have a conversation about desires and boundaries. Start out by letting them know their comfort and safety are important to you and ask them if there’s anything you should avoid or that might be triggering for them. “The person you’re with might seem okay to go along with what’s happening in the moment,” Curtis points out. “But actually, they could be completely frozen or compliant because that’s what their brain is telling them to do in order to survive.” In addition to establishing boundaries before getting closer, make sure you keep checking in throughout. “If you’re not getting much of a response, take that as a no, they’re not okay,” Curtis advises. Maintain patience and understanding, and maybe consider coming up with a code word for them to let you know they aren’t comfortable.
Sexual assault can have a lasting impact on survivors and their relationships. Having honest conversations and continually checking in can help you support them as a partner. And together, you can build a loving and happy relationship.
If you or someone you know needs support, Bumble has partnered with Chayn to offer courses that support survivors of sexual assault and relationship abuse on their healing journey through our online platform Bloom. You can access the free self-guided courses and 1:1 chats with Bloom’s gender-based violence experts here. For those in the US, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has advocates available 24/7 via call and text. For international resources, see here.