How To Respond If Your Partner Has Been Sexually Assaulted Or Harassed
News of widespread sexual assault and harassment allegations against film executive Harvey Weinstein has prompted more and more victims to come forward by the day.
Actress and director Asia Argento, one of more than 20 women who have spoken out about their experiences, has had a fierce defender in her camp: Boyfriend Anthony Bourdain.
“I am proud and honored to know you,” the celebrity chef tweeted on Tuesday, alongside a link to The New Yorker exposé Argento was interviewed for. “You just did the hardest thing in the world.”
Bourdain’s support of Argento highlights an important, but rarely discussed side of sexual assault and harassment: How spouses and partners of victims respond and support their significant others.
While there’s no “right” way to respond, there are things you can do that are helpful rather than hindering. Below, therapists and experts in sexual abuse share seven tips.
Many abuse survivors doubt the severity of what happened to them or feel like they’re somehow to blame because of what their abuser told them or made them feel in the aftermath of the incident.
As their partner, your job is to listen, be in their corner and remind them that you believe them, 100 percent, said Virginia Gilbert, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, California.
“Survivors’ self-doubt and shame grows exponentially if their family or culture colludes with abusers ― if everyone around the survivor normalizes and enables abuse,” she said. “The first step in helping your partner heal is to validate their experience by calling out abuse.”
That means talking about what happened in matter-of-fact terms, Gilbert said: “You were raped;” “People knew what was happening to you and didn’t stop it;” “You were in a vulnerable position and were afraid of the consequences if you spoke up.”
That kind of directness can help clear up any self-doubt your partner may be experiencing in the wake of the abuse.
The revelation will very likely leave you feeling shaken up. While it’s natural to feel protective and react with anger, remind yourself to stay calm. The last thing your partner needs is to feel like they need to support you emotionally now instead, said Martha Lee, a Singapore-based clinical sexologist and relationship coach.
“It’s very important that they feel heard and that there’s space for them to articulate what happened and how they feel,” she told HuffPost. “You don’t want your reaction to make it about you because that can short-circuit their processing and healing process. Just listen. Sometimes, just telling yourself, ‘this is not about me’ can help.”
Don’t try to downplay what happened or worse, suggest your partner could have done something differently to avoid the situation, said Laura Palumbo, the communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
“You may think you’re trying to help by saying, ‘I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that,’ but instead, it just makes them question their perceptions or feel silly for sharing. It’s better to say supportive things like, ’I believe you’ or ‘You did nothing wrong and I am here for you.’”
Sexual assault and harassment disempowers victims and emboldens abusers. That’s why it’s so important to remind your partner that they’re not powerless, said Sandra Henriquez, the CEO of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
“If a physical assault occurred within the last 72 hours, contact a local sexual assault agency for guidance and advocacy in dealing with hospitals and law enforcement,” she said. “Remind your S.O. that there are avenues for redress that are available when they feel ready and able to explore those options.”
And regardless of when the assault happened, free and confidential counseling is always available through local rape crisis centers. For a full list of crisis centers and hotlines for sexual assault survivors, head here.
Accusing someone ― especially a higher-up at work ― of sexual abuse is not easy. Recognize the difficulty your partner may feel in bringing charges or coming forward, said Janet Brito, a psychologist and sex therapist at the Center for Sexual and Reproductive Health in Honolulu, Hawaii
“There could be apprehension since it’s not uncommon for others to deny the victim’s experiences or minimize it,” she said. “Ask your S.O. what you can do to make them feel supported and respect the choices they make along the way. The goal is to limit your opinions about what you think is best for them and not pressure them.”
Your support likely means the world to your partner. That said, don’t be afraid to say something if you feel overwhelmed by the situation, said Kurt Smith, a therapist who works with men and women at Guy Stuff Counseling & Coaching.
“Because of how traumatizing it can be to hear these details, sometimes, it’s best to limit how much you try to help and leave it to trained mental health specialists who have worked with sexual abuse survivors,” he told HuffPost.
You can be supportive by listening to your partner and encouraging them to speak with a professional in a non-pressuring way.
“It’s ultimately their call but encourage them to find a therapist to speak with to get the help and support they need,” Smith said. “The common response is to bury the memories and pain and move on with life. But that’s a mistake because oftentimes, the trauma doesn’t go away and negatively impacts survivors in ways they don’t fully recognize until they address it with a professional.”
Recognize that moving on and recovering is a slow, painstaking process and that your romantic relationship may not be the same for a long time, Palumbo said.
“Reclaiming sexuality after sexual assault may take support, treatment and time,” she said. “Let your partner express their needs, wants and boundaries. If you aren’t sure whether they’re comfortable or ready for something, ask. Ultimately, everyone heals in their own time and their own way – and for most survivors the path isn’t a straight line.