Earlier this week, Dylan Farrow published an open letter in the New York Times alleging that her father, Woody Allen, raped her when she was 7 years old. Allen was never charged with the abuse, but Farrow had not publicly told her story until now. In a letter published Friday night by the Times, Allen tells his side of the story, that the allegations were concocted by a spiteful and vindictive Mia Farrow.
Without coming down on one side or the other regarding the allegations, we owe it to Farrow, and anyone who tells their story about sexual abuse, to listen with respect. These allegations are heart-wrenching, and it's hard enough to tell a loved one that you were raped, let alone the whole world.
We can argue about the particulars in this story — but we can’t argue with numbers that show that we have a crisis of rape in this country. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a woman is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes. That’s an average of more than 230,000 victims a year. Approximately two-thirds of sexual assault victims know their rapist, and 44% of victims are under the age of 18. These statistics are a startling reminder that rape is very prevalent. The likelihood that you know someone who has been sexually assaulted is high.
Image courtesy of RAINN.
So what do you do if someone you love tells you they were sexually assaulted? I recently spoke with Katherine Hull, a spokesperson for RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the country, for some concrete ways to support a loved one who tells you they have been raped:
1. Believe them.
Your reaction matters — remember that you may be the first person to hear their story. The impact of a loved one’s reaction to the disclosure of a sexual assault is tremendously influential. It can sway whether they will go on to get help or even report the crime to the police.
2. Acknowledge them.
Acknowledge what they’ve experienced and how it’s affected them, and thank them for sharing their story. You can say something like, “I can’t imagine how difficult that was for you and how hard it was to tell me about it.”
3. Avoid giving direct advice like going to the police or hospital.
Instead find a way to try to support them in getting help. If it is in the immediate aftermath you can say something like, “Would you be open to going to the hospital? I would be happy to go with you.”
4. Allow the survivor to tell the story on his or her own terms.
Try not to interrupt, or ask too many questions. You may want details to help you wrap your head around the situation, but the survivor may not be ready to share that information and could perceive the questions as unsupportive or questioning their story. Instead, listen quietly, nod your head, maintain eye contact and give them the time that they need.
5. Remind them that it wasn’t their fault.
Oftentimes, survivors blame themselves and it can be particularly difficult if they knew their perpetrator. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse may feel conflicted if their perpetrator was a caregiver or parent. You could say something like: “You trusted that person, and it must feel awful that they broke your trust,” or “the only person that is responsible for what happened is the perpetrator.”
Sexual assault is an isolating experience. Every time a large profile case comes to the fore, it can give other survivors the strength to come forward. Times columnist, Robin Abacarian rightly says that: “The task of the victim, particularly in a murky case such as [Farrow’s allegations against Allen], is to find a way to move forward, to heal the wounds, to seek emotional health.” Since it can break the silence, Farrow’s letter can be an important step towards healing for sexual assault survivors, reminding them they are not alone.