Supporting Survivors: Empathy Over Curiosity
By Grace Catan
Content Warning: This piece contains discussions pertaining to sexual violence and may be triggering or uncomfortable for certain readers.
“I’m just curious.”
“I’m just after the facts of the situation.”
“I’m just trying to figure out what really happened.”
These seemingly harmless questions tend to be invasive or loaded with shame and blame, making survivors of sexual violence highly uncomfortable. Yes, it is completely okay to be interested in hearing what someone has to say and learning about their experience. However, this is different from attempting to ‘piece together the puzzle’ purely out of curiosity.
A question like “Did you fight back?” might seem harmless enough to you, but in fact puts the blame on survivors for their action. Common questions such as “What were you wearing,” change nothing because they assign responsibility to victims rather than helping you support victims. Will you show greater support for their trauma if they were wearing a turtleneck? Will you dismiss the entire situation if they were wearing a tight skirt? How does any of this information help you support them better?
Curiosity is not inherently bad, but it becomes harmful when it is prioritised over concern for the wellbeing of another person. Even if you are careful not to introduce blame into the conversation, questions that are highly focused on painful details are an example of inconsiderate curiosity. The primary goal should be support and empathetic understanding, not interrogation. We often do not know how to react within these conversations because the topic is not discussed in many communities and cultures. However, the impulse to find out more about such an impactful event is not as important as protecting survivors from the harm and unnecessary pain that these questions can cause.
This is why we need to promote greater understanding and listen to the expertise of grassroots, national and international organisations who combat sexual violence in all its forms. Each country across the world have their own local organisations dedicated to supporting sexual assault survivors, and they like Australia's Women’s Information and Referral Exchange and Maya’s Organisation Philippines urge you to have a supportive and empathetic outlook.
Firstly, it is important to unconditionally believe a survivor’s story, and create a safe space where survivors feel comfortable to answer (or not answer) your questions. Ask them what they would like to share and listen to their story. Ensure they feel respected. Ultimately, if someone ever opens up to you about being a victim of sexual violence, your first priority needs to be affirming them and making sure they are safe, both physically and emotionally. A question like “do you feel safe going to school?” is helpful because it has a purpose and helps the listener learn more about the other person’s comfort levels and boundaries. Ensure that they understand that they do not have to take any action they do not wish to do and respect their autonomy and decisions.
So, the next time you find yourself in a conversation about this topic, ask yourself: Is there any reason for me to know this besides my own curiosity? Will this question help me support this person better?
Curiosity is simply not enough!
Author’s note: Medical professionals, such as therapists and doctors, or law enforcement officers are not tackled in this discussion. While they are not exempt from the need to be compassionate and considerate, their jobs are very different from the roles of regular people trying to be supportive. This opinion is geared specifically toward friends, family members, and other allies of survivors who want to learn how to be more supportive.
* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Woke magazine.