“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
In honor of July 30th, the International Day of Friendship, I wanted to shed some light on a question I get asked often : what should you do if someone tells you they’ve experienced sexual violence?
Chances are, someone close to you has experienced sexual violence. You may not know that you know someone who has — but statistically, you do.
Globally, up to 38 percent of girls and 21 percent of boys experience some form of sexual violence in childhood. About one in three (35 percent) women worldwide have experienced or will experience physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
In the U.S., the CDC estimates that one in four girls and one in 10 boys experience some form of sexual abuse in childhood. One in five adult women has or will be raped in their lifetime. Two to three percent of men experience sexual assault, with members of the LGBTQ community being especially at risk.
But here’s what’s also alarming: about half of people who experience sexual violence never tell anyone — and the main reasons they don’t are fear and shame. Those that do tell someone usually confide in a trusted adult or friend first. Data shows that of those who disclose, few seek services for sexual violence and even fewer — often less than five percent — actually receive services. This means that friends can play a powerful role in helping survivors seek and receive critical care to help them seek justice and start their journey to heal.
As a professional who has spent the last 20 years working on how to end sexual violence around the world, I get the question all the time: what should I do or say if someone discloses? The truth is, most people (including many professionals in the education, health, and justice sectors) have no idea how to react if someone confides in them about an experience of sexual violence — whether it happened yesterday or 20 years ago.
As a survivor of child sexual abuse myself, and as someone who has been sharing her story for over 20 years, I’ve seen firsthand the visible discomfort, awkward silence, or blank stares in the faces around me when I share my story. In fact, when I first started telling others, close friends who I know care deeply about me had no idea what to say — choosing instead to say nothing at all and avoid the topic altogether, or say things that actually made me feel worse.
The truth is, although sexual violence is one of the largest pandemics of all time, we don’t teach others how to respond when they learn someone they care about has been abused. It’s time that we change that.
So, here’s a list of do’s and don’ts we’ve put together from the best evidence available — so you can show up for your friends in their time of need.
This International Day of Friendship, let’s remember we all have a role to play in shattering the silence around sexual violence, ensuring survivors are heard, and helping them get the support and services that will help them most.
Friends don’t remain silent. Let’s honor and celebrate our friends… by being good ones.