Three Reasons Why We Do Not Discuss Sexual Maltreatment: Lies We Believe

Three Reasons Why We Do Not Discuss Sexual Maltreatment: Lies We Believe

The Problem: You are a leader and you feel a responsibility to bring up the difficult subject of sexual maltreatment. However, you or someone within your community is avoiding the conversation. The problem seems too overwhelming and you have too many other things to do. You feel stuck.

The Solution: You're actually not stuck. By identifying and understanding some common reasons people do not want to talk about sexual maltreatment, you can structure your conversations to be more effective. Then you can align yourself with appropriate resources to move forward.

Falsehood Number One:

“I am supposed to be able to ‘handle’ hearing all the details of a survivor’s story.”

No one is wired to respond to trauma without strong emotional reactions. In fact, hearing a story of a traumatic experience can be traumatizing in and of itself. So when something comes up in conversation or shows up in your feed and you think “I don’t want to think about that,” you do not need to be ashamed. It is okay not to feel capable of processing certain information. You do not need to feel equipped or ready for everything people throw at you. However, not feeling equipped or ready does not mean you are not responsible for taking some sort of action. The people who listen to traumatic stories are not superhumans, robots, or magical empathy gurus who happen to be able to “handle” listening to survivors. They are people who have learned to process those stories while taking care of themselves. And you can learn to do that too.

My Alternative Thought Process:

My goal when listening to a survivor story is not to “handle” it without an emotional reaction. It is to try to process the story in a way that

1) gives me an opportunity to eventually re-establish my emotional equilibrium


2) shows me my individual action steps for supporting the survivor.

→ Read my report on How To Take Care of Yourself After Hearing a Story of Sexual Maltreatment.

Falsehood Number Two:

“I am supposed to define the maltreatment according to very specified scale.”

We all categorize as a form of empowerment. When we hear a survivor story, we naturally want to label it. That’s because we assume that there is a continuum of maltreatment starting with harassment and ending with slavery. We try to place the experience on that spectrum because we assume that there is a flowchart above the spectrum and that once we have the right label, we can follow the right steps within that flowchart and that will bring the survivor to the right situation. The problem is that the spectrum is subjective and the flowchart is flawed. Our political and social infrastructures do not support that flowchart. There are advocates within the legal, political, and social justice communities who are working very hard to fix that, but while they are sorting that out, we can still step up and support a survivor regardless of whether or not we know exactly what checkbox their story aligns with.* If you are a lawyer or a law enforcement officer actively working on a maltreatment case, knowing the exact term to use moving forward is important.  But if those two specific situations do not apply to you, the terminology only matters as much as the survivor says it matters. Ask them what verbiage they are comfortable with and let that be enough. If they do not want to define the experience at all, do not pressure them to do so.

My Alternative Thought Process:

My goal when listening to a survivor is not to “define” their maltreatment experience and then force a course of action on them. It is to discuss the experience in a way that

1) empowers the survivor to categorize the experience however they want


2) recognizes my responsibility lies not in defining the action, but empowering the person.

→ Read my definition of sexual maltreatment within the Isabel glossary of terms.

*Note for Mandated Reporters and Childcare Survivors: these concepts apply to adult survivors sharing experiences with other adults. Click here for resources specific to understanding child abuse.

Falsehood Number Three:

“I am supposed to say all the right things.”

We all believe our words have power, and they do. Our voices matter. But our ears matter more. You might help the survivor by being an effective speaker. However, it is more likely that you are going to help the survivor by being a effective listener. And in fact, it is most likely that the survivor is going to gradually heal themself by finding a series of effective listeners. Be one of those listeners and be grateful they allow you to be a part of their healing process. Also, know that just trying to find something to say communicates support for survivors, it is okay to say that you do not know what to say, and that the simple responses can be more helpful than the complicated “right” ones. Keep that in mind as you look over the sample responses below.

My Sample Responses :  

For Continued Support: “I will listen if you want to talk more about that.”

For Delegated Support: “Your story is so important me and the details should be heard. But these specific details trigger my own experiences. I acknowledge that you need to tell all the details and I apologize but I am not the most helpful person and now is not the most helpful time. Will you let me be the person who helps you find the person who can hear the details?”

→ Book one of my training programs to learn more strategies for survivor support, including more sample responses.


When your team knows that:

1) They can take care of themselves while supporting a survivor,

2) They are not expected to define every experience and create a perfect action plan,


3) It is okay if they do not know what to say;

They will be empowered to engage in this difficult topic. Email me ( if you’d like to learn more about the ways I can help you discuss sexual maltreatment with your team.

Note for Non-Profits:

I have a discounted training programs available for non-profits who book before April 30th. You do not need to schedule the event itself for April, you just need to get it on the books for a later date. Let’s normalize the ability to respond supportively to survivors within your community.

Anna Westbrook

CEO, Composer & Playwright ofIsabel & The Runaway Train

Anna Westbrook