Last week, we spent four days at AliveFest in Mineral City, Ohio. It was an amazing festival full of music, love, and positivity. We met amazing people, shared stories, and handed out a ridiculous amount of HopeNotes. The table next to us was a fairly aggressive pro-life table. AliveFest is a Christian festival, and often times, such groups are present at such events. We don’t hold a religious position as an organization, nor a political one. So it’s pretty safe to assume that while we may have our own individual opinions about abortion, we don’t have an official position. And that’s okay. It’s a complicated issue, and it’s not the conversation we set out to have.
The group next to us was nice. We exchanged pleasantries in the lulls of traffic in the vendor tent, and they were genuinely very nice people. We noticed that their only literature had one question on the front: “WHAT ABOUT ABORTION IN THE CASE OF RAPE?“. That’s all they had. They did have some small business cards that they called ‘drop cards’ that were intended to be left around town promoting their message. But as for their eye-catching message, the literature discussing rape was all they had.
I’d like to back up for just one moment. When we first started our organization, we were quite aware that we weren’t counselors or therapists. We met with Rebecca Born of Connections: A Safe Place and we asked her the proper response for when someone is telling their story for the first time. She gave us a piece of advice that we refer back to on a daily basis. It’s not our mission statement, but it’s damn close. “Hear them. Believe them. Validate them.” Those three steps are extremely important. Anything else, any further questions posed in this moment of vulnerability, or any statements of our opinions at this time can be severely damaging to a person, even if we don’t realize or intend it.
While at AliveFest, at one point we noticed a girl, around 14 years old, debating with the pro-life table about abortion. Specifically in the case of rape. Now, maybe it’s because of the work we do. Or maybe it’s because we were more focused on her than we were worried about pushing a religions agenda, but we noticed the tears well up in this girl’s eyes long before her emotions took over. We could see, very clearly, that she was arguing from somewhere she’d been. She was armed only with the information her personal experiences had given her. It was clear. To us, outsiders, it was painfully obvious. It came as no shock to us when she finally said through her impending tears that she had had an experience at a younger age, and their pamphlets really struck a nerve for her. She was triggered by these people. And rather than apologizing to her, rather than listening to what she had to say with an open mind, or rather than telling her that her feelings were understandable, they told her it was essentially part of God’s plan. To quote them, they said “sometimes God needs us to be desperate for him so we can really listen to him.”
It doesn’t matter if that’s what you do believe. It doesn’t matter if you are pro-life, pro-choice, Christian, atheist, Muslim, or Jewish. In that moment, your agenda takes a back seat. I don’t mean to be on a soapbox here. I really don’t. But I simply couldn’t understand how inappropriate, offensive, and insensitive this response was. Even though it wasn’t our table, we pulled the girl out of the situation, talked to her, and calmed her down. We reminded her that she was loved, and that whatever string of emotions she was feeling was okay. When it was all said and done, and we had some time to reflect, we realized that these people didn’t intend to damage. In their mind, they were helping. I don’t know whether that helps or hurts their case. But I do know this: when someone is telling their story, especially for the first time, your response matters. You are essentially paving the way for their willingness and ability to share their story in the future. Not only with you or other loved ones, but with potential therapists or counselors. You don’t have to have a degree to listen to someone’s story, and you don’t need a certificate to love them, listen to them, believe them, and most importantly validate them. If you’re a victim of rape of sexual abuse, you know the multitude of emotions that come along with it. And they are all okay. Every one of them.
If it feels like that’s a lot of pressure to get it right if someone tells you their story, that’s because it is. The good news is that it’s a lot easier to get it right than it is to get it wrong. Listen, believe, validate. That’s it. Any other agenda can wait. When a person opens up to us, it is never about us anyway; especially if it’s about something as personal and exposed as sexual assault. Perhaps another time we can write an article about all of the wrong things to say, but I fear that that would be even longer than this one. Luckily, the way to respond is 3 steps. 6 words.
The first response is the most important. And you can do it. If you’re ever in the position to respond to someone’s story, the person telling you obviously thinks you can do it too.