Hathor How-To’s: Supporting a Friend Who Has Been Sexually Assaulted

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Hey peeperellas! I’m going to try doing an erratically updated series of everyday feminist how-to’s. I’m starting with this one, on supporting a friend who has been raped.

When I was in college, I was acquaintance raped by a guy that lived in my dorm. It took me a really long time to process and name that that was what happened. It’s an experience that continues to affect how safe I feel with my partner, how safe I feel in my home, and how safe I feel when alone. Being able to name this experience as a rape was really powerful for me, and really liberating. I used minimizing language for a while, in part because of the response of some of my friends.

The Case of the High School Friend

A high school friend of mine immediately began by telling me I was at fault: because of my clothes, because of my body, because of my trust, and because of my behavior. This is in part was because of his conservative faith background — for him, the dictates policing women’s conduct and sexuality were the umbrellas you took out with you everyday to protect yourself from rape. He believed me when I said I was raped — but he also very much believed in fault. Because of my behavior in high school, my choices in dress, and my interactions with male peers, I had “earned” my rape in advance.

In the absence of a mythic assailant from the bushes, the fault landed on me.  Don’t introduce issues of fault or shoulda/woulda/coulda’s. This is not the time to share your personal feelings about your friend’s prior conduct. No one should ever be raped.

A few days later, we talked again. He very carefully avoided the topic, going awkwardly silent when I mentioned that my rapist was stalking me, and instead returned the conversation to his internship. Advice: Begin by listening. Hearing stories of trauma can be painful; honor the confidence by giving it your time and attention.

The Case of the Victim-Blaming Feminist

Let’s say you have a friend that’s lovely. Let’s say she’s got a winning smile, a beautiful body, and is academically and personally successful. Let’s say she tells you, in a rare moment of vulnerability, that she’s been raped. You have a second where, mingled on your face and in your heart, is a touch of a Liz Lemon-like contempt for the pretty girls in the room. Because rape/desire/sex are so convoluted in our culture, it’s easy to use this really ugly feeling to dismiss what your friend is telling you. Perhaps she’s being dramatic. Don’t minimize what your friend is telling you by comparing it to others’ “real” rapes. Don’t express surprise that your friend is claiming to be a rape victim when she is also a diva.

At this point, it’s also really easy to begin implicitly criticizing what your friend should have or should not have done. After all, smart women don’t get raped  — there are “common-sense” things you can do to protect yourself. Don’t demean zir by implying that an intelligent adult would “accept responsibility” for the “poor choices” that led to zir’s… incident. Don’t treat zir “alleged assault” like the inevitable wetness resulting from walking outside without an umbrella. No one should ever be raped.

For really real, I stopped being friends with both people I’m describing above. One I’m tentatively back in touch with, the other I’m done with permanently, and have no regrets about their absence in my life. And yes — it’s because they hurt me when I was vulnerable. To be honest, I’m lucky they believed me. One of the funky things about acquaintance rape is that when you as a survivor talk about your experiences, it can make your friends realize that they have befriended and may care deeply for a rapist. They’ll feel like they have to pick sides (and in my own opinion, they should — I don’t chillax with abusers or rapists if I can help it) and if they’re making the “safe” call, it may very well be the survivor who gets cut out. While this was not my experience, the questionings and the implications really scarred me, and deeply effected my own recovery work.

At the same time, I had friends I grew closer to afterwards — in part because their support and love really helped me, and because their emotional generosity was, in retrospect, humbling. That’s what you’re aspiring towards, right? So let’s talk support.

Examples of Support

The Besties

I called my best friend from high school the morning after. I clearly remember sitting in the back of my college friends’ van (we were going to Baltimore) and very quietly telling her what happened. I may have cried a little bit, but not loud enough that anyone in the car reacted. I felt very lonely. Be available to listen. Sometimes, survivors who are in shock process their feelings by talking them out. Make sympathetic mouth-noises, like “That sounds like it was really scary,” or “Are you okay?” When it seems appropriate, introduce resources that might be useful — this would be when you could off your support contacting the college’s department of residential life (if your friend lives on campus), the police, a women’s health clinic, etc. Make it clear that you support your friend’s decision to report or NOT report — for a variety of reasons, your friend might not feel safe reporting what happened to them. They might not be believed, they might be afraid of their rapist hurting them further, or they might be afraid of the stigma of being That Girl Who Was Raped. While you might WANT to push for them reporting it, resist. It’s their choice. Support them in it.

I got off the phone when I got to Baltimore. I honestly don’t remember a lot of that day, besides really regretting having gotten involved in Campus Crusade for Christ. I wouldn’t say that was a “crisis of faith” moment, but I will say that I was very angry that the so-called Christians around me lacked the compassion to tell when someone was in pain and when someone else was a danger to women. I called that same friend on the car ride back. She acknowledged my anger, let me cry (again), and then encouraged me to talk to either the police or campus security. Acknowledge the range of your friend’s emotions. They may be angry. They may be sad or afraid. While it might be tempting to “guide” your friend into the “right” emotional response, it is more important to be there and listen. Grief, anger, fear, and paranoia can all be useful emotions when processing trauma.

I also called my long distance bestie every night for several weeks. He stayed on the phone with me, encouraged me to contact the residential life staff at my institution, and allowed me to process my feelings and the connections between the various responses of my friends (including that my rapist had made me feel unsafe/uncomfortable before he raped me, and that my friends in the dorm had counseled me to ignore my gut instincts). This was a life saver, particularly because my rapist continued to stalk me for the rest of the summer, even after he got kicked out of the dorm, and worked to entwine himself in my social group. Again, listening is paramount. Practice listening without thinking of what you’re planning on saying next, focusing on what your friend is saying.

My long distance bestie also sent me a totem — a very large banner of a dragon to display in my dorm room as a visual symbol of protection, safety, and care. I still have it, though don’t need to display it anymore. Consider what reassurance would look and feel like for your friend — does he or she need time? A safe object? A journal?

The Fellow Survivor

One of my friends in college was also a rape survivor. One of the great things I appreciated about our conversations is that she was very careful to not impose her own experiences onto mine, or to rename my feelings to be more similar to hers. What she did do, consistently, is listen, offering humor, advice, and sympathy as I retraced some of the same steps towards emotional well-being that she had a few years before. Her having the courage to talk about her experiences, and to help me see how my steps towards recovery in fact were normal was deeply reassuring. Many times, sexual assault and rape survivors are treated as though they are not normal, as though the perfectly logical fear, panic, and violation they feel makes them insane. This makes me think of a point from Once a Warrior, a book on PTSD, which is that PTSD is simultaneously a disorder signified by mental unrest and a disorder brought about by crazy-making circumstances. It’s not “crazy” to be scared, afraid, or traumatized after something traumatizing has happened to you. What this friend offered me was the reassurance that it was what happened to me that was the problem — not my emotional and psychological responses to it.

The other thing she did for me that I really appreciate, and try to remember when talking about feminist issues is that there is always at least one survivor in the same room you are in — even if it is only you. Challenge the ways other feminists/allies talk about rape. Often, this conversation is handled as though the poor rape victim is some where outside of the room, unable to listen in. How would it change your language, jokes, and feelings to think about your fellow conversationalists as survivors of sexual assault? To change the parameters of the conversation from the “us” of the normal and the “them” of rape survivors to the “we” of activists against rape culture?

The Partner

When I told my husband about my rape, he listened closely and carefully. At one point, he asked if he could hug me. Ask first before touching or embracing your friend. If zhe is feeling triggered, what you mean as a safe touch can feel really dangerous.

He also responded, keeping to key topic points, reiterating that what happened was not my fault, that there was not anything about me that was intrinsically bad, and that he loved me. Let your friend know that you care for and support her. DO let them talk as much or as little as they want. Again, listening is paramount.

Finally, keep in mind that every survivor is different. In the link above to “What Privilege?” someone suggested that the survivor they were talking about didn’t want to talk anymore about her rape because she wanted to not be That Girl Who Was Raped. A portion of my recovery has been becoming more comfortable talking about. Understanding myself as a survivor, understanding being a survivor as a kind of normal, and then understanding being a non-survivor as a kind of privilege has been a big part of my emotional trajectory. After all, 1.3 women are raped a minute. Being That Girl Who Was Raped is not at all unusual, and having my friends offer me that would feel like an insult or like a conditional extending of a kind of privilege contingent on my not being like “those” victims — those victims who talk about their assault, still suffer the effects of it, etc.

In conclusion, there are four key points you should stick to when talking to your friend.

1. I believe you.
2. It wasn’t your fault.
3. You did the right thing. You survived, so the choices you made were good ones. You were right to fight/not fight, submit/not submit, tell/not tell.
4. I will do what I can to make you feel safe.

Comments

  1. says

    This post is just heartbreaking to read (I can’t believe how many people I consider good friends have been victims of a felony, and how this is thought of as oh, well, part of the natural world). But it’s an excellent, simple guide.

    The importance of listening can’t be overemphasized. If you shut up your internal monologue and really listen:

    –Listening on that level is interpreted as sympathetic, caring and believing. Words may not even be necessary.
    –You may pick up some undercurrents that guide you. Maybe your friend keeps insisting she tried to fight her attacker off, and since you believe her, you wonder why that point is so important. Then you remember her talking about her mom doubting a celebrity rape claim on the basis that the victim didn’t have injuries. The perfect thing to say might be, “I totally believe you fought, don’t worry about that, but it actually doesn’t even matter. He knew you weren’t consenting, and he went ahead anyway. That’s all that matters.”

      • says

        Yes, they do. They also say it to child/domestic abuse victims. It’s certainly a valid way philosophy to employ in one’s own life, but to give it as a command to someone else is distancing and dismissive.

        Psychologists (or at least the ones I’ve been to) will tell you: you need to get angry so you can process it and move through it. If forgiving makes YOU feel better, then forgive. If not, don’t. It’s not like abusive personalities are ever truly sorry for what they’ve done.

        • Casey says

          Stuff like that is what made me rage like a motherfucker when I heard some Flyleaf song about the lead singer forgiving her father for abusing her and moving on…I mean, far be it from me to police how someone processes their trauma but AT THE SAME TIME that doesn’t mean I can’t hate that trope. (also, Flyleaf is a Christian band…hmm…)

          • says

            Everyone who’s ever told me I need to forgive those who have wronged me has explicitly linked that need to their Christian beliefs. Not all Christians do, some respect that their faith is not mine…but damn, does it irritate me.

          • Anemone says

            For those who struggle with what to think about/how to respond to talk about forgiveness, I recommend Beverly Flanagan’s research-based book Forgiving the Unforgivable. She was a social worker who had clients who wanted to forgive and she didn’t know how to respond so she interviewed people who had been hurt really badly (mostly bad divorces and child abuse), and had forgiven, and she found a pattern of healing. Stage 4 of 6 was balancing the scales. This really helped me cope with the “why don’t you forgi
            http://www.rogers.mobi/internet

            • Anemone says

              (ignore that link)

              …ve?” nonsense. Forgiveness isn’t about society letting criminals off the hook (that’s what pardons are for), it’s about healing and moving on.

                • Anemone says

                  Of course it’s not a requirement. It’s a personal choice.

                  When my sister wanted to know why I hadn’t forgiven and moved on, I think she meant the same thing as healed and moved on, which I was unable to do with the inadequate support I had (including from her). I figured if she asked again I could show her the book and we could talk about what’s actually involved in forgiveness. And if that didn’t work, I could always throw a hardcover copy at her. She hasn’t asked. Too chicken, I guess.

                  • Attackfish says

                    Oh God, the “why haven’t you finished dealing with this?” thing drives me nuts. For me, I couldn’t move on until I was able to talk about it, and I could only do that when I had someone willing to listen. That question is just a way of saying “I don’t want to help you.”

                    The thing is, I think part of the problem I have with forgiveness is semantic. For me, forgiveness always implied reconciliation, and things going back to the way things would have been for the relationship if the abuser hadn’t abused (which some of the creepier victim-punishing forgiveness advocates probably really mean but most don’t). I think forgiveness might be the word some people apply to what I did with my stalkers. I had to give up the anger, but that wasn’t forgiveness. It was acknowledging that I wasn’t responsible for punishing them, and that they could be cruel, evil, horrible people and that it wasn’t about me, so I could feel about them the way I felt about people who do horrible things to people other than me. Plus, my anger came in large part from fear, and what really helped me get rid of the anger was time and moving to a new state for one, and the other one going to jail, in other words, when I could start feeling physically safe.

                    • says

                      Very good point about semantics – to me it also implies reconciliation. Even the metaphor of healing bothers me because I don’t want to go back to the way I was before. I want a scar. I want to remember that I was injured and I survived. Partly so I can avoid the same situation in the future, partly so I can remind myself of how far I’ve come.

                    • Attackfish says

                      The healing thing doesn’t bother me as much, maybe because I spent so much time healing from different side parts of my illness, and the end result of healing was never being the way I was before but still being okay. Scars for me are the result of healing open wounds. But I see what you mean about the scars. Our bodies are tougher where there is scar tissue. My mind is too.

  2. M.C. says

    Make it clear that you support your friend’s decision to report or NOT report — for a variety of reasons, your friend might not feel safe reporting what happened to them.

    What if your friend was raped by her boyfriend and wants to report it? Should you not at least tell her that statistically the police won’t believe her and even if they do he won’t be convicted?
    Or do you recon she probably already knows this, since she’s a human being on planet Earth, and considered this when making her decision?

    • sbg says

      Frankly? I think warning of those things is … not being truly supportive. It’s basically saying: “I’ll support you, but you’ll probably regret doing it.”

    • says

      “Never tell me the odds.”

      You support them. Whatever they have to do to take control of their life back, you support it. You never try to deny them options. You never try to make them less.

    • says

      I second SBG and Silvia Sybil. I also would add that I really can’t imagine anyone not knowing they’re likely to meet with disbelief. I mean, somehow molested kids get the sense that no one will believe them – maybe partly because they can hardly believe what they’re experiencing themselves.

      Now you’ve got me thinking how seriously creepy this whole thing is: how do so many people from such different backgrounds, including very young people, know that they might not be believed if they tell their stories of assault? It can’t be we all watch the same talk shows, so is pop culture making the idea that pervasive (and thereby reinforcing it)? Or is it the shock of the rape itself – the victim’s own inability to comprehend what has happened – that makes us doubt we’ll be believed?

        • says

          They frequently do, but even when they don’t, you still often get the feeling no one will believe you. I guess it comes from being a child and noticing adults often side with each other and disbelieve you when you tell a story that’s at all incredible.

          Additionally, there’s the issue in which shame keeps people silent. I think this applies to kids, too.

    • Maria says

      It’s her choice — it might be symbolic for her to report it to the police, even if she chooses or in unable to pursue it. You can talk about it, but there’s a difference between talking TO someone and telling them.

  3. says

    Another tip: never tell anyone that it “doesn’t count” or they weren’t assaulted “enough”. You’re allowed to argue semantics in philosophy debates, not when your friend is trying to talk about their experiences.

    It’s amazing how much good you can do just by showing you believe. I had a woman who barely knew me, who’d been dorm-mates for less than a month, confide her story to me after I expressed outrage over a date rape “false accusation” scandal. I think she really needed a sympathetic ear because I later had one of her best friends say pretty ignorant things about rape. I can only imagine how much it must have hurt to need to say something, but you can’t because you know your friends won’t believe you – so much that you’ll confide in anyone just because they won’t judge you.

    I had another guy in class (before class started) make some comment that othered rape survivors – I can’t even remember what it was. I looked him in the eye and said, “There are ten women in this room. That means two or three of them have been raped.” He tried to protest and I told him, “There are two to three rape victims in this room listening to you make an ass of yourself.” Then the professor called the class to order, I think to stop him from saying anything even more insensitive. I hope it made him think for a second but I know it made a difference to the other women and survivors in there.

    • Gategrrl says

      In a college setting, I would have increased the number to at least 50% of the women in the class, either from being raped *before* they even got to college, or at the college itself. But that’s just me. I suppose that jerk would have believed that number even less.

        • says

          Yes. Ironically, getting an education increases your chances of being raped at college, and not getting one increases your chances of becoming a battered wife. It’s awesome, these choices we have now.

  4. M.C. says

    I would like to add one more thing: If you know someone who was raped, then make them get tested on HIV 12 weeks after the attack. Because if they are infected, then they need to start taking the medications as soon as possible, so that they can continue with their life (and also not infect someone else).
    And try to be there for them, while they are waiting for the results, because those 12 weeks are going to be hell.

      • M.C. says

        Although I’d say “encourage” instead of “make”

        You’re right, I’ve chosen the wrong wording. Encourage them to get tested, maybe find out which organisations in your area offer free tests, and go with your friend, if they don’t want to go on their own.

  5. says

    I also want to thank you for this post. I’m a doula- I provide care and support to women in labor- and I’ve found that it’s best for me just to assume that a client has had boundary-violating experiences and from that assumption to work gently and respectfully with her and to be very aware of her boundaries and her rights. It’s so important that I can be a safe place for women; being allowed to share in one of their most intimate, most powerful life changes is a great responsibility.

    I’m inspired by the surgeon I visited with a friend when she was thinking about having her female circumcision undone. He was incredibly respectful but also easy-going; he had two nurses with him to help provide his mainly Muslim, mainly African clients with a feeling of safety; and most importantly, he was very explicit about my friend’s rights. Before he began examining her(it was her first gynecological exam) he said, “I’m going to tell you before I touch you, so you know when and where. There won’t be any surprises. If I surprise you, you are welcome to kick me in the head- in fact, you’re welcome to kick me in the head no matter what. It’s happened before and it will happen again. If you feel any pain or if it’s too much for you, tell me and we can slow down.” I really admired that, because my friend was so freaked out by the whole thing and he really put her at ease.

  6. says

    Thank you, Maria! These are all the things I really cherish in a friend when I’ve been through a traumatic experience. I’ll save your list for whenever I need to remember how to help a friend who needs someone to listen, and for whenever I need to teach a friend how to help me through trauma.

  7. jennygadget says

    “I guess it comes from being a child and noticing adults often side with each other and disbelieve you when you tell a story that’s at all incredible.”

    I’m not sure it’s just that, although I’m sure that often plays a big part of it. I think you made a good point, actually, when you mentioned the experience being so shocking that OF COURSE no one else will believe it – you can hardly believe it yourself. Plus – as scary as it is to contemplate – yes, I do think cultural narratives about sex and abuse and rape are so pervasive that they also play a huge role in how even kids react to abuse.

    Now, this is mostly based on my own experiences – which had to do with having my privacy routinely violated, rather than physical sexual assault – but I know that when I spent literally months deciding whether or not to say anything to my parents, it didn’t have anything to do with adults siding with other adults. The person in question was a kid too – and younger than me at that – and tended to get into trouble more than I did.

    However, what I do strongly remember is my own complete disbelief at what was going on. The first time it happened I assumed it was an accident. It was only after the next few times that I realized it was pre-meditated. It is only now as an adult that I can even consider that it had been going on long before I noticed.

    When I imagined telling my parents – and I imagined it quite often – my made-up scenarios went to either one extreme or the other. At one extreme they didn’t believe me – and while I don’t remember there being a reason why, I do remember their disbelief mirroring mine. At the other extreme they made a HUGE fuss and went all psycho on his ass, which isn’t really something I wanted to have happen either. Despite sometimes fantasizing about it.

    At the same time, being 12 didn’t mean that I hadn’t already been exposed to all kinds of rape/sexual assault myths. After all, my most immediate frame of reference for what was happening to me was the scene from Back to the Future where the hero’s teenaged dad falls out of the tree trying to spy on the hero’s teenaged mom. McFly Jr. may have been the opposite of impressed with his dad, but that part about not being impressed was the take-away message – that only losers have to try and see girls that way – not that doing such things is abuse. (that and: this stuff is funny! hardehar)

    i imagined this kind of response as well. (minus the jokes*) But very, very rarely, because it’s the one that hurt the most. Thinking about it tended to result in me trying to avoid thinking about it by writing bad, bad poetry. After all, the imagined disbelief was at least still a kind of validation of how fucked up his actions were. No, the most devastating response I could imagine at the time was actually a lukewarm disappointment in him coupled with something about that being what boys do.

    I wonder sometimes if the fear of telling isn’t so much fear of one specific response (well, duh, we are all individuals of course – but even within an individual), but just that it’s one more unknown after your world has been tipped upside down – and all evidence points to the likely responses being one of several bad options rather than anything useful.

    *with regards to my parents response, anyway. There are reasons why i had reoccurring daymares about groups of boys/men looking at my naked body and laughing and leering.

  8. Attackfish says

    jennygadget: After all, my most immediate frame of reference for what was happening to me was the scene from Back to the Future where the hero’s teenaged dad falls out of the tree trying to spy on the hero’s teenaged mom. McFly Jr. may have been the opposite of impressed with his dad, but that part about not being impressed was the take-away message – that only losers have to try and see girls that way – not that doing such things is abuse. (that and: this stuff is funny! hardehar)

    Oh God, I’m so glad I’m not the only one who cringes at that scene.

    My first stalker went from being my manipulative, abusive “friend” to being my stalker when I was eleven and she was ten. It took me months to even articulate to myself what was going on well enough to tell my parents that something bad was happening, not that I called it stalking or abuse then. I just remembered knowing that everybody always believed her, and no one ever believed me because of my seizures. I kinda figured even then that’s why she picked me. The whole time I was being beaten up and tortured the two years before, (right before I met my stalker) the adults at my school called it my fault and kept telling me that they were good kids, and I was a problem. It’s not just that kids see adults sticking together, it’s that many of us. over and over and over again see everyone, especially adults, siding with the perpetrators, against the victims.

  9. xiba says

    M.C.,

    @M.C.

    You might want to carefully let your friend know that there are treatments that heavily reduce the risk of getting HIV if taken in the first 72 hours after the assault. But obviously, to get this treatment one has to be able to tell the medical staff what happened, and not all survivors-to-be are up for this in these hours.

  10. Cheryl says

    Yes, yes, yes! I was sexually assaulted in February ’10 and when I told friends what happened, everyone believed me, everyone placed blame on the guy who assaulted me, and no one pushed me to ‘let go’ or forgive. I consider myself incredibly blessed to have friends as awesome as that and am very glad I didn’t have to deal with anyone being an insensitive idiot. I did decide to forgive the guy who assaulted me because a) my faith says I should and b) holding on to the hurt and pain and anger would be, to me, allowing him to still have the power to affect my life and over my cold, dead body he was going to hurt me any more than he already had.

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