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
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?
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.