After my sexual assault and after my rape, I was fortunate to have some good friends and family members who stuck by my side through the tears and dark times. Being open and honest and talking about things with them has been a big part of my recovery. Sharing this article with you all is another big step.
However, I’ve had a bunch of people act like dicks to me as well. Like the roommates who took his side and took it upon themselves to tell my mom -- before I even decided if I was going to talk to anyone about it, mind you -- that I got with our (then) mutual friend because I wanted it. Because you know, being unconscious equaled consent to them. [Insert SO many angry faces here].
Or the police officer who I reported the rape to asking me if I was just trying to get back at an ex boyfriend. My rapist was a stranger to me -- as I had explained to him just minutes before.
Now I know some of these points will seem like common sense, but it isn't for everyone. Even the kindest, most supportive friend has made some of these errors before.
1. Don't blame the victim
Here are two common phrases I’ve heard tossed around:
"I don't understand how you could let that happen," and "Well, what were you wearing?"
First, people don't let rape happen to them, the rapist makes it happen. The only person responsible is the perpetrator who chose to take advantage of a situation and hurt a human being. No matter what the victim was wearing (or not wearing), what he or she was doing, drinking, taking, sleeping, walking, partying, studying, whatever -- NO ONE deserves to be raped. It is unfortunate that such a simple phrase continues to need repeating.
But it is so important that you do show support for victims. Support leads to strength and courage to talk about it and maybe even reporting it to the police. Support leads to healing and seeking help.
Even if you have your doubts or questions, please don't share them with the victim. This isn't the time. Instead, research what it is to be a victim and how to support them as a secondary. I recommend Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network for information and Pandora’s Aquarium for support and networking for the both of you.
2. Don't make the victim talk
Some of us have reached the point where we can talk about it. Others simply can't. If they don't want to share, or have to stop sharing, don't force them to dole out the details. It is painful and many survivors relive what they went through as they recount their experience. And, if they have spoken about it before, don't be surprised if they can't anymore. Healing and dealing can come in waves for most of us. Some days will just be better (or worse) than others.
And when we do talk, listen. Listen to us when we can speak and we will tell you what it is that we need. Don't be surprised if our response is "nothing" at the time. We may need you a little bit later. Listening will be pertinent to understanding what can trigger and what can help ground a survivor back into present reality.
And to go along with this, please don't out us either. It is our story to tell to whom we want to tell it to. Unless we ask, don't do it for us.
3. Don't make jokes
Seriously, don't do it. I've heard the argument that people joke about things to soften the weight of the issue, but that issue is very real to those who have suffered from it. And with about 207,754 Americans counted as survivors each year, you don't know who around you has dealt with it.
A few months ago, I went to an amateur comedy night. One of the comedians made a thinly veiled joke about taking advantage of a mentally challenged woman. The crowd erupted in laughter. I excused myself from my group and went outside to the balcony for some air. Another comedian who had yet to go up was practicing his material for a few guys. Boom. Another rape joke. I couldn’t believe it.
With tears in my eyes, I turned to them and said, “Could y’all not joke about rape? Please?” They muttered an apology and went to the other side of the balcony. I don’t know if he changed his material, because I left soon after that.
My little experience with comedians was nothing compared to the women who stood up to Daniel Tosh or Lindy West who went on national television to debate with a comedian about rape culture and comedy, but I did feel a tiny tinge of pride in saying something.
Please believe, it is very uncomfortable for me to tell people to shut up when they start telling a joke, but I am getting better at it. I feel exposed when I’m put in such situations by friends, acquaintances and strangers. But I feel I have to say something because jokes like these perpetuate rape culture and make rape seem mundane.
4. Don't compare or make light of it
When I was assaulted, a friend said, "At least you weren't raped." Maybe so, but that didn't mean I wasn't hurting from what happened. I have also heard, "There are worse problems you could have. People are starving and dying in other countries." Yes, this is true and horrible that people are suffering in this world. I take no solace in their pain and sentiments like these do not take away what a survivor is dealing with.
Everyone's story is different. Everyone's level of healing or how they deal will be different.
Trying to categorize it as "legitimate," "forcible," “gray rape” or "rape rape" doesn't do any favors either.
5. Don't forget that men can be rape victims and women can be rapists
One in six men have experienced an abusive sexual experience before they turn 18 years old.
When we campaign for awareness about sexual assault and rape, we often talk about women victims and male perpetrators. Our places of refuge and help for victims are generally women's centers. While many of these places, like the one I went to, cater to men as well, men are often left out.
I have male friends who struggle with their identity as a survivor because of the added stigma that comes with being a male victim. One has mentioned to me that people see what happened to him as "getting lucky." But she was a woman and he was a child. That is rape.
Men are socialized to be strong. Men are socialized to be the sexual ones. But we have to keep in mind that men can be hurt by women and other men, just like women can. They deserve the same advocacy as we women. Fortunately, there are organizations like 1in6 who can provide men and their families with help and information.
6. Don't ignore us
Support is key to healing and survivors need support at every stage of the process. Everyone deals at different paces and just as importantly, everyone deals on different time scales. In fact, many who were victimized as children do not start uncovering and processing memories until they are adults. Even if we seem all peachy keen one day, we all have our triggers that can send us back a few steps in our progress. Please, see this as a part of the process. Don't make the survivor feel like a failure for their bad day either. Give it some time and you will see that smile again.
My fellow survivors, first, safe hugs for you. Secondaries, any advice you have to give to others who are supporting survivors?