*TRIGGER WARNING FOR SEXUAL VIOLENCE*
Earlier today I participated in a tweet chat about sexual violence and the #IDidNotReport campaign with my Fem2.0 colleagues. It was a great and lively discussion that dealt with a spectrum of issues related to sexual violence — from workplace harassment to sexual abuse to rape. When you get down to it, there’s a lot to drill into when we talk about sexual violence.
One of the issues that was raised was how to be an ally to survivors. How do people create safe spaces? How do those who will become the support system for a survivor start making that first supportive step?
This is an important question and one I have faced every time I tell someone my story. Every time it is the first time someone is learning that I am a survivor of sexual abuse, it is an experience that can be hard to predict. Will this person offer me solace? Will they explode with rage? Will they shut down, unable to process what I’ve told them? Or worst of all, will they decide to not believe me? It is not an exaggeration to say that I have to anticipate any range of reactions every time I tell someone my story.
Every single time. And I’m not alone.
I would guess that this is an experience shared by most survivors of sexual violence. And depending on where you are in the healing continuum — from raw wound to just managing to shedding the layers of shame and anger — just the anticipation of a bad experience sharing your story is enough to keep you silent.
And silence is the evil twin of sexual violence. Physical wounds will heal. But the shame of silence can crush you like the sands of an hourglass slowly burying you alive.
I don’t have all the answers but here are some hard-earned truths I’ve learned:
- First and most important of all, Start by Believing. If someone comes to you and tells you about an experience they have had, don’t hesitate. Believe them. It is the single most powerful thing you can do to help them.
- Don’t re-victimize them by forcing them to re-live their experience so that you can hear the story of what happened. You may be curious. You may even have questions. But you do not deserve their story. The story is irrelevant. The story proves nothing. Truth is what matters. The truth is, they are telling you they were victimized and experienced a terrible trauma. The fact that they are trusting you with that truth is what matters. That is enough.
- Don’t make the victim have to take care of you. I find this a lot. More than I like, to tell you the truth. Often when I tell people that I am a survivor, the first reaction is some mixture of shock and dismay. Nobody likes to think about sexual abuse, rape, or other forms of sexual violence. It’s horrible. It’s a ninth circle of hell. Why would you want to find out that someone you know has lived through that? That’s bad news! I get that. Unfortunately, some people are so aggrieved by the news that it becomes more about me comforting them and walking them through their reaction than about me and why I told them (because why would I just tell someone that for no reason?). One time the person I told broke down crying uncontrollably and sat down and rocked gently back and forth. That is a more extreme example. But I think you get what I’m saying. If I have decided to share such a painful truth with you, please remember that I’m still in the room after I do so.
- Don’t make the survivor responsible for your discomfort. This goes with the previous tip, but is important enough to warrant it’s own bullet point. Sexual violence is evil. I know it will make you uncomfortable. But just because it makes you uncomfortable does not make it okay for you to passive-aggressively try to silence me. When you ask a survivor to not talk about such things or just “let that go for tonight” or similar such sentiments, what you’re really saying is that YOU can’t handle that information. But the fact that you can’t handle the truth (sorry, I had to go there) is not an excuse to re-shame the survivor. It’s okay for you to have your feelings and take time to process whatever you need to. But if that is the case, own it and don’t put that back on the survivor. That’s your stuff, not theirs.
- Remember that the process of healing is not a straight line. Healing from the trauma of sexual violence can take years. And there will be set-backs. You will see your loved one have progress and then suffer from a trigger and fall back into old patterns or seem to lose ground in their journey. This happens. It’s important to follow their lead. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just be patient and offer encouragement, support, and hope. If you feel frustrated, believe me, the survivor is way more frustrated than you are.
- Each survivor is different. Some people can’t even say the word “rape.” Some people, like me, prefer the term survivor — because fuck you, I’m no victim. But for years I could not say the words, “I was molested” out loud. Not even when I was all alone. I could not form the words in my mouth, even though it was true. I could not stomach to hear the sounds in my ears. But everyone experiences their trauma differently. One day before class, one of my friends in college just casually told me about how she was date raped in high school. She just said it like we were talking about a TV show or the news. She said it while bending over to tie her shoe on a bright and sunny spring morning with birds singing in the trees. Just like that.
- You don’t have to be their sole support system. This is hard to remember sometimes when your friend is calling you crying at 3 am or your spouse keeps waking up drenched in sweat from the night terrors. You love this person. You care about what is happening to them. You want to be a part of the solution. You want to ease their pain. And that is wonderful! That is so important! That is a gift that a survivor can never repay. But you are also a human being with needs and a limited supply of comfort to spare. If you are getting tapped out, I highly recommend, indeed, encourage you, to seek your own support system. And to seek out resources in your community, online, at the bookstore, on iTunes… wherever, that you can offer your loved one to give them more outlets and more tools for their journey. Counseling is a godsend. I highly recommend it. I can honestly say that when I was deep in trauma that the counselors that I went to saved my life. And probably my marriage.
- You can’t change the world, but small acts of safe-space building can make a huge difference. Do you have a friend who always makes offensive rape jokes (Oh, my phone company is raping me each month!)? Is there a hot new movie out that you know has a graphic scene depicting sexual violence that could be a trigger for the survivor in your life? When I went to see The Watchmen I had to leave the movie theater when they showed the attempted rape scene, even though I knew it was coming. I’ve seen other scenes of sexual violence in movies and on TV before and since and did not have the same visceral, triggering feeling. I suddenly felt hot all over and that I was going to throw up. Images from my past flooded my mind. I don’t know why, but that scene just cut me deep. When I got to the bathroom I found it hard to collect myself and wept in a stall until I felt better. One of the things that was a comfort to me was the simple knowledge that if I needed to, my husband would leave that theater immediately and never make me feel a moment of guilt. You can be that person for somebody. And even just knowing you are willing to create a safe space for someone can sometimes be just as good as actually doing it.
- Speak up for survivors! Be a voice for change in your community. Lobby for legislation that helps survivors. Vote out politicians who trade away sexual violence prevention programs in budget negotiations like some kind of worthless bargaining chip. The community at large doesn’t know what they are asking when they demand that survivors be the only credible lobbyists for change. It’s so hard to be open and speak publicly about sexual violence. You can do a lot to support those who do speak out. But also those who are too afraid to do so. Because surviving takes more courage than you know.
If you want more information about sexual violence or are in need of support services, please check out RAINN and their 24-hour, national hotline.