How not to respond to a sexual assault story
Friday morning, I posted an article about being sexually assaulted, why I didn’t report things to the police and why I did. My goal was to help people see that reporting (and all the other “right things to do when you’ve been/you’re being raped) is a complicated and often flawed concept. My other goal was to start a conversation about what rape “looks like.”
Since the article was published, I’ve received an onslaught of support. So much that I can’t even keep up with it. And even from some surprising places, like people who have historically been vocally non-supportive of Skepchick and our writers. I appreciate all of it.
And since the article, other people are also telling their assault stories. Admitting that they had a hard time using the word “rape” to describe their attacks because their attacks didn’t fit “the rape script.” Now they’re able to see it. And others are telling their stories because they feel like they can now. There are so many stories, particularly at Pharyngula, that I’m going to be dedicating my day Tuesday, and maybe Wednesday, to catching up on them all.
Given that there are so many stories coming out, and people trying to respond to them in a supportive way, I thought now might be a good time to address some of the well-intentioned, but problematic responses I’ve seen so far.
“I believe you.”
What you mean to say: I know that there are lots of people out there who will doubt you and ask you pointed questions, who will accuse you of being at fault, who will ultimately decide you are lying or simply overreacting. I am not one of those people. I support you and I’m here for you.
Problem: When I saw this response, I got a knot in my stomach. It pointed out, very directly, that there might be something to doubt. I just laid out 4 difficult stories, some of which I had never discussed with anyone, and I wasn’t really consciously concerned about being believed. My reaction was “Why wouldn’t you believe me? Is there something not believable? What did I say that would not be believed?”
I appreciate the sentiment. And “I believe you” is a message that is important to communicate to a victim who is trusting you. But there are so many ways to communicate that sentiment without saying it in a manner so direct, the victim isn’t left combing over her statements again and again for holes (trust me, she’s already been doing this since the second the attack ended.) When people respond compassionately and supportively, I can assume they believe me. Unless someone asks if you believe them, it’s probably best not to offer just an explicit statement.
That said, thank you for believing me. And thank you for your words of support.
“What can I do to stop this from happening to my daughter?”
What you mean to say: This is awful. I love my children and I want to make sure nothing bad ever happens to them, and this is bad, and I’m so scared for my daughter.”
Problem: You’re implying that you believe somewhere, there is something that can be done, and that I, my parents, and other victims are simply ignorant, and that our ignorance cost us.
There is no way to stop rape. There is no way to prevent it on a personal level. Women get drunk at parties, do drugs, meet strangers from the internet, wear short skirts in public and walk home late at night alone and some of them are raped. Most of them are not. And there are women who do none of those things. Some of them are raped. Most of them are not. Also? Don’t forget your son can be raped, too.
By asking this question, you are questioning whether victims have done enough to prevent their own rapes. To answer your question: Nothing. Nothing.
“What can I do to stop this so my daughter doesn’t end up like Elyse?”
What you mean to say: I don’t want anyone to rape my daughter.
Problem: Everything from the previous section PLUS implying that there’s something wrong with ending up like me AND implying that rape is some sort of end to something.
I’ll tell you how I ended up: kinda fucking awesome. I was raped and it screwed me up for a while, and it still affects me today, but I ENDED UP founding a charity, launching a vaccine education program, funny, smart, a published author, a marathoner, a cancer survivor, one of the most-read writers in a prominent and respected blog network, the mom to two hilarious children, a feminist, an activist, a woman without a college degree who is intellectually respected by her peers with PhDs, a woman whose voice you respect, a woman whose stories you read.
I’d like to think that there are worse things on Earth than your daughters “ending up” like me.
I didn’t “end up” a rape victim. Men forced themselves upon me. That wasn’t the end of my story. My story keeps going.
So please, if you’re trying to support me and other rape and sexual assault survivors, please don’t say that you don’t want your daughters to “end up like” us.
“I can’t read this”
What you mean to say: This is fucking awful and it’s difficult to get through. This is a part of humanity I don’t want to face.
Problem: You’re not an assault survivor, and you can’t read it because it’s too hard? You don’t have to read my story. It’s long. But these stories are ones you need to hear. And it’s harder for us to live through them and harder for us to talk about them than it will ever EVER be for you to read them. And that’s why you need to. We can’t tell our stories if people refuse to listen. Please listen to us. Please hear us. We need to be heard. The script exists because most stories are silenced. Not reading a survivor’s story because it’s too hard only works to feed the system that let this happen to us. You need to know these stories. You need to understand them. We need you to hear us.
“These stories made me realize I raped someone. I am feeling so bad about it. Let me tell you about the time I raped someone. Do you still love me?”
What you mean to say: Here’s the time I raped someone, and I need to tell all my rape victim friends right now about how they’ve trusted me and even though I’m their trusted friend, I am a rapist. This is really hard on me and I need a bunch of rape victims to tell me it’s okay that I’m a terrible person. Please? Do you know how upsetting it is to realize you’ve raped someone? You can’t possibly understand, but it’s so hard. Maybe harder than actually being raped. Oh I’m soooo sad for me right now.
Problem: Fuck you. Shut up. You are being a terrible fucking person. Talk to your therapist. Not a bunch of survivors who are coming out for the first time. This is not the time or the place for your story. You should be in prison. You know that. I’m not going to tell you that it’s okay or I know you’ve changed or that you’re a good person. THIS ISN’T ABOUT YOU. And no matter how bad you feel, you STILL don’t care about boundaries. You still don’t care about imposing yourself on people. Just STOP. Stop hurting people.
Thank you again to everyone who has offered their love and support. I appreciate it. And thank you to everyone who wants to make a change. Let’s start by teaching our children boundaries. Respect their spaces. Respect their bodies. Respect that it’s never okay to touch someone who doesn’t want to be touched.
Don’t tell kids they have to give a kiss or a hug to anyone.
Don’t tell kids to kiss or hug someone who doesn’t want it.
If a child asks you to stop touching them in any way, stop. (For example, I will not pick up my daughter if she asks me not to pick her up, and I will put her down if she tells me to. Exceptions are for situations where she is in danger if I put her down, and I explain that to her. She doesn’t always get it, but I will keep explaining it to her.)
If you see children not respecting someone’s physical boundaries, step in, tell them what they’re doing is wrong.
If you see a child fighting back when their space isn’t being respected, do not correct them. They’re not wrong to defend their bodies. Correct the person who is not being respectful.
What else can you do? Share these stories. Read them. Read them again. And keep supporting the people who tell them.
Featured image http://whatsyourgrief.com