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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


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. Isn’t your response to “I can’t read this” reaction kind of callous? I mean, I get that you suffered terrible trauma and you feel like reading about it can’t be nearly as bad as going through it. You are right, it’s not. But aren’t you basically saying “unless you suffered the same kind of trauma that I did, your problems can’t possibly be as bad as mine, and therefore you should be perfectly fine reading about them”. Might it not be the case that other categories of terrible things also happen to people, so that they may find reading about one more terrible thing unbearable? Might someone be entitled (with or without trauma in their past) to just feel very bad and not want to learn about one more bad thing in the world, which seems bad enough already that they may not want to continue living in it? It seems like a common reaction of people who have been through bad things (and as one such person, I recognize this tendency in myself) to lash out at others who are so upset by stories of suffering that they just don’t want to know any more of it, but isn’t it basically like saying that other people (unless they’ve suffered Qualifying Trauma (TM)) cannot have a valid reason to guard their emotional wellbeing against information that might threaten it? I’m annoyed by people living in a rosy bubble of privilege too, but it still seems like the wrong way to react (if for no other reason then the fact that maybe they just “seem” to live in said rosy bubble, and maybe some really bad things have happened to them too, that I don’t know about).

    1. It’s also incredibly harsh for people who are trying to share their stories to be told repeatedly, “no, please, it’s too much.”

      There is no Qualifying Trauma that gets you out of reading it. But if you’re not reading it because you can’t bear to see this dark of a side of the world, you’re only keeping that part of the world dark. You’re making it harder for us to be heard. These are important stories. They’re hard to admit to the public, harder to admit to ourselves.

      How can we be heard if everyone keeps telling us that our stories are too horrible to be listened to?

    2. As someone who’s led a pretty sheltered life, I could very well be one of those “I can’t read this it’s too horrible” people. And sometimes, I am. Sometimes I find that no, I really can’t read whatever it is. But I never find myself moved to tell people around me that I refuse to take part of the thing in question.

      As a feminist trying for an intersectional perspective, I often find myself advocating for people (and that includes myself, most of the time, since being a woman is pretty much the only way I’m underprivileged) to shut up and listen. I feel there’s a parallel here: If you don’t want to listen, the least you can do is shut up.*

      Harsh? I guess, maybe. I just think the conversation we’re having now, about sexism, sexual harrassment, assault, rape… it’s an incredibly important conversation. And posts like Elyse’s are extremely important parts of that conversation. And they deserve better than being told that people are wilfully refusing to read them.

      *(Not telling YOU to shut up, specifically, Anna! Just trying to explain a point.)

    3. If they don’t want to read something, they certainly don’t “have” to, but why the need to announce to the world that you didn’t/couldn’t read it? It comes off very self-centered and unnecessary. It in no way advances the discussion. It isn’t comforting to the victim. What is the point except to leave a comment just to leave a comment? It’s not even to acknowledge you read the post in question — it’s to actively say you didn’t/couldn’t.

      Why? What’s the point?

      And you have a victim here saying that it’s callous to do that, and yet we have to be sensitive to the person who couldn’t even bother to read her story? Really?

      Why is it that we always have to be so fucking nice to people who don’t deserve it (even if only in that moment)?!

      1. Ok, here’s my problem with this, and I actually haven’t resolved it to my own satisfaction in my own head. On the one hand, I’ve had enough awful things happen to me that I’ve learned to be careful about telling any unsuspecting acquaintances much about my past because they are then too shocked and appalled to deal with me in the here and now, and will, instead, forever view me as a “damaged victim” and tend to ascribe my rational thoughts, opinions, and actions to “consequences of trauma” and dismiss them this way. And I am, in fact, annoyed when people are too uncomfortable with what I tell them that they feel they need to hide behind some version of “this is just too dark for me” excuse.

        On the other hand, I often feel that life is way too dark as it is and I just can’t handle another story of victimization right now. This does guide my selection of various media I choose to expose myself to, as well as my level of real life engagement with various people and issues.

        Here’s the rub, you are probably more ok with me saying “I’m a victim (of a different kind than you), and I just can’t handle hearing about more dark things right now” than you are with me just saying the latter half of that statement. But how is that not me trotting out my “victim cred” in order to be entitled to a different kind of treatment? And what if I didn’t want to trot out said victim cred, what if “I can’t handle more dark things right now” had to stand on its own? What if I don’t want to share the reasons for why something bothers me too much to be able to handle it right now, both because I don’t want to deal with the consequences of such a revelation and because I don’t want to act entitled to special treatment (which is just a flip side of having this special treatment forced on me by concerned third parties)? And how do I address third parties making that statement, when I don’t even know *if* they have “victim cred” that I should take into consideration when they make that statement?

        I’m perfectly aware of the tension between “I have stories that I think need/deserve to be heard” and “I can’t read this / listen to this” reaction, as I’ve been on both sides of it. I think silencing is a bad thing. I think if you are ready to air your dark stories and take the consequences (by that I mean people seeing you differently from now on in perpetuity, I don’t mean trolling — I know people get trolled for coming out with stories of victimhood, and I think that’s horrible, but while “trolling” is a behavior one can learn not to engage in, seeing someone in a different light is more subtle and not easy to control, so that particular consequence is probably never going away) you should absolutely have that option (which also implies that you should be listened to). I’m just not sure where the boundary between “I should be heard” and “you should listen to me” lies. It certainly feels like saying “shut up and listen” goes too far (if for no other reason then because you don’t really know who you are saying that to). But I also don’t want for everybody to plug their ears and go about their lives blithely unaware of all the suffering going on right under their noses.

        Also, I want to be clear that I’m in no way criticizing you for choosing to publicly reveal the stories of your sexual assaults. I think you were very clear about the content of your post so as to avoid triggering other victims, and this was a public post that anyone can choose to not read, rather than a private, targeted conversation that the other party might have more trouble avoiding, so I think you cannot be faulted in any way for how you handled the delivery of the content. I am taking issue exclusively with the part of this specific post that I was commenting on, and I’m not even trying to say I think you are completely wrong, or that your reaction is unjustified, just that something about the approach you choose seems not entirely fair, and possibly worth unpacking/discussing.

        1. On the one hand, I’ve had enough awful things happen to me that I’ve learned to be careful about telling any unsuspecting acquaintances much about my past because they are then too shocked and appalled to deal with me in the here and now,

          You are describing talking about your past with an individual, face to face, while Elyse has instead made a blog post ,with plenty of trigger warnings. No one was “unsuspecting”.

        2. I can’t speak for Elyse’s intent, but I read “You’re not an assault survivor” to clarify that she is not referring to people who are triggered by the post. I don’t think she’s suggesting that she or anyone else telling their stories would weigh victim cred of any kind to judge someone who would say this but that the person saying it should consider this perspective and how the comment comes across, and police themselves internally. You (in the general sense, not you specifically) know your own background and know whether this applies, so be sensitive and understand how it comes across and the real impact it can have. If your reason for not reading it relates to it triggering your own experiences, whatever those may be, then this doesn’t apply beyond avoiding saying you can’t read it (because no one needs to volunteer that even if they have good reason for not reading).

          I think one reason people say this phrase is that it’s a way of conveying that they don’t take the stories lightly, that they see them for how horrible they are, and in this sense, it’s intended to be supportive within a culture that does take rape lightly. That’s even more of a reason for Elyse to make this point because it’s not one that people are necessarily going to reach on their own, especially if their intentions are good. The hurt that these comments can cause and why need to be pointed out so that people can support survivors in the best possible way as well as do so in a way that does not perpetuate the status quo regarding rape, however unintentionally.

  2. Since you specifically called out the Pharyngula thread, what is your take on the Jane Doe in 143? Was it your intention that she was addressed in your “These stories made me realize I raped someone?”

    Thanks for any info/clarification.

    1. I was taking this post to mean, in more general terms, “this is how you should/shouldn’t react” when a victim tells you their story, and I can imagine some scenarios where some of the advice would be problematic. If Elyse meant it more specifically as “this is how you should/shouldn’t react to a blog post of a victim describing their experiences”, then my bad, and my objections don’t apply.

      1. I’d like to know what Elyse was saying, but if she’s just talking about face-to-face interactions, I totally agree. If I was talking about how I had been raped, and Jane Doe or someone equivalent jumped into to say what was said in 143, I would probably be “stunned silent” [just like the name of the Pharyngula thread] which would be a pretty horrid outcome. On the other hand, it’s only probably true. I am sympathetic to the argument that demonization is bad for everyone (and have made a version of it myself more than once). It’s possible that this could be done in a good way, by the right person in the right context.

        So I’d agree with Elyse in that context, but not necessarily be willing to say it as an absolute. In fact, I wouldn’t be willing to say it as an absolute. I think reading between the lines, you find that Elyse is talking about people who hijack sympathy for survivors to get some for themselves in order to reassure themselves when, because of their own bad actions, rape threads make them feel uncomfortable.

        if it was limited to that, sure I’d be in total agreement. But how, for example, does one determine if a Jane Doe 143 is doing that?

        1. The Jane Doe story has caused me an incredible amount of anxiety and stress. I get that it’s part of her abuse. But the conversation about her has gone to places I am not okay with. And with at least one other “I am the abuser” story, I’ve unsubscribed to the comments and I am now dealing with an overwhelming amount of panic after putting my daughter in daycare this morning.

          1. Ugh. I’m so sorry, Elyse. I said on Pharyngula, but I wasn’t sure you would get it there, that I’m glad you’re taking care of yourself.

            I’m sorry you’re triggered at all, of course, but I’m glad you’re actively making decisions to protect yourself and your family as best as you know how and as best as you are able.

            May you feel better soon.

          2. I’ve been thinking about this and I think some of the behavior comes from trying to equate their feelings with people who have survived abuse and trauma. Like “this other person is getting to express her/himself, this discussion makes me uncomfortable, so I should get to say my part even if it makes other people uncomfortable.” And to me the faultiness here is really that by trying to reorient discussions like yours to be sympathetic to abusers they are doing something actively harmful to people who have been abused that goes beyond an uncomfortable conversation (stuff like what you’re talking about regarding panic, etc). The big corollary to this is that, if they want to figure out what they can do to change their actions and become a better person, there are plenty of other places for them to do that where no one will be harmed. Lots of people will be sympathetic to that (repentant sinners are kind of a thing in US culture) and it comes from some screwed up thinking to try to put that responsibility on people who remind them of those they have abused or hurt in some way. One could even say that it’s the continuation of that same kind of behavior in the sense that they are trying to place responsibility for their feelings, actions, etc on other people without respect for those people’s boundaries.

            I guess there’s no particular reason for you to care but I am very supportive of what you did with that blog post. I don’t understand how there can be real hostility to the “how not to respond” post either, beyond that there there seems to be endless amounts of senseless hostility towards much of what’s written here.

            (Note: I don’t think I’m saying anything you don’t know, but I think things can sometimes be worth restating. I am sorry if I make anyone uncomfortable or do something inappropriate and will try to readjust as necessary.)

  3. Fuck, Elyse, I had no idea that my comment would bring up the triggers for you that it did. My comment was based on what words I need to hear when I tell people my story, but have yet to get, and it did not occur to me at all that those three words would convey anything to you other than support and understanding, or make you think that there was anything unbelievable about your story. I am sorry that my comment caused your stomach to knot. My most heartfelt apologies.

    1. I too am sorry for distress caused to Elyse by my choice of words. I meant only that the behavior of those bastards towards her was pretty unbefuckinglievable.

  4. “‘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…”

    This is not meant as a criticism of you or as an invitation to console me, but I feel weird about this because I feel like I should be able to read it (I read through some of it but was skipping over parts and eventually quit the whole thing). Even though I’ve had issues with violence, imprisonment, sexual assault, etc I feel like they are much milder than what you were describing. I know that’s kind of an awful comparison and this stuff is not a contest, but on some level I wish I had better ability to deal with stuff like that without it shutting me down and messing up my day to day life.

    “But if you’re not reading it because you can’t bear to see this dark of a side of the world, you’re only keeping that part of the world dark.”

    I agree with this so so much though. I’m not sure why it’s supposedly such a burden for non assault survivors to deal with. Or “normal” people generally, really, seen talking about mental illness, physical disability, or other kinds of abuse (or even things like various global issues) is treated as this huge requisition of them, like I don’t respect it so much if someone’s happiness is contingent on ignoring and silencing the suffering around them.

  5. Two comments on “I can’t read this.”/”I can’t deal with this.”
    1. Considering this was in response to a blog post, why the fuck would you POST “I can’t read this?” Why would you feel the need to bring your inability to deal with this to everyone’s attention, instead of just, say, not commenting at all, or possibly just saying something like “Hugs” or “I support you” and just not reading.

    2. I had a conversation once with someone about how they couldn’t handle hearing me talk about what had happened to me, my response (I was not at a healthy place at the time) was to scream, “Well how the fuck do you think I feel having to LIVE IT!?!”
    I understand people who are triggered not wanting to engage in what’s triggering them, and I encourage that. But if it’s on a blogpost, why bring attention to that.? Just don’t say anything.

    If it’s in person, you need to make a decision about what you can and can’t cope with due to your own trauma, but don’t expect it to be well-received at the time. Trying to explain later why may not be amiss, but that person is going to have their hands full dealing with their own shit, and there is no easy answer for this at all. I can’t tell you in good conscience to ignore your own needs and take care of someone regardless of where you are, but neither am I going to tell you it’s ok to abandon someone who is hurting. That is a call only the person involved in this situation can make, and I’ll be honest, there’s probably no win to be had. If that person has other people who can step in and help them, it might be an easier decision.

    And I’m not saying this to make anyone feel bad about their choices. Odds are good you were doing the best you could with what you had at the time. It’s a shitty situation with no good answers.

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