Solidarity with survivors: Quit hurting your allies

April 2, 2012

Author’s note: This article does not graphically depict an incident of sexual assault, but could still be a trigger to survivors of such assault. The links in this post may be triggery as well.

It’s almost April – and for Sexual Assault Awareness Month this year, I want to start a conversation.

Since getting involved with progressive activism my freshman year, I’ve gotten much better at trusting people. I entered college with a certain cynicism towards humanity, and was convinced no students would be willing to seriously work towards changing the world for the better.

But luckily, I found them. I learned to trust them and work with them, even when we didn’t agree on tactics or priorities, and my outlook on life dramatically changed for the better.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t hit major setbacks, though. And one of those came in April – just under a year ago now – when one of my so-called “liberal” friends1 tried to rape me. (Tried being the key word, but obviously it’s still not an incident to be trivialized.)

I had known him on and off for over ten years, and we had been frequently meeting up and chatting for about a month and a half. He was the kind of “liberal” who wanted to go into politics, ironically enough, but genuinely seemed to want to change the world for the better. I believed in him as much as I believed in myself.

Needless to say, when everything went to hell with someone I trusted so much, the first few days were a haze of clinging to a close friend by day and crying by night. The next few weeks consisted of me drowning myself in whatever activism I could – and miraculously, no one did anything to upset me too terribly. I distanced myself from unfamiliar people, and it usually worked.

The next few months, though, were spent in and out of a therapist’s office, trying to figure out why being back home for the summer was so hard on me, and why so many little things were triggers at my stressful job as a security guard.

I “recovered,” but only in a loose definition of the word – one cannot erase memories fully, or be completely the same person ever again. Some things still trigger me on bad days, whether it’s a certain song, a certain place, or just a poor word choice from a friend.

My relatively successful recovery was due to a few close progressive friends who stayed loyal to me throughout the matter, but at times I found myself not even trusting them. How could I, when a “feminist,” “liberal” friend had wrought irreparable harm on my sense of safety and self-worth?

But it was those close progressive friends who got me through it, and after months of trying to figure out why, I’ve finally determined that it wasn’t about what they did – it was about what they didn’t do during their interactions with me.

So I’ll list off what they didn’t do, and what no guy (or girl!) should ever do when conversing with a someone that’s a friend, but not a close friend. It’s probable that if you’re very close friends, you’ll know if/when something traumatizing has happened, especially if it’s recent. But chances are, when you’re talking to 98% of the women out there, you won’t know what’s in her past, what she could be recovering from, and what horrific details make up the incident she suffered through.

First of all, familiarize yourself with the following commonly-used terms2: trigger, flashback, victim-blaming. Get to know some of the key statistics as well: according to the National Institute of Justice, 75% of all survivors know their attacker, and that percentage jumps to 90% on college campuses. In 2003, the FBI reported that 95% of reported rapes were found to be substantiated with credible evidence. (National Crime Victimization Survey data, though, indicates that over 50% of sexual assault victims do not report it to law enforcement – a key symptom of our victim-blaming culture.)

If you don’t know these terms and major statistics, you are not prepared to have a meaningful conversation about sexual violence, or take any of the following statements to heart. Unfortunately, even my “progressive” acquaintances who didn’t know what happened to me did the inconsiderate things listed below, so educate yourself on the common offenses below so you won’t be as likely to hurt your allies.

(And though I try to keep things relatively gender-neutral in the paragraphs below, I use “she” often, to emphasize that it is usually female-bodied/identified persons who are assaulted. Keep in mind, though, that any member of any gender identity can be a survivor of sexual assault, and the below guidelines really should apply to anyone you don’t know well. Statistically speaking, you know multiple women, and probably men and other gender identities, who are survivors.)

Common Offenses

When people ask for an escort home from a party, don’t belittle them, no matter how close by they live. It doesn’t matter how safe you think the neighborhood is; recent survivors in particular may need to have that additional sense of safety.

Physical touching, particularly hugging, is a major potential trigger for some. Clearly, the easiest route to avoid this is to offer a handshake or fist bump when it’s someone you don’t know well or haven’t seen in a while – and then accept a hug if she offers one. A “Christian side-hug” may be an appropriate option as well.

I shouldn’t even have to go over this one, but in regards to victim-blaming: don’t do it. It’s never justified. Enough said.

Don’t balk when someone doesn’t react well to a sexual joke or conversation topic. Learn to take a hint. Drop the subject. If you’re in a group discussing the subject and someone’s clearly uncomfortable, try to change the topic or engage her in a side conversation about something different. If the person who seems uncomfortable leaves the room, don’t immediately follow. And for crying out loud, don’t patronize anyone with “It’s okay, activists talk about this all the time, you’ll get used to it.”3

This is particularly important in settings where someone can’t leave the conversation easily – like, you know, on a nine-hour car ride.4 In those instances, it’s even more important to listen up if someone even half-jokingly says something about not wanting to play a particular game, or discuss sex lives, or whatever the issue may be.

How to be Aware

I’m not trying to say you have to walk on eggshells perpetually around people who aren’t close friends, but there are topics – sex and violence in particular – that you have to be gentle with. Being able to take a hint is critical. This goes for verbal conversation, texts, Facebook postings, and anything being communicated in a setting that isn’t between close friends.

Hold your friends accountable to this, as well. Say you’re hosting a party, and you invited a mix of progressives/feminists and your random friends from around town. One of your non-feminist friends tells a rape joke, or says something else highly problematic. Tell him to either shut up or leave, regardless of if the joke was made in front of a woman or not, because you’re in a position to take charge – the other progressives or feminists will hopefully say something, but you have a hell of a lot more sway over the offender since you’re the host.5

Romantic Antics

If you’re hitting on someone and you get the cold shoulder or any kind of unfavorable reaction, bug off. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone you’ve hit on before with favorable results – she could be having a bad night, or maybe something you said was just a little too familiar for comfort. Step back, at least temporarily, and try to resume conversation on a neutral tone later.

Also, good luck if you’re getting intimate with someone and she suddenly freezes up or otherwise acts abnormally – there’s a chance a nasty flashback of some kind just occurred, and you need to be respectful of that. Yeah, it means you might not be getting any action that night, but get over it.

Don’t expect anyone to apologize for or explain a sudden, unpleasant reaction to a trigger. Hopefully she will at some point, but if she chooses to act like it never happened, just assume you said or did something wrong and try not to do it again.6

Finding that “Safe Space”

Activists in particular, pay attention: if someone suddenly flakes on an event like a rally or protest, or any other event where there will be many strangers present, don’t judge. Ever. It’s okay to ask why she wasn’t there, but don’t press the matter, especially if you get a vague answer related to stress or illness. That’s probably a hint that it’s a reason that’s not easily discussed.

If you’re a leader in an activist organization, nonprofit or other group, and someone comes to you with concerns about anything regarding sexual harassment or sexual assaults – even if it’s just a question about the organization’s policies regarding those incidents – make a conversation with that person a priority. Chances are if somebody’s asking to have that conversation with you, it’s because something happened.

Again, any of the above “dos” and “don’ts”7 can apply to any gender and any sexual identity. But in a society where one in four women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, you more than owe it to your female-bodied/identified friends to be more than a little cautious. College and progressive activism are both stressful as it is without people running their mouths, being condescending, or making sexual violence-related issues the lowest of their priorities. Let’s start a dialogue and begin holding each other accountable to these things – and while no one’s ever going to be perfect, we at least need to strive to be better.

For more reading on this topic, I’d highly recommend the brilliant explanations in “Schroedinger’s Rapist,” this tangentally-related analysis of Rihanna’s song “Man Down,” and this tip sheet for secondary survivors.
ETA: A friend recommended I add the 24-Hour Rape Helpline number in Columbus run by the Sexual Assault Response Network of Central Ohio: (614) 267-7020. I hope you all never need it, but I’d recommend you at least keep it at hand either in your phone or on paper, so you can share it with friends if needed, too.

1. Before any of my overprotective friends get out the torches and pitchforks, no, he is not an OSU student and does not even live in Columbus. Therefore, he is not currently still a threat to me.
2. Yes, I’m sure some of the feminists reading this are rolling their eyes right now – “Do some progressives SERIOUSLY not know what those terms mean?” – but unfortunately I have had to explain “trigger” to more than one male progressive.
3. Yeah, someone said this to me one time after a bunch of male activists started randomly talking about boners.
4. Oh, and this happened too, when we were playing “categories” on the way home from a conference and someone wanted to use “slang for penis” as a category. Real cute, y’all.
5. I know you don’t want to be told “figure out what you did wrong yourself and fix it,” but unfortunately, not every survivor you encounter is going to be at the point where she can articulate why she had a flashback.
6. This goes for any party, really, but I’ve unfortunately had a very feminist male friend host a party with complete assholes at it, and I’m still slightly bitter about it. Why on earth would someone who claims to be so progressive hang out with douchebags?
7. The “dos” and “don’ts” spelled out here are not meant to be an exhaustive list, and some definitely don’t apply to all survivors (including myself). If you want to comment/debate/question me on some of these, please do. Or you can email me (cjones3660 @ gmail) if you’d rather keep it private.

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