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Significant Others (Rape Awareness Month)

Like my previous rape awareness posts, this one has the potential to be triggering.

The rape counseling program at Listening Ear didn't just offer counseling and services to survivors of rape. We offered those same services to significant others, by which we meant anyone close enough to the survivor to be affected and need our support: boyfriends/girlfriends, spouses, family members, close friends, etc.

I've been the significant other far too often. For myself, there's a lot of anger and pain, as well as an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Nothing I do can change or fix what happened, or make the pain go away for the other person.

One thing I saw a lot when talking to significant others was a need to make the survivor take steps to "fix" things. "I want to make her report it to the police, but she won't listen to me," or "I want to kick the guy's ass, but she won't tell me who it was," or even "She just needs to stop thinking about it and try to move on."

The trouble is, these things are about making me (the significant other) feel better. I feel powerless and angry, so I try to regain my sense of power by telling the survivor what to do ... which means now I'm the one trying to control her. Rape strips control and power from the victim. How does it help that person regain a sense of control if I'm saying, "This is what you must do. You have to report this to the police, and if you don't, you're letting the rapist get away with it and it's your fault if he rapes someone else and you have to get him off the street!"

It can be damned hard to accept that choice. I've had to sit at the same table with guys who raped people I loved, guys who got away with it. I also know that with the way our justice system works, there's no way they would have been convicted. I know the process would have put my friends through hell all over again. (See The Rape of Mr. Smith for one fairly mild example of how the legal system tends to treat rape survivors.)

Telling someone "It wasn't your fault" or even just "I believe you" never feels like enough. And it's not ... but it can help. Listening helps. Letting the person be in whatever space they need to be in right now helps. You might be the first one the survivor has talked to. You might be the first one who didn't immediately ask, "Why were you drinking?" or "Why did you dance with him if you didn't want to lead him on?" or any one of a hundred other things that tell the person, "It's your fault he did this to you." It always amazed and saddened me how many people would say "You're the first person to tell me this wasn't my fault."

It's a lot to listen to, and it hurts to hear. And it's okay to share that, to say you're hurting too, or you feel helpless or angry or whatever. Not trying to take the other person's feelings away or make it all about you, but just sharing that they're not alone in feeling hurt and scared and overwhelmed.

Likewise, it's okay if you need to talk to someone too, so long as you're not betraying the survivor's trust. That's one reason I liked our counseling center. The hotline was completely anonymous, which meant you could talk and get some support without breaking that confidentiality. For myself, I always feel tremendous pressure to try to take care of the other person and provide what support I can. It was eye-opening to learn I was allowed to take care of myself as well.

There were other things I had to learn. I tend to be a pretty huggy guy, but sometimes offering a hug of comfort is the last thing the other person wants. I'm just trying to be supportive, but it's also true that I'm another guy trying to put my arms around the other person. And once again, that hug was as much for my comfort as for hers.

What I learned, both through training and in my personal life, was to listen. To let the person know I believed them, and that it wasn't their fault. (Though it's normal for rape survivors to feel guilty and responsible, and it's not helpful to get into an argument about that. It's one thing to know it's not your fault, but that doesn't change the feelings.) To offer options, but not to try to force them. If the other person wanted to go to the police, I was willing to go with them, but it's not my job to force it. To try to be patient, to understand that there's no timeline or schedule to recovery. And that this hurts me too, and it's okay to take care of myself sometimes.

These are just my experiences. As always, other thoughts and feedback are very much welcome.


( 40 comments — Leave a comment )
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Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:10 pm (UTC)
As always, thanks, thanks, thanks. Not much else because too triggery. BUT the "don't tell her what she MUST do" thing is so right on. To this day I react less than, um, openly to certain types of advice, because of my inclination to feel like I'm constantly spinning out of control, and nothing is in my control, so when I'm taking control and other people try to steer me away from my own decisions, I...um...get bitey.
Apr. 22nd, 2009 06:01 pm (UTC)
It feels like we've got such an advice-oriented culture. My sense is it's even stronger for guys. The idea is to fix everything. Forget support, forget listening, just fix it and make it go away. Which is okay when my son's Transformer loses an arm and Daddy has to put it back on, but doesn't work as well for other things.
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:18 pm (UTC)
I tend to be a pretty huggy guy, but sometimes offering a hug of comfort is the last thing the other person wants.

That. Yes. My personal space is mine. I've had people call me cold or unfriendly because I'm not into the fannish epidemic of personal contact with casual friends, or backrubs for everyone! No. This is my space. it is not yours. When I invite you in, you will know. Until then, do not give me a bear hug or put your hand on my shoulder without warning or try to rub my back even if I look tense. Especially if I look tense. My reflexes are better than you think, and I almost broke someone's nose that way.

Once you are invited 'in,' you can even tickle me without warning, and I'll just shriek and laugh. But wait.

[this, by the way, is a Damn Good Rule with anyone. IMGDO]

Edited at 2009-04-22 03:18 pm (UTC)
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:40 pm (UTC)
I completely agree with this comment.
(no subject) - jimhines - Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - seanan_mcguire - Apr. 22nd, 2009 06:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mt_yvr - Apr. 22nd, 2009 04:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:22 pm (UTC)
Thank you for these.
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:32 pm (UTC)
You know, I've been very lucky. Only recently have my husband,, Bryon and I had discussions about how I could tolerate my dad. When my father was alive, he wondered about why I would even want to see the guy, but he kept his opinions to himself.

Now that I'm in further recovery and less shock (would you believe that you can relapse into shock over and over again, 30 years after the fact? It's a numbing technique), and I'm really good and angry, we've talked about some of Bryon's feelings. The good thing is that Bryon didn't push me on the issue of separating entirely from my abusers. My counselor thinks this instinct was a good one.

It probably would have been better for me if I left my family behind me much earlier. Therapists agree! But there are some very sticky, complicated ties, and at a certain level I wasn't ready to believe my family couldn't be fixed or saved, and at a certain level I really didn't want to acknowledge with my emotions what had happened to me. I couldn't realize I had the power to walk away until I finally realized I had the power to walk away.

I think my experience validates what you're saying. As hard as it was for Bryon to watch me and wait, it would have been harder if there had been pressure to behave as he expected a normal person, rather than a child victim, would.

Thanks for listening. You know, I have to stop being so chatty in your journal these days.

Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:50 pm (UTC)
I appreciate the chatty :-)

This is a really good point. To an outsider, it's easy to simplify things. "Person A is victim. Person B is abuser. Person A needs to get away and put person B in jail."

But often it's a lot more complicated. A lot of abused children in particular feel so conflicted. They might hate and fear the abuse, but still love the abusive parent (or whatever relative we're talking about). They don't want to lose that person; they just want the abuse to end. That's a horrible conflict for anyone to have to reconcile, especially a child.

I'm glad Byron was able to be supportive and let you take the time to figure things out for yourself. That couldn't have been easy for him either.
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC)
The one thing I'd like to add about 'not saying' is this: "But he's your husband!"

... It doesn't matter. I said no. Marriage doesn't negate that.
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:47 pm (UTC)

Pretty much any comment designed to explain to the survivor why they're wrong to feel upset about this is a bad idea...
Apr. 22nd, 2009 04:21 pm (UTC)
My roommate in college was raped. After it happened, I sat in the bathroom with her for three hours while she stood under the shower. She needed privacy, but not aloneness. When she was ready to go back to our dorm room, I asked what she wanted to do next. She told me she wanted to sleep, but she couldn't stand the dark. So we spent every night for a week sleeping with all the lights on. And when she decided she was ready to tell the counseling center what had happened, I went with her and held her hand.

I got such a tongue-lashing it could have made my ears bleed. "Why didn't you take her to the hospital? Why didn't you make her file a police report? Why did you let her wash away the evidence?"

Because it wasn't my decision, and because I wanted to be there for her in the way she needed at that time. And as the victim of emotional abuse, I can say that taking away a woman's power - even with the best of intentions - is not helpful. Thank you for saying it so well, and for being compassionate and sensitive.
Apr. 22nd, 2009 05:05 pm (UTC)
"Because it wasn't my decision."

Yep. It's one thing to offer options. To let someone know they have choices, and that you're willing to help them with whatever choice they make. But it's still their choice.

The tongue-lashing, this came from the counseling center? That's a little disturbing. I expect that kind of reseponse from law enforcement, because their job is to catch the bad guy, not to help the victim. (A frustrating distinction that caused all sorts of tension between the counseling center and the local police department.) But coming from counselors, that's worrisome to me.
(no subject) - wldhrsjen3 - Apr. 22nd, 2009 07:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 22nd, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)
As a newish reader of your your journal, I was wondering, when you made the earlier posts, what the roots of your personal concern for the issue were, but felt it wasn't appropriate (or relevant, even) to ask. I get a better sense, now.

Apr. 22nd, 2009 06:03 pm (UTC)
Personally, I'm comfortable with people asking whatever they'd like. If it's not something I'm okay with answering, I'll say that.

In this case, rape has always been something I felt passionately about. It's not something I've experienced personally, but far too many of my loved ones have.
Apr. 22nd, 2009 04:40 pm (UTC)
Good for you, Jim.

I had a friend who did hotline work for years. I didn't get the impression there were many men involved.

I know it was pretty draining; hope you're doing well with burn-out...
Apr. 22nd, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
It could be draining at times, but one of the other things you learn in the training program is how to get support from one another, which helped. I've been away from the counseling center and rape-related work for a while now. Between the day job, the writing, and the family, it got harder and harder to make the time. So these days, the burnout mostly comes from other areas :-) But I still try to use LJ to encourage education and discussion when I can.
Apr. 22nd, 2009 05:12 pm (UTC)
That advice works for a whole range of situations, dire and not.
Apr. 22nd, 2009 06:04 pm (UTC)
It's amazing how much the training on simply listening to people generalized to other situations...
Apr. 22nd, 2009 05:13 pm (UTC)
There is an issue that goes beyond rape in here. At least for me. It's an issue I've been fighting against my entire life. Sometimes I think it's things like this that force me to find a way to be more articulate, simply so I might be able one day to explain things.

The issue here is "How We Are Supposed To Feel". The short version is you're blindfolded, whirled around the world and dumped into an unknown location. Blindfold off, you think "I want to go to Seattle." My feeling is most people do just that. Say "I want to go to Seattle, I SHOULD be in Seattle."

Well darlings, the first step is: Where the hell ARE you?

We seem to put so much pressure on people to be something, ignoring or not meeting the eyes of what they ARE. And what they are feeling/thinking/doing, if we do pay attention to it, has to be justified.

No. It doesn't. It can be explained. But your feelings, any persons feelings don't need to be justified. This conversation has run in your journal before, Jim, but I really don't believe it has to be. This is not about right or wrong, this is about what a person feels.

What they DO with that is important. Both those that do bad things with their feelings - abuse to others ("I feel weak, so I will beat you to make me feel stronger") or themselves ("I feel like this is my fault, I shall now beat myself up and isolate myself"), and those that do their best to heal ("This is not my fault, but it hurts. But it's not my fault and I won't feel like I asked for this.")

The single hardest thing is to sit with some one and acknowledge you have no right to "allow them to" or "let them" feel anything. You are there to witness. To acknowledge. It hurts like hell.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people are afraid of their own truths in moments like this. Not all people accept these kinds of words, but a LOT of people in my life have been unendingly comforted by "I really don't know what to do or say right now. I don't. I don't want to make this worse for you. I want to make it better. Or at least safe."

Simply stating that you don't actually know what to say? Can make a lot of difference for people braced for various responses. A clear "this sucks, no idea" can do amazing things for people. It says "I mean no harm".

And stunningly "Help me help you, tell me what you need" is effective a lot of the times too.

(Jim : if this is an offensive comment or ends up offending people on your reading list, please feel more than free to erase it.. this is purely a "my gut response to this" kind of thing. I feel calm and reasoned but I know that these issues have a bunch of buttons in them for me. if I inadvertently crossed a line, please, remove it with my apologies)

Edited at 2009-04-22 05:18 pm (UTC)
Apr. 22nd, 2009 06:10 pm (UTC)
I'm seeing nothing offensive here, personally. I tend to agree with just about everything you're saying. Accepting how you or someone else is feeling in the here and now ... it's not something we're good at, and that's a problem. Heck, how are you supposed to get anywhere if you can't recognize and acknowledge where you're starting from?

I'm starting to go too abstract, but I definitely agree with what you're saying. I know I sometimes use the phrase "letting someone feel" whatever it is they're feeling. Which implies I'm giving permission, and that's not right. Like you said, who the hell am I to grant or refuse permission for someone else's emotions. But letting that person know I'm not going to try to fix or change it, trying to help build a safer space for them to talk about it....

Anyway, I'm not about to remove this, and I appreciate you sharing it. Thank you.
(no subject) - suricattus - Apr. 22nd, 2009 07:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mt_yvr - Apr. 22nd, 2009 07:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 22nd, 2009 05:24 pm (UTC)
I found this through a friend's LJ. I can't say thank you enough for writing this. You hit it on the head as far as I am concerned.

I shut myself off from the world for the better part of a year after my rape. I couldn't face my friends. I couldn't live with the "why did you..." looks I clearly saw. I blamed myself completely for what happened. I was careless and paid a very dear price, but it doesn't negate that what they did to me was wrong on every level.

I can now manage to go out, but still get tweaky in crowded areas or spaces I can't put my back to a wall. I still have flashbacks. I still have days where the panic is so bad I just cannot leave the house, but I am much better than I was. I have a boyfriend now who doesn't judge me for what happened, and when I do panic is the first to say "we don't need to go out today". I am ALOT more careful, and he no longer says he wants to hurt the people who hurt me. They may never catch the guys who did this to me, but I no longer imagine every male I meet is one of them.

It's a long road, but I've survived it and am so glad to know other people understand that it's not easy on the survivor, and harder on their loved ones.
Apr. 22nd, 2009 07:05 pm (UTC)
I'm glad the post was helpful, but sorry to hear what you've been through.

I've yet to meet a rape survivor who didn't blame themselves, at least for a while, for what someone else did to them. Even some of my fellow rape counselors who were also survivors. They knew intellectually that it wasn't their fault, but the feelings are still there.

I'm glad to hear you're in a better space today.
Apr. 22nd, 2009 06:09 pm (UTC)
First off, rape is wrong for ANY reason.

However, in the Mr. Smith analogy, what if Mr. Smith sought out a shady looking individual and flashed a wad of hundreds in front of him? What if Mr. Smith slapped him in the face with his hundreds? That might be grounds to dismiss a charge of theft, but I'm pretty sure a rapist in similar circumstances would still be convicted. Flaws in the analogy?

The story was pretty good, but the questions were pretty silly. "List other ways women are oppressed by men"? Wouldn't a better, less biased question be "List other ways one sex oppresses another"?
Apr. 22nd, 2009 06:13 pm (UTC)
Slapping someone in the face is technically assault, at which point I think our analogy starts to fall apart.

But to the spirit of it, so what? Say two people are getting hot and heavy, and one says they don't want to go any farther. Does that give the other the right to force them? I can tell you that most prosecutors wouldn't bother to try the case, but it's still rape. Maybe both parties should have been a lot more clear about expectations beforehand, but I don't believe any "provocation" from party A justifies party B committing rape.

Does that make sense? And am I understanding your questions and direction right, or am I misreading?
Apr. 22nd, 2009 06:22 pm (UTC)
No, I guess I didn't make myself clear. Rape for any reason is wrong, hot and heavy or whatever.

In the Mr. Smith analogy, if he went into a biker bar in a fancy suit, reeking of booze and slapped a stack of hundreds on the table, you would expect something to happen. In fact, many prosecutors would probably claim he was enticing a robbery. He should have known better than to be in the biker bar in the first place, and that his behaviour was outrageous, and likely to lead to a robbery. A prosecutor would in all likelihood never prosecute that. However, say a stripper went to the bar (maybe she was hired for a stag or something) and was raped, there would definitely be prosecutions.

I guess what I'm saying is that the Mr. Smith analogy is being used to make one point, when it makes the opposing point equally well. Analogies like Mr. Smith make us think of gray areas, when in fact, with rape, there ARE NO GRAY AREAS. Rape is wrong. Period.
Apr. 23rd, 2009 03:14 pm (UTC)
While you don't want to extend the Smith analogy to rape, some people actually do, and examine those gray areas you talk about. Smith in his expensive suit going to a biker bar is the equivalent of a woman, provocatively dressed, going into a bar.

Did Smith dress like that because he wants to be robbed? He's just asking for it!

So's our woman in her too short skirt, revealing cleavage.

Of course rape is wrong. The assumption that people who behave a certain way in any scenario should expect violence may be what people analyze after the fact, but it doesn't justify violence and robbery, any more than it justifies rape. That's victim blaming.

(no subject) - jlapp - Apr. 23rd, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - laughingfalcon - Apr. 27th, 2009 08:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jlapp - Apr. 27th, 2009 09:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 23rd, 2009 03:56 am (UTC)
The most offensive thing anyone ever said to me was "You need help."

His reasoning was that since I was still angry over the stuff that the evil-ex-from-hell did, after x number of years, I should get counseling.

Nevermind that I'd just spent the previous evening with people I hadn't seen since that beak-up, people who didn't know me before I hooked up with that ass. Nevermind that he was one of those people who didn't know me from the before time. I was still angry about an abusive relationship that ended several years ago, after I had established a better relationship with someone else. I must be obsessed. Pfeh.

I have had my fill of counseling. Counseling doesn't get the bastard out of my life. Counseling doesn't make me forget about what happened. It doesn't help me move, get me a job, or pay the growing mountain of debt. It doesn't fix or negate the problems that have turned me into a frothing madwoman. Every counseling session I have ever had has been a hour of my life wasted.

And if the Wookiee tries to hold me while I sleep, and pins my arm, I have a nightmare. Sometimes I clobber him as I wake up.
Apr. 23rd, 2009 03:33 pm (UTC)
I think I must be a careless reader because I didn't catch from your earlier posts that you worked as a crisis counselor.

I don't have a lot to add to your substantive points -- I agree with essentially everything you've said -- but I did want to thank you for doing that.

It's true, on the law enforcement side we are largely concerned with capturing and stopping the perpetrator. Because of that, and because of the simple truth that we have a bazillion cases and limited time to work on each one, I often couldn't be as supportive and gentle with victims as I would have liked. Counselors are critical in bridging that gap. Critical. I am deeply appreciative of their (and your) efforts in helping victims cope with not only the initial assault, but a justice system that is frequently cold and impersonal. And that's _our_ side. The horror stories I could tell about what judges and defense attorneys do...

Anyway, thanks. It's important work and I'm grateful to you for having done it.
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Jim C. Hines


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