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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.


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.
Apr. 22nd, 2009 07:15 pm (UTC)
Yes, it was the counseling center. They believed that a rape survivor could only "get over it" and get closure if she could press charges against her rapist or at least be proactive about trying. And while I *did* mention to her that she could do those things, if she wanted, I wasn't about to push the issue.

She wasn't the only rape survivor to get that reaction, and to be fair, I did hear that the counseling center went through a massive "mission shift" after I graduated. But there's definitely a reason rape goes so under-reported. Why tell someone if you're the one who's going end up feeling like you've done something wrong?


Jim C. Hines


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