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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 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.
Apr. 22nd, 2009 07:30 pm (UTC)
But your feelings, any persons feelings don't need to be justified.

And this is why "you're overreacting" or variants is such a damned trigger for so many people. Because where does Person A get off telling Person B if their reaction is appropriate or not? To shut down someone's expression of that emotions because YOU don't like them, or don't think that's how YOU would have reacted? My god, the arrogance that takes, and the insensitivity.... and yet it's so common as to be unremarkable. "Oh, you're overreacting, it wasn't that bad" or "S/he didn't mean it that way, don't be so hypersensitive." Etc. Casual conversation.

Yeah, there are TraumaLamas and Drama Queens of both genders, dog knows, and they can get tiresome. But then walk away. Don't tell someone they're wrong because they're not reacting the way you would/you feel comfortable with.

(note: this is my rant as triggered off the quoted excerpt, and not meant to be a comment directly on the original comment. No traumalamas were injured in the making of this post, etc).

Edited at 2009-04-22 07:34 pm (UTC)
Apr. 22nd, 2009 07:39 pm (UTC)
Since you and I in the past have had moments of eerie similarity, I figured as much. I do the exact same thing. ;)


Jim C. Hines


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