The last few weeks have been challenging for me. One night, while at a training at a hotel, I slept with a chair pushed up against my door as a form of protection. I knew I was over-reacting to the conversations I’d had earlier that day but I couldn’t convince myself that I was actually safe and that the locks were enough.
I was triggered: my body locked up and my brain turned on and danger pounded in the back of my skull.
When I got home my partner politely put a pillow between us while we were sleeping because his cis-male body felt like a threat to me, despite him being an exceedingly decent man.
Life after sexual assault is not perfect but it is a life.
Earlier on the day in question I had spent about 15 minutes trying to convince a man that “no actually means no”. He would listen to what I had said, then turn to one of the other men in the room and respond to him, not to me, not to the dozen or so other women who were also trying to reason with him.
I don’t actually think this man is a ‘bad’ man.
The more complicated thing to believe is he is a well intentioned standard human male who has received the standardised human male training and this is what comes of that.
Making him a ‘monster’ is to ignore that a good deal of our male socialisation is monstrous and brutal to both men and the other people who must share the world with them. When monstrosity becomes common place it remains monstrous but ceases to be oddity: it just is.
The breaking point for me came when I explained to the room full of participants that I was assaulted at the age of seven and one man remarked, with a smile on his face, ‘maybe you were big for seven’.
The situation devolved after that.
Some of the men apologised after for how the whole session went down, and I want to reiterate that most of them did not share his views.
None of them, however, directly challenged him. They made jokes, usually while a woman was speaking and thereby derailing her point. They muttered derogatory things under their breath, but none of them ever said to him directly that he was wrong.
[There’s more discussion that’s needed about men and their responsibility to guide and check other men on these issues but I’ll opt to have that later.]
Right now what I want to do is provide a checklist for people who may be engaging survivors of sexual assault and who want to avoid some painful and angering pitfalls
When talking to a survivor of sexual assault, especially one who is sharing in public, please try to avoid the following:
“What were you wearing”?
Or any other statement that implies that the woman is to blame, and shifts the focus from her attacker. It’s a senseless practice that really comes out of our unwillingness to address a larger system that privileges men and creates the kind of men that rape. It’s easier to take on the individual woman so we do it, we make her take the blame either directly or indirectly by coercing her into reconsidering everything she thought she knew about her own situation.
“I know you’re hurt, but can you not swear while sharing this”?
Because this low key implies that you’re more offended by the use of profanity than by what happened to this woman. If what she’s saying or how she’s saying it is offensive then consider leaving the space, but as much as you can please allow her a space to process her pain in a way that is useful to her.
“Well, let’s get a man’s opinion on this”.
This is offensive whether the person who says it is a man or woman because it implies the woman cannot, on her own, understand what happened to her. There’s more to be said here about how men start to speak to other men rather than the women who are directly addressing them when the issue of sexual assault comes up. I’ll post more on that later.
“It’s a good thing women are so strong/resilient”.
I know the intention of this may be to remind the person that they’ll make it through, but some of what we we think women should ‘naturally bounce back from’ actually requires super human strength and we shouldn’t be expected to have it. Survivors need a space where they can be vulnerable and ‘weak’ and don’t need their strength to be flagged up as if it is more valuable than other ways of coping, including breaking down.
“He’s a good guy, I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it”.
This is complicated stuff. And we know that otherwise ‘good guys’ are also capable of assault. Their overall ‘goodness’ does not pardon them for what they have done because it does not diminish the impact on the woman’s life. In the time you spend convincing the survivor that this man is a ‘good guy’ and trying to talk her out of whatever action she plans to take against him, you should probably go talk to all the ‘good guys’ you know so they don’t end up in the same situation. Actually this is indicative of a larger problem where we spend a whole heap of time telling women how not to get raped and even how to function after rape but far less time talking to men about consent, boundaries, learning to take rejection, and why it’s not ever okay to force women. Change your focus and maybe you’ll have more impact.
“Well, you’re a beautiful woman so you must expect…”
There’s really nothing that comes after that sentence that could make the first part better. I know we’ve been fed the idea of the ‘irresistible beauty/sexiness’ for years, mostly by men who want to pardon themselves for not controlling themselves, but beauty has very little to do with being assaulted. It has very little to do with it because ideas of beauty vary greatly, it has nothing to do with it because people assault women who are not traditionally beautiful and who they do not find beautiful, it has nothing to do with it because assault has more to do with power and far less to do with intrinsic attraction. Yes, there are men who assault traditionally beautiful women but it is more because they want to control the beautiful woman than her beauty in and of itself. This kind of thinking, again, takes the focus away from the attacker and places it back on the survivor as a kind of backhanded compliment. It is not her fault. Please also miss me with the “You should be glad somebody took an interest” argument. Sexual assault is not a compliment.
“A so man tan/that’s just how men are.”
It really enrages me how little we expect from men and if I were a man I would be deeply offended. A core part of the issue we’re having with masculinity is the idea that ‘boys will be boys’ (they can’t help it and shouldn’t be held accountable) which matures and mutates into ‘a so man tan’ (they can’t help it and shouldn’t be held accountable). What do you think will happen when you have a set of people who believe that they can’t control themselves and moreover who realise that they’re not expected to? Survivors should not be asked to pardon men simply because they are men. And we shouldn’t be creating the kind of men who need this type of accommodation.
“I really think it’s time you moved on.”
Even people who have been assaulted but who cope differently or who have ‘healed and gotten over it’ tend to use this line of reasoning. There’s no timeline on healing and survivors don’t hang on to pain on purpose. You’re also not a better or stronger person because you ‘got over it’.
“So why are you only bringing this up now?”
Sometimes it takes a while to be comfortable talking about what happened to you. For some people they don’t remember for years because they blocked it as matter of coping. For people who are assaulted as children the power difference between them and the adult who assaulted them or them and the adults they will have to report to make it a daunting task. Moreover, since we grow up in a culture that blames survivors for their assault, many people pick themselves apart wondering how they caused it rather than reporting. The self-blame becomes even worse when the person that assaults you was someone you trusted or liked… ‘no, they could never do that, i must be mistaken..i must have somehow asked for it’. It can take people years to feel comfortable revealing what happened to them, it doesn’t mean it’s any less valid.
“So you’re going to ruin a perfectly good relationship over one mistake?”
The longevity of a relationship is not more important than the safety of the people in it. If a man assaults his partner it’s not her responsibility to fix that up with herself so she can go back to him, if she wants to leave let her. Remaining in close proximity to an attacker can be a type of violence that no one should endure. Some women do patch it up and go back and are happy, but they decided that for themselves, and that’s also okay. Pressuring victims to stay in relationships with their attackers by highlighting his virtues ignores that his one ‘mistake’ may change this woman’s whole emotional and psychological future. Doesn’t that also count?
Before I post this let me acknowledge:
YES, men are also assaulted and there should be a space to discuss that.
YES, some women wrongly accuse men or rape, though only about 1% , and there needs to be a space to discuss that as well.
YES, male socialisation does teach men things that could lead them to rape, that doesn’t mean they aren’t to be held accountable.
I put these things here because I don’t doubt that well meaning people will encourage me to address and consider them as a part of being ‘balanced’. To those well meaning people I would like to say I support you in creating a space to have those conversations, and I will join them. But please do not shift the focus from what I am speaking about by inserting things I chose not to speak about because they were not the point HERE.
It’s difficult to talk about your assault for some people. When they do speak, listen. You don’t need to counter, refine, play devil’s advocate, be provocative, none of that. Just listen. And acknowledge that you’re sitting in a space of great vulnerability, treat that gently and with respect.