These past few weeks I’ve watched in horror and support of the women who bore witness against Dr. Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics doctor who sexually assaulted at least 150 women, many of them minors as young as 12, over the span of his decades long career. In these moments where I’m lost in their stories about their abuse, what I find I feel most is disappointment. I’m disappointed that we live in a society and in a world that doesn’t know what to do with victims of sexual assault. We don’t know how to believe them, how to defend them, how to protect them, and how to love them. And as a survivor of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault, there are many days that I think, “Why is it so hard for you to understand what I’m feeling/saying??”
If it hasn’t happened to you, there really is no way for you to “get it”. It changes you. No, no. It literally changes you. A 2013 Time article detailed these changes through interviews with scientists and researchers versed in the subject. Jens Pruessner, the associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal explains:
“If abuse was of a sexual type, we saw changes in the somatosensory cortex, the area that processes input from the body to create sensations and perceptions.”
What they find is victims of varying levels and types of abuse experience changes within the brain that reflect those experiences. Emotional abuse can lead to problems with depression and other emotional issues in adulthood. Sexual abuse can lead to problems with healthy sexuality. The brain is reacting to the abuse the only way it knows: it decreases connectivity in the areas associated with the abuse as a means to survive it…even if the consequences of this tend to be negative.
Abuse and assault literally changes a person. And if you’ve never experienced these things, it will be very difficult for you to understand what your loved one is going through, why they behave or react as they do, and what they need. Today I’d like to tell you some of the things I’ve learned that I need so if you love someone who has been assaulted, hopefully you’ll have more insight into how to help them and love them through it.
1. Don’t Ask Irrelevant Questions
A common practice amongst victim blamers and defense attorneys is to inquire as to what the victim was wearing, where they were, and what they were doing right before the assault. Was the victim wearing a tight skirt and low cut blouse? Were they walking to their car in an empty parking lot at 2am? Had they been drinking or taking any drugs? All of these questions and assumptions deteriorate the experience and validity of the the victim, even though none of these things have any real relevance.
Women in long pants and sweatshirts get raped. Women jogging in a crowded park on a sunny day get harassed and/or assaulted. Women who have never touched a drink or a drug in their life get attacked. And sadly, little girls and boys who have never done any of those things are also victimized. The problem isn’t what was or wasn’t worn, where you are or aren’t, or how you were or weren’t behaving: the problem is the person who attacked you. THEY are the problem.
So, don’t ask. Never, ever, ever ask. It’s irrelevant. And it hurts like hell.
2. Don’t Tell Them How To Deal
It will be tempting to give advice to the person you love about how to deal with what happened to them. And you might have the greatest of intentions. But, like so many things in life, unless you’re asked directly for your input, it isn’t wanted and it may not be helpful. The worst case scenario is that it may cause harm.
My mother pushed hard for me to report my assault. She frequently reminded me of the statute of limitations, that she knew a lawyer who would represent me and do a bang-up job of it, and that she and so many others would have my back. But, that wasn’t what I wanted. For me, and millions of other women, we don’t have the ability or desire to press charges for a myriad of reasons.
Your loved one might be like me and so many other victims. Please don’t pressure us to do things, through advice, that we are simply unable to do, for whatever reasons we have. This is our recovery, our survival, our pain, and our healing. Not yours. While good intentions are fine, they still don’t mean you’re doing the right thing by telling the survivor how to feel and how to respond to what happened to them.
3. Don’t Ply Them For Details
Humans have a morbid curiosity about the pain of others. In my life I’ve had a few people ask questions about my experiences that were just a little too personal and prying. The survivor is the one who gets to decide how much people do or don’t know about what happened to them.
Just like not asking irrelevant questions, please don’t ask for details beyond what you’ve been told. You may be curious about exactly what their attacker did, or said, or smelled like, or looked like, or felt like, if it hurt, if you bled after, if you had any injuries, ect. Don’t. Ask. That’s not for you to ask. Those are questions for doctors, lawyers, and psychiatrists. NOT you.
IF your loved one wants you to know those details, they will tell you in their own time, at their own pace. Don’t push. Don’t pry.
4. Forgive them
Sometimes we who’ve been assaulted don’t always realize how our experiences have shaped us. For years I thought I was fine. I thought I was normal. It wasn’t until I was 27 and sought out a therapist that I realized there were so many mentalities and behaviors I’d had for years that were classic, textbook assault survivor strategies. There are things that happen to our brains after assaults that form us into different people than we would have been otherwise.
I remember so much anger. Without a doubt, the anger is what came about immediately after my assault. I was angry at everyone and everything. I was volatile and unpredictable and downright scary. So much rage. In my mind I was just being independent and I was sticking up for myself. But, in reality I was a ticking time bomb with a short fuse, regardless of the person or situation. I was afraid. And that fear transformed to uninhibited aggression, both passive and overt.
There are things we do and become after we’re assaulted that we might be able to control, if we’re aware of them. But, if we aren’t, we think we’re behaving normally and everyone else is the problem. I ask that you forgive your loved one when they lash out or they make decisions that aren’t always in their best interest. I know that’s asking a lot, but if you’re able to, please forgive us and be patient with us.
I feel like this is something I could add to every single list ever. But that’s because it is SO crucial to the success of every relationship. Please listen to your loved one. If they tell you they can’t go to a certain restaurant, listen. If they say they’re not able to leave the house today, please listen. If they are at a place where they can verbalize what they need or want, please understand how hard that is to do and what a big deal it is and just listen.
As victims of sexual assault, we’ve been made to feel invisible. Because we were. Our needs, our desires, and our identities were disregarded by the ones who hurt us. Our bodies were the only thing that mattered to our attackers. WE, the persons inside our bodies, were invisible.
As we recover from our experiences, we will continue to feel invisible. And that is why listening is so crucial. When you listen, you make us feel safe, feel seen, and feel heard. That right there is so crucial to our survival and regaining our sense of self. And all it requires is an open mind and ear.
6. Don’t compare.
Across the span of your life you will likely meet several victims of assault. Don’t compare them to each other. So-And-So may have done this or that, but Whats-Her-Face might not have. Neither experience or response is more valid. Everyone is different, every situation is different.
What happened to me might have happened to another woman and not have affected her the way it did me. Maybe because our life situations at the time were different. Maybe because we had different support systems and our attackers had different identities. Everything is so nuanced. So, please. Don’t compare survivors. It doesn’t help and it doesn’t hold water.
I truly hope this blog has shed some light for you. If you know a sexual assault survivor, I’m telling you right now that you know someone of great strength and power. The ability to just wake up in the mornings after these experiences means that person is an incredible being capable of so much. We will struggle to see that in ourselves but I hope you can see it for us. And in time, we WILL heal. And we will shine again. And that’s the happy ending every survivor deserves.
Until next time.