If someone you care about has been raped, particularly if it was a recent occurrence, you’re going to be understandably upset. Most likely you won’t know what to do, or what’s best for your loved one, so here are some suggestions from someone who knows what it’s like to be raped, and how devastating it can be when your friends and family do or say the wrong things. If you have been raped, and these things resonate with you, feel free to print off this article and hand it to everyone around you. It can be very hard to tell people that they’re hurting you, when you know they’re only trying to be helpful.
There are many helpful articles out there about who to contact and all the legal ramifications of rape, so I’m not going to address that in any depth here. I’m just going to talk about how to treat someone on a personal level, when they’ve been through one of the worst possible experiences they could ever have. One of the best resources out there is RAINN.org, and I highly recommend you visit their site, especially if you’ve been a victim. They can tell you where to go to get help, and inform you of steps you may need to take in order to have a perpetrator fully and successfully prosecuted for their crime.
A word on terminology in this article. People who have been raped are referred to by different euphemisms and terms. Sometimes they are called victims. Sometimes they are called survivors. Sometimes the terms are more pejorative, when people engage in victim-blaming. Your loved one will decide what’s comfortable for their own use. However, I was victimized, I survived it, and then, when I was ready, I began to thrive again. Different terms apply at different stages. Every living one of us is a survivor in this world, or we’d be dead, so to call someone a survivor doesn’t seem to evoke the right feeling for me. But that’s me. That’s because it’s my story. My story isn’t the story of someone else. I will use the word victim in this article, as that’s what I feel comfortable using, and will be using it in ways I hope are not uncomfortable for someone else, but I can’t promise anything. Everyone feels language differently, and they assign different meanings and stigmas.
First let’s discuss the “Don’ts”
1) Do not engage in any form of victim blaming or shaming.
Victim blaming and shaming are so prevalent that most people have no clue what forms they take. The short explanation is this:
Anything that makes the victim seem in any way responsible for the attack on them is victim blaming and shaming.
Do not ask a woman what she was wearing, or drinking, or doing, or saying, or even thinking. No person is responsible for their own rape, and the sooner you absorb that information, the sooner you will be able to help the person you love. Don’t say things like, “If you hadn’t been wearing that skirt, this wouldn’t have happened,” “If you hadn’t been out ’til all hours partying, you wouldn’t have been raped,” or, “You shouldn’t have been hanging out with those people.”
Every person in the world should be allowed to be anywhere they want to be, at any time of the day or night, and wearing, saying or doing whatever he or she likes, without rape being a consequence of that choice. Period. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t a risk-free utopia. Every single one of us takes risks in some form or another, just by walking out our front door. If you drive to work every day and get into a car accident, do people tell you that you shouldn’t be driving during rush hour, because that’s just asking to get into an accident? Do the cops filling out the accident report say that? How about your insurance company? Do they refuse to cover you because you took the risk of going to work?
Rape isn’t a part of a civilized judicial system as a punishment for any crime. It certainly isn’t the sentence handed down for someone who has had a couple of drinks, or who happened to be in a group of people. Not in North America, and not in any of the more advanced countries, either. In most cases victim blaming is inflicted upon women, of course, because their so-called sexual behaviour and provocativeness is an affront to those who feel women should not have the freedom of the use of their own bodies. Men can quite literally walk naked down a street without fearing rape – and when you ask people if they deserve to be raped for that, they’re most likely going to say no. In the case of men being raped by women, people tend to smirk and assume they must have enjoyed it. It’s not really even considered rape by the general public, unless they were raped by another man. Then there’s a different stigma attached to it, and they’re assumed by many to no longer be real men.
If you care at all about the person who has been raped, blaming them in any way for the assault is going to cause serious harm to their chances of recovering from it. Whether it was date rape, assault by a stranger, or rape by a family member, they’re already heaping more guilt on themselves than you can imagine, and your job is to do your best to alleviate that guilt, not increase it. Place the blame solely on the perpetrator where it belongs, and stop perpetuating the myth that people, women in particular, have any way of stopping rape from happening to them.
2) Always Remember: This is not about you!
Probably the second biggest mistake friends and family can make when it comes to interacting with a rape victim is to allow their own emotions to control their responses and actions. Your anger, hurt, pain, frustration, rage and guilt are just that. Yours. They have nothing to do with what your loved one is going through. Just. Don’t. It might be satisfying for you to stomp about and rant how you’re going to kill the perpetrator when you get your hands on them. Don’t. Seriously. That is not what your daughter/son, girlfriend/boyfriend, sister/brother, mother/father, spouse, cousin or friend is looking for from you.
I mean this with all sincerity, with the wisdom of experience as a victim of multiple rapes, and as someone who has interacted with many people who have been raped. You need to simply stand quiet and allow your loved one to let you know what it is they want from you. Your anger, guilt and pain can be dealt with away from the victim. Go to a gym and pound on the heavy bag. Scream into a pillow. Cry in another room. Don’t inadvertently take it out on, or near, a person who simply can’t deal with one more thing right now. Don’t add to what they’re dealing with. They need less drama, not more. However much you’re feeling about it, remember that your emotions can’t even come close to those of an assault victim. It will increase their guilt and/or distress because they know it’s hurting you, and they may focus on comforting you, rather than on dealing with their own pain.
By the same token, try not to appear as if you don’t care at all, either. It’s a fine line, and very easy to tip one way or the other. Let them know you care about their pain, not your own. In this case, as long as you’re in the room with them, your pain has to be kept out of the mix. It’s simply too much for them to process. Later, when they’ve mostly come to terms with what they’ve been through, maybe you can share some of your own pain with them. It can be a bonding experience that brings you closer together, and might bring your loved one some additional closure.
3) Don’t shove religion down their throats.
It’s important to back off on your need to spread your religion here. You might think it will be helpful to get them to pray, or to pray with them. You might think they need your God – now more than ever. You want to know what they may be thinking about God…what I was thinking the first time I went into a church as a child after being raped by my grandfather? “How could you let this happen to me?” Those were the words I was thinking as I stared at the stained glass in the windows and talked to God in my head. I was somewhere between 7 and 10 years old at this point. I was understandably very, very angry, and I felt God had a lot to answer for if he was actually ‘up there’ and as omniscient as he was purported to be. In my early twenties I even wrote a song about it, called, “If Glass Can Hold the Heavens,” based on those stained glass windows. So don’t assume they will find comfort in religion. Some people will, and for some it will be like rubbing sandpaper over an open wound.
4) Do NOT make physical contact with them unless they make it clear they want it!
One of the worst feelings in the world can be to be touched after you have been raped. This can hold true for many years after the incident, too. If you feel like they’re taking too long to relax about physical contact, remember this is not about you. A person who has been raped has had physical contact forced on them that they didn’t want. That’s the very definition of rape. By forcing additional touching on them, when they are not ready, they can feel just like they’re being raped all over again. They may never get over that. It may be that they will always need to be the one who makes a move to hug you or touch you in other ways. Then it’s voluntary and no longer feels like another form of assault.
If you touch someone after a sexual assault, you may be subjected to them screaming, “Don’t touch me!” at the top of their lungs. Make very sure they want that hug, or the casual hand on their back. Unless you’ve been given a report in full and minute detail, regarding exactly how they were touched during the assault, you have no way of knowing how their rapist touched them, and it may be a huge trigger for them. You might think touching them gently will be sufficient, but some rapists rape gently. Rape isn’t always how it’s portrayed in movies and books. The rapist may have been fantasizing that he was making love to someone, and believe me when I tell you that this can be even more psychologically devastating and confusing for a victim during the aftermath.
Conversely, ask them to let you know if you’re being too careful with them. Some women want to be held and comforted physically, and if you’re not giving them that comfort it may anger or hurt them, so tell them you’re waiting for their permission.
5) Don’t expect sexual contact for a long time, but don’t be surprised by it either.
People respond to being raped in differing ways. Some never want sex again, no matter how much love there is between them and their partner. The memories can be far too traumatic for them to even consider it, and it can take many years to heal. On the other hand, your partner may want to have sex immediately and far more often than is usual for them. They may even become very aggressive about it and take on multiple partners. There are lots of psychological reasons behind both of these reactions, but they are both considered normal responses to such an extreme trauma. Either way, your relationship may be in for a long and rocky road when it comes to sex. Or anything else for that matter.
6) Don’t pretend nothing has happened or changed.
Acting like such a traumatic event hasn’t happened will completely invalidate what your loved one is feeling, and their emotions are already extremely fragile. This falls somewhat into the victim-shaming category, because it can make them think you’re ashamed. You don’t want to talk about it, so it must be a shameful thing. In turn, they will feel shame for something they didn’t have any control over. Not only has this terrible thing occurred, but your loved one will be a different person because of it for a very long time. Not just during the time when they’re dealing with the fallout; even after they’ve recovered they may be very different – and yes, they can recover (see below).
7) Don’t ever tell them they’ll never get over it or get past it.
Not only can victims survive rape, but they can have whole and healthy lives eventually. They can even thrive. Telling them all the pop-psychology theories about the aftermath of rape will only lower the bar for their recovery. If they think they can’t recover, they won’t. They will simply give up and continue to wallow in the pain and shame. It can be an endless cycle where they try to get better but can’t get out of the loop because the only way out is recovery. If they don’t believe recovery is possible, they won’t even look for it, and you need to be looking to find it. Instead of telling them they’ll never get over it, let them know recovery is possible.
8) Don’t push them to recover faster, get over it, or even to get therapy.
Every person who is raped responds in their own personal, private way. We all heal differently. We process our emotions uniquely. Rushing things will only end up slowing a person’s recovery, so it’s counterproductive to push anyone to get over being raped, or to hurry up and get better.
Assuming that someone absolutely has to have therapy is a very wrong assumption. Therapy is not the answer for everyone. Unless they are self-harming – particularly in a way that puts their life at serious risk – don’t force them into any sort of counseling or healing. If the police were notified at the time of the rape, and there was any kind of investigation, your loved one was most likely seen by some sort of crisis counselor at the scene, hospital or police station, and they will have been given brochures and/or business cards for more help. If they want that kind of help encourage them to take advantage of it, but if they don’t want to be there and are only doing it for your sake, the therapy will not help them, and will possibly harm them. It might also harm your relationship with them, as they will no longer trust you the way they used to.
I’ll provide another personal example here, because I believe it can illustrate my point far more effectively than simply talking in general terms. I was forced into counseling. Family counseling with one of my rapists. Sitting in that room with my half-brother (as mentioned above, I was subjected to multiple rapes), a therapist was asking me to open up and trust. With my rapist in the room. I don’t know if the therapist knew he was one of the perpetrators, or if my parents were still keeping that a secret, because it was thirty years ago and I no longer remember the smaller details, but it doesn’t change the fact that opening up and trusting were out of the question for me. In addition to that I was intelligent enough to be able fool every therapist I went to, into believing that I was completely mentally healthy. I’m not saying it was the intelligent thing to do – just that I was able to. Every one of them declared me to be healthy and insightful, and stated that I was perfectly fine to go on about my life. I wasn’t. I didn’t begin recovering until I started to realize that I was completely numb, and that it wasn’t normal to be like that, so I started analyzing everything I was thinking. I was on the road to recovery then, but it was not something a therapist would ever have been able to do for me.
9) Don’t force them to prosecute.
Honestly, the judicial system needs a major overhaul when it comes to how it deals with rape victims. As much as it might be important to get as many rapists off the streets as possible, and as much as I might advocate for prosecution in general, what it all boils down to is the question of what is ultimately going to be best for the victim. In the United States the accused has the right to face his or her accuser. It’s scary enough to be in the witness box when you just saw something happen. When the crime has happened to you, and you’re terrified of the person who did it, being forced to give a moment-by-moment description of everything the accused did is excruciating. Many rape victims become suicidal. Testifying in a trial can crush them.
I want rapists to go to jail, and I want victims to stand up and send them there. In general. It’s one of those for-the-greater-good things. If a rapist goes to jail, they can’t rape anyone else that isn’t in jail with them, and sometimes they’re subjected to their own criminal acts. I don’t want anyone to kill themselves because they did so, and so I can’t blame them if they say they can’t do it. There’s also the risk that even if they testify the rapist might go free, based on lack of evidence or even a technicality. Now they’ve testified and the rapists, who might have been strangers to them before now, know very well who they are. They’re put at risk of further assault, injury, and possibly death. The only one who can decide if they’re up for all that is the victim.
Keep in mind that while sending a rapist to jail can help with the healing process and give a victim back a little bit of a feeling of safety, it will do them no good if they don’t survive the experience. They have to live to heal.
Now we can discuss the “Dos”
1) Do whatever you can to make your loved one feel as safe as possible.
Rape victims will be feeling very vulnerable usually. Sometimes terrified. It won’t always seem logical either. It could be a sound that triggers their fear, or a sudden gust of wind across their face. It will all depend on the circumstances of their rape. For someone who was raped in childhood those fears might not seem so obvious, but they can echo across time. They may manifest as a general need for isolation, an obsession with home security, or a desire to live in a walled compound on an uncharted island. Many buy guns, and often learn how to use them, but if they’re shaky and paranoid they may end up firing the gun with terrible consequences. If it takes getting a dog, even though you were totally against it before, get a dog! The recovery of the victim will be impeded if their level of fear remains constantly high. The sooner they can feel some semblance of safety, the sooner they can get a handle on the rest of the emotional issues that are going the crop up.
2) Learn about the stages of grief and recovery.
Recovering from rape can be a lot like going through the stages of grief we face when a loved one dies. Learn what those stages are, and also the best ways to deal with each of them as supportively as possible. Everything from denial to anger to sadness and acceptance – be prepared for it, and prepared for them to repeat some of those stages many times. It’s not as simple as going through each stage once and then they’re done. It can be a constant battle.
Shut up. Listen. Repeat. There is really nothing you can say that will be all that comforting to someone who has been hurt this deeply. Saying you’re sorry is meaningless when you didn’t do it. Very much like grief, words just don’t help. Sympathy isn’t soothing. Empathy is what they need, and that just means allowing yourself to feel a glimpse of what they’re going through. That’s something you won’t know without them telling you, no matter what your own experiences might have been.
4) Give them some space.
It’s not possible to work through issues in your head when you’re surrounded by people all the time. Especially when those people are watching your every move as if you’re about to shatter into a million pieces. You think maybe you are, and part of you wants to, but you can’t because people are there, and you need to. They need to be allowed time alone to fall apart and put themselves back together again, over and over. Be there when they need you, and leave them alone when that’s what they want.
5) Be honest, and admit that you don’t know what you’re doing.
Simply say to them, “I don’t know how to help you, so if you think of anything or want something from me, tell me. I don’t want to do the wrong thing. I don’t want to hurt you any more than you’ve already been hurt.”
6) Get professional help for yourself if you need it.
Anyone watching a loved one in the aftermath of assault will go through a lot of pain and anger. It may not be the same kind as the victim, and it may not be as vicious, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valid. If you’re not emotionally healthy, you’re not going to be able to keep being supportive for very long. People can become resentful of victims if they have no way to handle or vent their emotions. They can also get stressed and sick. Not only are you feeling your own pain at what they went through, but you’re now feeling pain because you can’t help them and heal them the way you want to. You can’t fix anything for them, and it’s more than merely frustrating. So make sure you get a handle on your own mental health if you want to continue being there for them.
7) Give your loved one as much control over their lives as possible, but only if and when they want it.
Powerlessness can be devastating. It can completely deconstruct your personality and sense of self. Being able to make choices again can either be empowering or it can be overwhelming. Some victims want to have control over everything, and some want to be taken care of and have their choices made for them. Neither of these extremes is healthy in the long run, but for the first while after an assault it’s what they need just to be able to get from moment to moment. If they’re wanting to be coddled, ask them to make small choices at first and see how they respond. Ask if they want ice cream, and if they do you can ask if they want chocolate, vanilla or both. Gradually extend it outward with more important choices as you go, until you get an, “I don’t know,” or something similar. Then you can take over the decision-making until they’re ready to go up another level.
Do the reverse with someone who demands total control over everything. Baby steps are needed here. You don’t want to make any sudden changes that will upset them too much. They’re bound to be a little upset whenever a small change is made, but you don’t want to have them sliding backward in their recovery by pushing them to pick chocolate. It just isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things.
8) If you honestly feel they’re not recovering at all, ask for professional help and advice about the situation.
There are times when you have to apply some common sense, and use your own judgment, but in this case take your common sense to someone who really knows what they’re talking about. Don’t apply your theory on proper recovery times to your loved one. Unless you’re a therapist yourself, and you’ve had years of practice with patients who have gone through rape recovery, you’re in no position to know how long it’s supposed to take. Even if you have gone through rape yourself, your situation will not apply to theirs. My personal situation does not apply any more than yours. If they won’t seek help for themselves, find out if it’s best for them by talking to someone who knows.
Better yet, talk to several people in the field. Keep in mind that they’re looking for business, so some that are less than respectable will say your loved one absolutely must seek counseling or they will never get better. As mentioned above, that’s not necessarily true, and that’s something I do actually know. Not everyone needs it, so be wary of a therapist who says anything more definitive than that they probably need help. People generally do, so that’s a realistic answer. Hard and fast answers are a warning sign of an unskilled therapist. One that says they can help without actually speaking to your loved one is probably one to watch out for, too. They have no way of knowing that without meeting them. They might say they can probably help, but they can’t guarantee anything without finding out in person. I’ve known quite a few people who said they gained nothing from going to therapy, and that they worked it out themselves in their own way. Today they are happy, healthy people – well, as far as I can judge anyway, since you never know for certain. If a trained therapist can be fooled, I certainly can be.
9) Remember that victims can lie about how they’re doing.
I don’t remember ever reading much about this, but I know it to be true. For many years, when I was repressing things and became numb, I was lying to everyone including myself. The only reason anyone around me knew that something wasn’t quite right was because I honestly didn’t care about anything, and they knew that wasn’t normal. That’s something you can’t hide all the time, because your passion about things, or a lack thereof, is in every aspect of your behaviour. You might fake a smile, but it doesn’t seem to reach the rest of your face. Maybe you don’t react to something the way you used to.
That’s what a person has to watch for with someone who might be severely depressed. If someone is admitting to being numb and repressing their feelings, things are not at such a dangerous level. If they’re hiding all signs of it, and really do not want you to know, then they’re not crying out for help anymore. That’s because they don’t want it, and they’re only saying what they have to say in order to make you shut up and go away. This is when you really must speak to a professional. You may be wrong regarding your interpretation of the signals, but it’s definitely time to let a professional make that determination. The risks are too great.
This is a very sensitive subject that can’t be covered in a simple article. These are just general pointers, and some of the reasons for them, that you can reference for a quick primer if you’ve gone searching for help on the internet. Read as much as you can on the subject, and talk to other people. Especially if you know anyone who has been raped, or has had a loved one be raped. Sadly, it’s very easy to find others. 90% of rape victims are female. One in six women in America will either be raped, or someone will attempt to rape them, in their lifetime. If you generalize that this might be correct for the planet, it’s possible that 500 million women on Earth have been sexually assaulted, or half a billion. Chances are you already know women who have been raped, and you may have discussed it with them previously.
Keep in mind that my experience is my own, and though I’ve known many other women who were raped and we have discussed it, in all likelihood I have missed giving a point of advice or even several. Use common sense as much as possible, and try to remember not to base your judgment on your personal feelings. That’s far more difficult than it may sound. For example, you might find yourself cringing away from listening to a detailed recital of the events that occurred, but honest common sense will tell you that they’re telling you because they need to, not because they want to. They’re most likely not enjoying telling you, any more than you enjoy being told, but it can be an irresistible compulsion to talk about it in order to spew out what feels like poison.
Lastly, try to remember that you didn’t commit the crime either – unless you actually did, but it would be highly unlikely you would be concerned enough to be reading this if that was the case. You’re no more responsible for the crime than the victim, presumably. The only time you would share responsibility is if you watched it happen, encouraged it, and didn’t try to stop it in any way. Don’t waste more time than you have to on blaming yourself for something you couldn’t control or expect. People we love can’t spend every waking moment in our company in the real world. It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to protect them when they’re not in sight, even if it’s our small children. We can only do what we think is best, and if you’re reading this that’s exactly what you’re trying to do.
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