Shit people say to survivors

By Joan

Rape is horrible. It should never happen to anyone, for any reason. Rape is also not a choice. And yet, when people hear that someone they know has been raped, they respond in really strange, often irrational ways. It can be hard to accept that someone you know was raped. But the way you respond to them will make a great deal of difference as they struggle to reclaim their life.

The following list of responses has been compiled based on a decade of conversations I’ve had with rape victims. This is all real shit people hear when they have tried to come forward about being raped, and is also shit I heard when I came forward with my truth.

All of these responses are a way to avoid listening, and ultimately put blame, guilt, and shame upon the victim. That said, if you experience rape, not everyone in your life is going to get it, and you are probably going to hear a lot of these idiotic responses and just going to have to forgive your friends and community members of their ignorance.

“Stop being so sex-negative!”

Let’s say someone has been forcibly fed ice cream again their will. When they tell you about this, the thing they are upset about is not the ice cream, but the forcible imbibing of ice cream. After an experience like that, it’s going to be extra weird to deal with the prevalence of ice cream everywhere in this society. It is likely to remind them of the moment when ice cream was used to make them feel powerless. Being called “ice-cream-negative” for being triggered is going to make then feel extra shitty.

On the other hand, they might have the opposite reaction: eating lots of ice cream in a detached way as a mode of self-harm, and becoming somewhat aggressive about putting ice cream in everyone’s face. That’s a perfectly normal reaction too.

Everyone heals from trauma differently. Don’t make assumptions.

“Are you trying to sabotage our organization?”

This a mindblowingly common response when rape happens between members of the same organization. It takes on many forms: Activists: “Are you trying to destroy the movement?” Business people: “Are you trying to ruin the business?” Gamers: “Are you trolling our group?” Military: “Are you trying to hurt the country?” Etc.

It blows my mind that anyone would say this to a rape victim—or worse: say something like this publically to everyone in the group the moment they learn someone has been victimized. Yet, for some people, it’s the first thing they can think of: that the person got raped strategically to harm their project. WTF! Time to set the project down or a second, and acknowledge that something very sad and outside of the logic of the project has happened—but something that is a huge part of the underlying logic of oppression in our society.

“You’re letting the rapist win.”

If a rape victim tells you they can’t go back to a space, or eat a type of food, or need to leave the party now, don’t respond by saying: “You’re letting the rapist win!”

This person is dealing with trauma.  Trauma isn’t a battle. Trauma is the aftermath of things you can’t control. To continue to do things that evoke trauma causes even more harm. Rape survivors who have this figured out often seem “flighty” because they suddenly get triggered by something, and have to end the conversation and leave. That doesn’t mean they are any less powerful, or that they are letting anyone other than themselves win. Stepping back means they know what they need to do to heal. Respect that.

“You need a protector… like me.”

I wish I didn’t have to explain how utterly inappropriate this response is. Shouldn’t it be obvious? Either this is gross because you are using someone being raped as an excuse to hit on them. Or maybe you believe in your heart of hearts that you actually want to give up your own life to become the protector of a woman and follow her around keeping her safe, never excepting anything in return. ….Are you sure you’re not expecting something in return? This specific response to rape and rape culture is at the core of the dissociative narrative that has allowed women to be reduced to 2nd class citizens. Rather than addressing the rape problem, many men would rather profiteer off the rape of women by becoming “protectors.” Thanks, protector dudes, for capitalizing off of sexual violence to turn my people into unpaid emotional laborers!

“What I would have done if I was in your shoes is…”

…killed the rapist?

…called their mom?

…turned into a magical unicorn and flown away?

Firstly, you’re assuming I didn’t do all of these things. Secondly, this isn’t about what you would have done. This is a story I am telling you about something bad that has happened to me. Stop trying to solve it, and just listen.

“What did you learn from it?”

That’s like saying “What did you learn when that tornado that destroyed your home and killed your dog?” Rape is a thing that happens to you without your permission. It is a disaster. Not a “learning experience.”

“What were you wearing? Doing? Saying? What color was your shirt? What was your childhood like? …GIVE ME ALL THE DETAILS OF YOUR LIFE.”

Okay, this is such a shitty thing to do. It comes from the impulse to analyze the rape so you can try to create a story for yourself about how the victim did something to deserve it, so you can pretend you are safe. That is classic “victim blaming,” and it is really hurtful and obvious when you are doing it.

Just a quick refresher in case you forgot:

Rape is never the victim’s fault. To invent a story about how the victim did something to get raped is a way of saying “rape is an appropriate response to [x].”

Rape is never the appropriate response to anything. Someone could be lying naked and unconscious in the middle of the road. Is the correct response to rape them? No. Don’t be a Victim Blamer. Don’t empower rapists. Don’t be part of the problem.

“Let me tell you about something worse that happened to someone else in some random place in the world.”

I’m sorry. Did you think I was telling you I have it off worse than everyone on earth? No. I was telling you I got raped. We are having a real conversation about something specific that actually happened to a person in this conversation. Don’t try to smooth it over. Just hold space for it, okay?

“Buck it up. Be strong.”

I’m sorry that your response to other people’s hardship is to tell them not to feel. You must have very low self-esteem and that is sad.

“You’re lucky you weren’t also killed and ground into sausages.”

….uh, aren’t we all?

“Not you! I don’t know how I’m going to survive how bad this makes me feel…”

Oh great, now you’re dumping on me with your emotions about how my rape makes you feel? Like I don’t have enough on my plate already! This is absolutely the worst response.

1. “At least you’re feeling better now!”

Feeling better even though now I have lost my sense of safety around other humans? Riiiiiight.

“I will kill the person who did it! I will murder them good!”

Thanks for making me into a token in your fantasy of beating someone up for a “just cause.” Yeah…You’re a real hero.

Sarcasm aside: I don’t need your rage right now. I’m recovering. And now you’re putting me in this really complex space of having to make decisions about the physical well-being of my rapist?

This kind of response is a huge part of why victims remain silent: it is really troubling to have people deflect from what you are trying to communicate by imposing their visions of heroics and violence over it.

Seriously, the only heroic thing you can do is, in a non-punishment kind of way, work to get the rapist out of the physical spaces of the victim’s life so she don’t lose her community over what happened.

“Why don’t we just have you and the rapist work it out?”

FUCK NO! Would you make someone “talk it out” with a dog that bit them? Any trauma survivor shouldn’t be put in contact with the source of their trauma unless they feel ready, otherwise they will be re-traumatized.

Yet, somehow, the most common response when someone reports a rape to a group in which both the survivor and the rapist are member  is to try and force the victim into negotiations with their rapist. THIS IS INSANE. It is just going to re-traumatize the victim, whose emotions are probably going to verge on psychosis by the time the night before “the negotiations” come around. Hasn’t a rape victim already been through enough?

Thanks to this group behavior, a pattern of “power rape” has emerged in organizations in which a serial rapist or gender abuser will use sexual intimidation to remove female competition. They know they can do it because they will be forced into negotiations with the woman—even though they have already won by taking the woman’s power away from her by violating her consent. Likely, the victim will leave the community to avoid ever exposure to the person who raped them.

Reporting a rape is not an argument. There aren’t two sides here. If you want to stay friends with the rapist, that’s your call, but any contact the survivor has with that person will be hella traumatic.

“Are you sure that’s what happened?”

Well gosh, now that you mention it, I’m not sure anything has really happened…ever. Hell, since nothing is real, why don’t we just start prying your eyes out with this grapefruit spoon!

“It was bound to happen to someone like you.”

And if I murder you right now, it was likewise bound to happen to ….someone like you?

Sorry for the cynicism. Okay. Calming down.

So, if you try to essentialize rape victimhood by saying “Some people just have the personality of a rape victim” you are going to make that person feel crazy.

It’d be like saying, “some people just have the type of personality that causes them be randomlly pushed onto the BART tracks strangers.” It’s just a weird, nonsensical thing to say.

Yet a lot of women, especially those who came of age in the 1970s or 80s seem to think this is a valid response when a younger women tells them of a rape. My theory is they are all suffering from mutual insanity after all living through the 70s and 80s, a period when the rape epidemic was so bad, it was treated as a positive thing when it happened to women in movies.

BELOW ARE SOME BETTER WAYS TO RESPOND when someone tells you they’ve been raped or experienced sexual violence:

Many rape victims often leave their circles or communities to avoid further trauma that is often caused by loved ones who don’t get it. You can help break this cycle by being present and ready to listen.

Listening means hearing the person out without trying to force their narrative one way or another. By accepting rape when it has happens, we begin the transformative process of healing as a culture.

“I hear you, and I will keep listening.”

If you aren’t ready to respond, that is okay. When rape happens to someone you care about, things really hit home. And your emotional response might not be a helpful response to the victim. It is okay to say:

“I’m really sad this happened to you. I need to take a moment to feel my emotions about this. Can we talk again next week? Can we schedule that talk right now?”

So take a week. Do some journaling. Sort your own stuff out. But make sure you get back to the person. Your response will help the person feel okay again.

More good things to say:

“What are things can I do to support you right now?”

“I don’t have the same experience as you, and I know that. So you’re going to have to let me know what I can do to help. And if you can’t think of anything right now, that’s okay. Let me know when you do.”

“I would like to help make sure the rapist can’t enter the spaces I have power over.”

Any trauma survivor shouldn’t be put in contact with the source of their trauma unless they feel ready, otherwise they will be re-traumatized. This means it is on their friends and members of their organizations to clear that person from the space. This is the #1 thing you can do to help a rape survivor because it means they will not have to lose their public and groups simply because they were raped. But this is a way to show that .your support is more than just talk, but that you care enough to help the rape victim regain a sense of safety and well-being.