How to best support rape survivors

By Marc L.

I am a lover and a friend, ally and partner, to many women who are rape survivors. They are each different and they come from different backgrounds with different hopes and dreams, yet the one thing that they have in common is that, now and then, certain events in their lives trigger the memories of the assault, and a sudden gush of emotions come rushing in, as they relive that moment.

As I grow within the feminist movement , I start to realize that 1 in 4 number is concrete and real, and that rape not only affects the survivors, but often times, also the intimates in their lives. That 1 in 4, indeed, then becomes much, much more than that, when the impact of rape is measured. Yet, while the majority of our focus is on preventing rape and improving rape investigations and prosecution rates, what of those who are loved ones of rape survivors? What tools are we giving them to support their loved ones – the rape survivors – when an event suddenly triggers those painful memories?

I truly have no answers for it. While my membership within the feminist community is certain, I do not have any of those answers, and at times, it seems I am incapable of truly helping the women in my life, when such an event occurs. How can I express that I care without overstepping the boundaries? How can I give a hug to comfort without triggering more memories? In intimate relationships, how can sexual relationships be carried on without inadvertently triggering some of those memories? How do we react when a particularly painful story of rape comes across the television screen, and what do we do when the anniversary of one’s sexual assault comes around?

Most certainly, there is no one answer to any of these questions, because each human being has different needs, even if their common bond is they’ve all been raped. I’ve learned to not treat rape survivors any differently, yet, in so many instances, with so many women I’ve interviewed, how we treat survivors becomes a matter of importance. How can we, as loved ones of those who have been raped, best support our loved ones without crossing that fine line? What’s the difference, then, between listening and asking too many questions? How distant is too much distance, and yet, how much attention is too much attention?

A woman I interviewed for a project a view years ago recalled her boyfriend not wanting to even touch her after she’d been sexually assaulted, for fear he might have “broken (her) further.” In this case, she didn’t want to be treated any differently. Her boyfriend, well intentioned, could not understand this. In trying to support her, he failed to do so.

I’ve seen many women go through breakdowns, crying and screaming at the memories of their rape. I wanted to help, I really did, but what could I have done without possibly hurting that person further? I will recall painfully each time I sat there in silence as the woman I was dating cried, and then crying with her, because I did not know what else to do during one of her panic attacks.

I also recall the time I was out with a woman with whom I’d established interest, romantically and sexually. Sitting there sharing a drink, I’d let my hand rest on her thigh, and with my thumb, brushed against its insides. We were comfortable, and we were enjoying each other’s company, until she said, “I like it that you touch me, but please do not touch me like that. I was touched like that as a child.” At that point, what was I to do? Do I give her a hug and express my sympathy for her situation, or do I simply apologize and ignore her story?

I have male friends, too, whose lovers, girlfriends, wives and other kinds of intimates are rape survivors. At times I’ve gotten phone calls asking how to best support them, and each time, I feel like I fail them when I tell them just to listen to their loved ones, and be there. What does that even mean? How can one support and listen when the needs might extend greater than needing to listen? How can one support without asking questions, knowing that asking questions might trigger memories of the past?

By no means am I advocating to treat rape survivors with kids gloves. But at some point in our fight to end sexual assaults, a conversation needs to begin about personal relationships, and how we, as those who love and care for our lovers and friends who are survivors, can best support them. In the end, even after the rapist has been caught and prosecuted, the rape continues to go on, sometimes for a lifetime. I’ve learned this. I’ve seen it. How to treat survivors is a question that needs answers, and a conversation that, at times, can be tough to get started.

I hope to get that conversation started – because 1 in 4 affect us all.

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