Originally written as a guest blog for CheerleadHER.
When I was sexually assaulted in 2012 I had an extremely difficult time trying to process what had happened. I had never heard any real-life stories of men as victims. And I had certainly never heard any real-life stories of a same-sex assault. I had no frame of reference to help me make sense of my trauma, so I felt the only thing I could do was lock it away and never speak of it again. I had been violently attacked and raped by another man, but for some reason I was the one who felt shamed by it.
Survivors often feel shame and often end up blaming themselves. This is, in part, because everyone else around us tends to blame survivors, too. Believe it or not – sometimes people even do this with good intentions. They will learn of an assault and immediately say things that question the survivor’s choices. Why were they alone? What were they wearing? Had they been drinking? Are we sure they didn’t just have a hookup and ended up regretting it later? Why did they put themselves in that dangerous situation in the first place? You could probably read each of these questions with a hateful tone and easily imagine them coming from some stereotypical chauvinist jerk (which certainly happens). Can you, however, also imagine them being asked in a much gentler tone from someone who genuinely wishes the survivor had been able to escape harm? I can. And I hear that all the time. The problem with these questions – no matter the intent – is that they each imply the assault never would have happened, if only the survivor had made better choices. When, in fact, the only choice that deserves any blame at all is the one made by the person who perpetrated the violence. The person who chose – regardless of whatever vulnerabilities they may have observed – to prey on another human being.
Those blame-the-victim questions are sometimes meant to be a conversation about prevention. Prevention work is certainly important, and I’ve spent the last three years doing it professionally for communities, college campuses, and military bases. My point here, though, is that it matters greatly not just that we talk about these issues, but how we talk about them.
How do we respond to someone who has just disclosed to us that something has happened to them? How do we know when to get involved if we see potential warning signs? What are the implications of how we talk about these incidents after the fact? There are so many resources to help us navigate these questions, and I will be sure to include some of them at the end. My goal here, though, is to share three pieces of personal advice that are specifically focused on how we handle a situation after the fact:
1. LEAD WITH COMPASSION
2. QUESTION YOUR QUESTIONS
3. BUILD A COALITION
October was Domestic Violence Awareness month, as many of you know. It was also LGBTQ History Month. Given my own experience as a gay male survivor, it feels important for me to shine light on the experiences of people who do not fit the stereotypes we have in our minds as well as those who do. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), nearly 20 people per minute are abused by an intimate partner in the United States; 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men. Rates of violence are highest for folks within the LGBTQ community as explained in this excellent resource from NCADV, which I highly encourage you to read. Although October is now coming to an end, it is so important that these conversations do not. The things we say in the face of these incidents not only have a significant impact on a survivor’s ability to heal, but also help to shape the public view of what behavior is tolerated and at what cost. It matters a great deal how we talk to survivors as well as about survivors. If someone you know ever discloses to you that they have been or continue to be in a harmful situation or relationship, the first step is to lead with compassion.
(1) Lead with Compassion. Even if we have had similar experiences in our own lives, none of us will ever know exactly what it is like to be in another person’s shoes. From the outside looking in it can sometimes seem so obvious what we think a person should do. The reality, though, is that each person’s circumstances are complicated and unique. Here are a few suggestions about starting from a place of compassion.
- Believe them. Let that be the first thing you say. If you have questions, there will be time for that later. First, make sure they feel safe and heard.
- Acknowledge their strength. Thank them for sharing with you and for being courageous. Tell them it is not their fault. Nothing they did is the reason for this harm.
- Give them control. Ask them what they need from you. Offer suggestions and resources but let them decide how to respond. Someone has just exerted their own power and control over them, so the most important thing now is that they feel empowered to decide what happens next.
- Do not show judgement (of anyone). Questioning how a survivor responded to a situation or what things they may have done leading up to it inevitably leads to victim blaming. Be careful what you say about the person who caused the harm as well, though. Remember, you are just as likely to know the person causing harm as you are the person being harmed. They may both be your friends. Defending the perpetrator or suggesting excuses that may have caused them to behave the way they did minimizes what the survivor has experienced and can break down the trust they have in you. Condemning and bad-mouthing the person can also have negative consequences. If you, for example, tell your friend they must leave this relationship, you may unintentionally cause them to withdraw from you and, as a result, lose access to the much-needed support system they had in you. Try to keep compassion and empathy at the center of your response.
(2) Question Your Questions. Like we discussed with the blame-the-victim questions, sometimes our initial reactions are more harmful than we realize. It matters what kind of questions we ask of survivors and about survivors. It is important for us to step back and consider why we are asking those questions and what potentially problematic assumptions are at their core.
- Warning Sign Questions. Often, we aren’t sure whether or not what we are seeing is as bad as we think it might be. We might see potential warning signs, but get hung up on questions like: What if I’m wrong? What if I embarrass them (or myself)? What if I just don’t have all the information? What if I make things worse? What if this is just none of my business? Intervening can be a scary thing, and I encourage you to review the resources at the bottom of this article to consider how you might safely choose to do so. I personally believe that our instinctive worries usually show up for a reason. If something is concerning you enough to cause you to ask all these questions, then it’s probably concerning enough for you to get involved or get some help. I’m focusing in this article on responding to something after harm has occurred, but with domestic violence the harm is often cyclical. So, having strong intervention skills is also a form a prevention for future violence. As you are questioning your questions, I would also encourage you to ask yourself the following: How might I respond differently if the people in the situation were different from me or different than I expect (people of different cultural or racial backgrounds, same-sex relationships, etc.).
- After the Fact Questions. Just as we don’t want to blame the survivor during our conversation with them, we also don’t want to do that in our conversations with others either. If you find yourself talking with others and asking about the actions of the survivor rather than the perpetrator, dig a little deeper and ask yourself what the core assumption in those questions might be. Often the assumption is that if the survivor had made a better choice, the violence would not have happened. That is a problematic perspective that silences the voices of survivors and excuses the actions of perpetrators. By questioning our questions we can gain a better perspective of the bigger picture and help shape future conversations in a way that rightfully places blame with the perpetrator and support with the survivor.
(3) Build a Coalition. You need support and the survivor needs support. Building a coalition of loved ones can help identify ongoing warning signs as well as bring healing in the aftermath of violence. A coalition is not a substitute for formal resources, such as therapy or support groups.
- All hands on deck. If you are concerned about ongoing violence, the more eyes on the situation, the better. Each loved one has a different relationship with the survivor and varying types of access and trust. If multiple loved ones are concerned for someone, then collaborating together can multiply their support network. One loved one might see the person at the gym, another at work, and a third at church – multiple access points, multiple relationships. You never want to violate the trust a survivor has put in you individually or to gossip about their situation. You may, however, not always be the best person to address a concern, though. If you see something concerning but know the survivor would be more receptive if the check-in came from their sister, for example, you can utilize the power of coalition by sharing your concern with their sister and in turn helping the survivor in the best way you could in that moment.
- Resist political divides. For most of us, it feels like our society is more divided now than in any other point in our lives. It is easy to demonize the “other side” and dig even deeper into our own arguments within our silos of like-minded people. You know who doesn’t give a damn about our boundaries, though? Sexual assault. Rape. Physical, emotional, and verbal abuse. Domestic violence in all its forms. These issues can turn your whole world upside down in an instant without once ever asking who you voted for. I have many strong political views, and in another forum I’d happily debate each of them with great conviction. What I’m saying here, though, is that protecting survivors and preventing power-based violence has become unnecessarily — and dangerously — politicized. The reality is that none of us gets a pass on this. We each have a responsibility to help change the narrative and make it known in our communities that we believe and protect survivors. Proactively shifting the culture as a coalition of diverse individuals is the best way to prevent future acts of violence.
Take a moment to consider the people in your life who have been impacted by dating or domestic violence. Verbal, emotional, financial, spiritual, physical. The likelihood is high that we each know at least one person. If you aren’t aware of anyone in your life who has been impacted, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. In fact, it could be that some of the ways we have chosen to talk about these issues (in conversations and on social media) have made it so that people in our lives were not comfortable sharing their own stories with us. Many people in my family, friend circles, and work settings have shared their stories with me. They are all around us. It is important that we honor those stories, learn from them, and try to change them for other people moving forward. We must start from a place of compassion, question our own assumptions, and collectively build coalitions that work to change the conversation around us. Every single minute twenty new people are impacted by domestic violence. And that remains true whether or not it is the month of October. Let’s commit to keeping this conversation going. Let’s keep talking. And let’s remember that silence is not neutral. Silence only benefits the oppressor. Below I have included some additional statistics and some relevant resources. Feel free to use any of them to start a conversation of your own on social media or with your loved ones. That’s a super easy, tangible thing you can do right now to help make a difference. Remember, it matters what we say.
Definition, warning signs, and resources: http://www.ncadv.org
Key statistics: Nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Will experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime: 43.8% of lesbian women, 61% of bisexual women, and 35% of heterosexual women; 26% of gay men, 37.3% of bisexual men, and 29% of heterosexual men. https://ncadv.org/statistics
Domestic Violence and the LGBTQ Community: https://ncadv.org/blog/posts/domestic-violence-and-the-lgbtq-community
National Domestic Violence Hotline (put this in your phone and share it widely)
1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) Available 24 / 7 / 365
Easy social media ideas you can use right now: https://ncadv.org/via-social-media