On treating survivors with respect | Trauma Tuesday

A message for those who have sexual trauma survivors in their lives 

Our boundaries were horribly violated by whoever it was that raped, molested, or sexually abused us. The last thing we need is for people to erode or violate our boundaries further — especially people who claim to care for us. A true ally will respect us, build us up, and encourage us to stand strong.

We don’t need fairytale knights in shining armor to swoop in and rescue us. We need real, genuine allies in our struggle, people who will have our backs and respect us for who we truly are — rather than treating us as damaged goods, or viewing us as weak and helpless damsels in distress.

Note: I fully recognize that not all rape survivors are women. However, since I am writing from that perspective, and since it is awkward to keep writing “he/she”, I will use mostly female pronouns and terms to refer to survivors.

I came across this in an article I read recently, called  “5 Reasons Shaming Survivors into Reporting Rape is Counter-Productive“:

Rape is an awful experience in which a person’s bodily autonomy is ignored and violated. It’s an act in which someone isn’t allowed to control what happens to their body.

For this reason, it’s vital that a survivor has control over their own healing process.

We need to accept the fact that the survivor themself is best equipped to make decisions about their own healing and how to deal with their own trauma…

While this article dealt with the issue of survivors being pressured or shamed into reporting their rapes to the police, it makes valid points about a broader issue: non-survivors presuming that they are in a better position to determine what would be the best course of action for a survivor. Often this is well-meaning protectiveness, with a wannabe ally honestly believing that his/her “rational”, non-traumatized thinking should be given far more credence than the survivor’s wishes, needs, and desire for safety. Sometimes the non-survivor is not a true ally at all, and has another agenda which — in his or her mind — trumps the well-being of the survivor.

I’ve lost count of the survivor stories I’ve heard and read in which the survivor was silenced out of someone else’s concern for the family, misguided loyalty to the perpetrators, or the desire to avoid a “scandal”. On the flip side of that are survivors whose stories were told and spread about against their will, for a variety of different reasons. Survivors I know have been accused of being “selfish” for wanting to control their own healing process, selfish for wanting desperately to regain a sense of agency and autonomy, selfish for desiring privacy, even selfish for wanting to manage their PTSD. Non-survivors simply do not understand how re-traumatizing it is when they show disregard for a survivor’s consent, and when they do not honor and help us strengthen our boundaries but seek to dismantle, ignore, or even ride roughshod over them.

I’m not talking about necessary crisis intervention or medical attention for a desperately injured woman who is crying, “Please leave me alone and let me die.” I’m talking about the sense of superiority some individuals feel merely because they have, thus far, not been raped — and they believe this somehow gives them a better perspective on how to negotiate the aftermath of sexual trauma. Worse, some seem to believe their status as non-survivors entitles them to ignore and even violate a survivor’s boundaries.

My words might sound harsh and overly condemning. That’s not my intent. I freely admit that I’m being blunt, and not mincing words, because I’ve discovered that the gentle, subtle and nuanced approach doesn’t tend to work well with those who have a tendency to push or cross boundaries. (A kinder, gentler resource for men — husbands, partners, and fathers — can be found here.) Some well-meaning people might honestly think they are trying to “help”, and that this justifies their attempts to control the survivor. It’s for her own good, they tell themselves. The reality, however, is that ignoring or violating the autonomy of a sexual trauma survivor is never in his or her best interests, except perhaps in a few extreme, life or death type situations.

Let’s look at a few of the far more common situations where non-survivors often add to the trauma of survivors by refusing to accept that the survivor herself is best equipped to make decisions about her own healing:

  • Telling others about the sexual trauma without the survivor’s consent. I understand that “secondary survivors” may feel a need for advice or a listening ear; however, this should be negotiated with the survivor. You do not own her, nor do you own her story. You should not get to decide who to tell or not tell. You do not get to decide or dictate her feelings in the matter. It doesn’t matter if you think you have all sorts of compelling reasons to tell her family, your family, your best buddies — or whoever it is that you feel the urge to tell — if you respect the survivor at all, you will honor her decision whether you agree with it or not. If you do not respect the survivor enough to allow her to determine who gets told and when, you are not her ally, nor are you a safe person for her. Period.
  • Pressing for details the survivor does not wish to tell you. It seems incredibly obvious to me that someone who genuinely cares for a survivor would respect their boundaries, yet I’m shocked at how many people don’t. Your curiosity does not justify intrusion.
  • Trying to pressure the survivor into a specific course of action. No, you don’t know better than she does. She knows what she can or can’t handle better than you do. (Read the article I referenced above.)
  • Insisting on being treated as an “ally”. Rape and sexual trauma violates — in a most terrible way — a person’s autonomy and moral agency. Having had sexual acts forced on her does not make it suddenly appropriate for a survivor to have other acts — including those you find “trivial” — and relationships forced upon her, no matter how much you may want to “be there” for her. True allies don’t pressure or insist. Instead, without a hint of coercion, they allow the survivor to approve the nature and extent of the relationship.

This includes spouses and significant others. You shouldn’t demand to be her “support person”, or to occupy a role she doesn’t want you to have. Unfortunately, I know of husbands, unable to accept this, who have gotten jealous of therapists and support group members who “knew more about the rape” than they did, and who felt they should be the survivor’s main confidante and source of emotional support. They only ended up proving themselves to be less safe and trustworthy, not more.

  • Attempting to choose a survivor’s allies for her. The husband of a survivor kept nagging his wife to “talk” to the wife of one of his buddies. “She got over her rape, and I bet she could really help you.” He dismissed as irrelevant that his wife barely knew this woman and had no desire to discuss with her the most traumatic, horrible experience of her life. That should be reason enough for a truly caring person to back off, but it took a lot of persuasion to finally convince this guy.
  • Trying to persuade or “guilt” a survivor into sharing more with her spouse or significant other than she is comfortable doing. Each person is different. Each marriage is different. Each survivor’s comfort level is different in terms of how much to tell other people in her life. Her comfort level should be honored, even if you think you would make entirely different decisions in her place.

Telling anyone about sexual trauma is difficult. Telling a male is usually even more so. Telling a spouse or significant other can be exponentially more difficult and frightening. Non-survivors tend not to grasp the enormity of this. If you care about a survivor, lay off the pressure and guilt tactics. The survivor’s boundaries should be encouraged and respected, not questioned and criticized.

Note of caution regarding marriage or “pastoral” counseling: It should go without saying that counselors should not attempt to guilt a survivor for “keeping secrets” about the rape from her husband, should not urge her to hand him her journals, should not recommend her husband have full access to her therapy records, and should not try to convince her that she “owes” her husband a detailed account of her rape. It should go without saying, but there are some counselors who simply do not understand the dynamics of sexual trauma, nor do they encourage appropriately healthy boundaries in either individuals or relationships. One would hope that a professional therapist would know better, but often lay or pastoral counselors may not have received training adequate to our needs. Sometimes their understanding of what constitutes a “healthy” marriage or spirituality does not take the realities of sexual trauma into account and would in fact be very unhealthy for a survivor.

  • Telling a survivor how to feel or react — thus invalidating her own experience. You don’t get to decide how she feels, nor do you get to map out her healing journey for her. Again, this is intrusive and can be a major setback for her. She may not act like you think a rape survivor should. Get over it. Her healing is not about reinforcing your stereotypes or making you feel comfortable.
  • Holding up other survivors’ reactions and healing journey as more appropriate or “better”. This is closely related to the previous point. Please give survivors the respect and dignity they deserve by accepting their individuality and autonomy. Not all of us have the same sexual trauma experience or the same recovery process.
  • Pressuring a survivor to trust someone she is not ready to trust. For many survivors, rape was a violation of trust. We need to be allowed to learn to trust again on our terms. We need to feel safe before we consider allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to another person. It can’t be rushed. Trust can’t be forced. It would be cruel, inhumane, and damaging not to allow a survivor to set her own pace.

The best way to earn our trust? Be trustworthy. And trust us— it’s a two-way street.

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