Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

10 Tips for Supporting a Victim of Domestic Violence or Sexual Assault

Today’s post comes from Kim Souder, who volunteered at a domestic violence shelter for a few years in high school, and spent three years volunteering as a rape crisis counselor through the YWCA while in graduate school.

Relationship Violence is something that affects between 10 to over 30% of people at some point in their lives. The exact number is hard to pin down because it’s such a personal, unreported issue that many people are uncomfortable discussing. It can range from emotional violence, to physical violence, to sexual violence (and likely contains some aspect of all of the above). After the jump, I’ve provided 10 general tips for supporting a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault.

1. Don’t victim-blame.

Since victim-blaming can be very subtle and survivors of abuse/assault are prone to self-blame, you have to be cautious about what words you choose. Say things like “It wasn’t your fault” and “You are a strong person for making it through this” and avoid saying things like “Why were you alone that late at night?,” “How much did you have to drink?,” or “Why didn’t you leave him sooner?” Be aware of saying something out of frustration or anger that comes off negatively, and think before you speak.

2. Aim to educate and empower.

There are many available resources out there, but many are location-specific (some national resources to check out are www.thehotline.org at 1-800-799-SAFE and . You should be able to Google your city/county along with domestic violence support or rape crisis center to find local resources. Keep an eye out for 24-hour hotlines, counseling services, confidential advocates, assistance dealing with the legal system, support groups, and monetary assistance. Your goal is to educate your loved one so that she can make the best decisions for herself at this point in time. Avoid saying things like she “needs” to do X, and instead present her with a list of options and help her come up with potential consequences for each of those options.

3. Respect and support her decisions.

Both domestic violence and rape are about having power and control over the victim. Your job as a support person is to provide her with information and then let her make her own decisions so she can regain power and control over her life. She may not be ready to see a counselor, tell her parents what happened, or tell her boyfriend what happened. Until she’s ready, respect her decisions. The two places I often see people struggle with this advice the most are when a rape survivor decides to not report the crime or when a domestic violence survivor who chooses to stay with her abuser. Reporting a crime is very difficult and often the survivor has to re-live her traumatic experience many times, and this decision can be even harder for her to make if she knows the assailant. In domestic violence situations, she probably loves her abuser deeply and may not be ready to leave him yet. Remember that it often takes a survivor a few tries to successfully leave an abusive partner and the most dangerous time for her is when she tries to leave. Be cautious calling the police without her permission, because she could be punished if she isn’t ready to leave him. Some exceptions to this tip are if you see her exhibiting self-destructive behavior (cutting, becoming suicidal), developing substance abuse problems, or where children are being abused. In these instances talk to a trained professional yourself because you need extra help to support her.

4. Help her develop healthy coping mechanisms.

Some good ideas for healthy coping mechanisms are journaling, participating in a sport, talking about their feelings with a counselor, pillow abuse (beating up a pillow), yelling, and crying. Some less-healthy coping mechanisms are ignoring the situation (bottling up their feelings), numbing their pain (drinking, drug abuse), or regaining control over their lives in unhealthy ways (developing eating disorders, cutting). Encourage her to seek counseling and find some way to express her feelings.

5. Validate her feelings.

Survivors of abuse/assault can feel 10 different things in 10 minutes, and that’s very confusing. Your job is to let her know it’s safe for her to share her feelings with you and that her feelings are normal.

6. Avoid over-sharing and comparisons with your experiences.

The key thing here is keep focused on her: validating what she’s feeling, helping her come up with coping tools, and allowing her to have her own timetable for feeling better. If she asks for you to share your experiences, do so in a way that helps her and not in a way where she ends up supporting you.

7. Avoid blanket statements.

A lot of survivors get frustrated hearing generic statements. You don’t know she will feel better, you don’t know tomorrow will be better, and you don’t know how well she will heal from this trauma. Instead of making predictions you can’t back up, acknowledge that what she is going through is tough, she has good days and bad days, that she is a strong person, and that over time she can get to a point where this will be less of an all-consuming experience.

8. Help her develop a safety plan.

Work with her to tailor a safety plan to her specific situation and needs.

9. Get help for yourself.

You need to make sure you are healthy enough to help a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault. Find a support group for friends/family members or someone you can talk with about your feelings and needs during this time — someone entirely outside the situation and unknown to the survivor, and NOT be a mutual friend/family member. It’s okay to call a 24-hour hotline yourself; the resource is available to support people. You will likely be feeling anger, frustration, and sadness that you need to deal with to be there for your friend. If you’ve reached the point where you are unable to support her anymore or she’s relying on you too much, gently let her know of your boundaries and enforce them.

10. Ask her what she needs of you.

One of the most important things I’ve learned is that everyone’s experience and healing process is different. If you aren’t sure of what she needs, ask her what you can do to help. Read her cues as to what to say or not say to make her feel better. No tip holds 100% true to all survivors, so customize your approach based on her specific needs and desires.

Readers, do you have anything you want to add? If you’ve been through a domestic violence or sexual assault, what did you find the most/least useful in a support person?

One final note: This article is written using female pronouns, because the majority of abuse/assault survivors, as well the majority of Dear Wendy readers are women. Despite that, all of these tips would apply to a male survivor as well. However, male survivors have additional needs and face additional challenges, which aren’t addressed above. You can call a 24-hour hotline to get information about support for male survivors of rape and relationship abuse.

*Kim Souder is a geologist who volunteered at a domestic violence shelter for a few years in high school, and spent three years volunteering as a rape crisis counselor through the YWCA while in graduate school (and received an award for Volunteer of the Year). Her work involved extensive training to complete crisis-counselor certification, answering hotline phone calls, accompanying victims to hospital exams and police interviews, and training to assist in hospital exams involving children.

38 comments… add one
  • avatar

    Anna January 25, 2012, 12:32 pm

    These are very good tips. I think victim-blaming is the worst…anyone remember the case of the 11-year old who was gang-raped and the news blamed her because she “dressed as if she was older, wore lots of makeup, and had older male friends.” I don’t care what you are wearing, how drunk you are, or who your friends are, it is STILL not ok for someone to rape you. It may not be wise to get passed-out drunk in a miniskirt with no panties under it, but if you do it is still NOT OK for someone to rape you. If someone does, it is the rapist’s fault alone.

    On a side note, I would love to see an article like this about emotional abuse. One of my best friends recently got out of a bad relationship with a man who was very controlling and emotionally abusive. The only reason they ended up being together was because they had a child together very quickly after meeting. When she failed to lose all the baby weight immediately, he berated her day after day about it. Every time she would attempt to eat even one meal, he would tell her she doesn’t need to eat anymore and she’s just making herself fatter. She was never fat in the first place! He insisted they had to share a bank account and a cell phone account, but his phone was equipped with texting while hers wasn’t. If she spent $5 on herself he would yell and bitch a fit about it, but he would spend the entire tax refund on stuff he wanted like motorcycles and trucks. When he lost his job, he refused to get a new one and sat on his ass claiming to be disabled for 3 years (but not too disabled to ride his motorcycles of course) but wouldn’t let her get a job. Finally, she got fed up with no one supporting the kids and got a job anyway. She lost weight for her own personal happiness, and kicked him out of the house about 3 months ago. I was so happy she finally did it after I told her for years and years that he was no good for her. I wish I had known better how to help her. Thoughts?

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    • avatar

      MsMisery January 25, 2012, 1:30 pm

      Yep, victim blaming pisses me off so much. No one is ever “asking for it” (regardless of what “it” is). We should be able to walk down the street naked without being raped or assaulted, men and women both.

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    • Amybelle

      Amybelle January 25, 2012, 5:50 pm

      I agree about the victim blaming, and I’m probably sensitive about it from being in an abusive marriage in the past, but it seems more acceptable to victim blame in the case of domestic violence. Why doesn’t she just leave? Or my favorite “I would leave the first time he hit me, she must have low self esteem to stay” Sure I thought that too, but it’s often much more complicated. The abuse starts slowly, maybe you’re not even sure its abuse at first. I had a lot of denial and a lot of shame and self blame. Actually it was pretty vital to my self esteem that no one know. This is very hard for me to talk about and I’m not sure if I’m expressing exactly what I mean. I know there have been some comments on past letters about women in abusive relationships that have made me feel pretty bad by implying that Because of being in an abusive relationship in the past im somehow now damaged goods and need therapy to “figure out why I stayed” Umm, I know exactly why I stayed, it wasn’t love but would take much too long to explain here. It seems like with rape there is more of an “anyone could be raped, it’s not your fault” attitude but with dv it’s “that only happens to dependent women with low self esteem who make bad choices in partners” Actually it’s the abuse that leads to dependency and low self esteem in a lot of cases. And the person being abused is hypersensitive to being judged/shamed/blamed.

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    • Brad

      Brad January 26, 2012, 7:02 am

      What a jerk. Glad she tossed out the trash.

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  • CatsMeow

    CatsMeow January 25, 2012, 1:17 pm

    I’m so happy to see this here. As a survivor of both intimate partner violence and rape (different perpetrators, separate incidents) AS WELL as a former volunteer for a domestic violence hotline, I think these are really good tips. This information is something that needs to be known. Too often, well-intentioned yet uninformed people can make hurtful statements. That’s why I especially like that it was pointed out that the hotlines are available to supporters of victims/survivors as well. If you know someone in a situation like this, reach out to an expert and get some free advice.

    I had to come to terms with my situation in my own time – and I think that’s what is so hard for others who are witnessing an abusive situation. I had one friend – a very good, lifelong friend – who was incredibly judgmental from the get-go. It got to the point where I wouldn’t go to her for help or advice or even to vent, because I knew I would just get an eye roll and an “I told you so.” Then I had a co-worker, who without knowing any specifics about my relationship (I didn’t talk to anyone out of shame) but who rightly suspected that something was going on, offered to let me stay with her if I EVER needed to – no questions asked. She made the offer known to me many times, and eventually, I took her up on it. And that’s how I *finally* rid myself of my ex. (We were living somewhere where we didn’t know anyone and it was easy for him to isolate me).

    Everyone is different, though. Different things work for different people. I would say, generally, to refrain from judgment – which can be REALLY difficult – and just let her/him know that you are there if they ever need anything.

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  • avatar

    Rei January 25, 2012, 1:46 pm

    I think one thing to remember is that everyone reacts differently and you shouldn’t invalidate their feelings even if you think they’re weird.
    I know that when I was raped three years ago, it bothered my about as much as getting my car broken into. And I still feel that way. And it’s not wrong or bad and I’m not some horrible sociopath who has no feelings. It just doesn’t bother me.
    Of course, some people will be horribly bothered, and their reactions aren’t wrong either. Point is, people are different and unless they are actively hurting others, like beating their child out of frustration over their spouse, then don’t judge or condescend them.

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    • rainbow

      rainbow January 25, 2012, 2:29 pm

      I agree. I get really annoyed when people assume that because I was raped I won’t ever want to dress up in a slutty costume / be spanked / be sexually healthy / be happy ever again.
      But it also hurts me when people try to talk me into “getting over it already” if I have a nightmare / get startled with a loud noise / see someone burning another person alive in a movie and freak out (that nearly happened to me).
      Some people try to police you into being on a proper victim timeline when they don’t know how else to help.

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      • avatar

        NikkiMic March 14, 2013, 2:26 pm

        Awesome points, both. I remember awhile ago reading about a court case where a woman was either pressing charges against her rapist, or maybe seeking compensation for emotional damages – I can’t remember if it was a civil or criminal suit – but either way, the lawyer for the defense actually put forth the argument that she couldn’t have been that depressed because in the year or however long since it had happened, there had been pictures of her smiling at parties posted to Facebook. In other words, her depression and anxiety couldn’t be real if she was capable of SMILING!

        It was disgusting.

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  • rainbow

    rainbow January 25, 2012, 2:20 pm

    I’m very happy that you guys respectively wrote and ran this piece. This kind of info is mostly confined to websites specifically about sexual violence, and it’s great to find it as you go about your life not looking for it. It’s very empowering to be able to discuss this with your usual community, and not having to do it only with people who got together about it in the first place – that’s good too, but it can get a bit stale.

    Specially when you’re feeling better or when, as Rai said, you don’t fit the cookie-cutter definition of victim/survivor. Though I really dislike those terms. My friend and I are writing a zine on this, and we were joking the other day that ‘victim’ makes us feel like stepford wives wannabes who got it rough, yet ‘survivor’ makes it sound like we’re two of the rugby players who fell on the Andes and ate each other.

    I think the piece is great. Number 6 is something I could never put words to, but it’s really important. Sometimes people don’t talk, and it looks like they don’t even care what you’re saying, but if they talk too much about themselves it can get unhelpful too.

    And I think number 9 is specially important for partners, because on top of the rest of the stress you share a sex life / sleep routine with this person, and they may be affected.

    On another note, a kind of IPV often overlooked is the one in same-sex relationships. Someone I love a lot was being abused by her girlfriend, and once she left and the girl kept harassing her she went to the police, and they laughed in her face. The help you can get in some cases is even worse than average. By this I don’t mean there aren’t any good resources, a lot of people are doing a great job, but leaving / getting help is still harder than it should be.

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  • avatar

    Temperance January 25, 2012, 3:45 pm

    These are very good. I worked as a domestic violence interviewer for an internship, so there is one thing I would like to add.

    Do NOT shit talk the abuser to the victim. She likely will feel that she has to defend him, and that can just further the potential for the abuser to become more and more enmeshed in the victim’s life, while the victim becomes more and more isolated from her family and friends.

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    • avatar

      Meredith January 25, 2012, 8:29 pm

      Absolutely..my best friend has been in an abusive relationship for over six years. Her boyfriend found out I was bad mouthing him and has forbidden her from having any contact with me. She has to sneak phone calls to me now, and I really wish I could still be there to support her, because she really needs it :-/

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      • avatar

        Temperance January 26, 2012, 5:40 pm

        She must still know you care about her, since she calls you. I really hope she gets out. <3

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    • theattack

      theattack January 26, 2012, 1:16 pm

      Very good advice. I counsel women fleeing domestic violence, and many of them are just barely hanging on to the idea that they need to get out. They’re in very fragile situations.

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  • avatar

    Mwalt January 26, 2012, 3:53 am

    I have no sympathy for women who, time and time again, get beaten and refuse to leave. Seriously. Especially when kids are involved. Something is seriously wrong with them, and if they won’t listen to reason, they are part of the problem.

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    • Dear Wendy

      Wendy January 26, 2012, 7:02 am

      That’s one of the most ignorant, insensitive comments I’ve ever read here.

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      • Amybelle

        Amybelle January 26, 2012, 11:18 am

        That is exactly the kind of comment I was talking about in my post above. It’s not always safe or possible to leave right away. I wish I was able to comment with more detail but this triggers some bad memories for me and I just can’t. Thank you Wendy, Addie, call me hobo and rainbow for your great comments

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    • call-me-hobo

      call-me-hobo January 26, 2012, 7:09 am

      I actually think that it’s people like you that are part of the problem.

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    • avatar

      Addie Pray January 26, 2012, 7:51 am

      Go on, don’t hold back now, Mwalt. You’re biting your tongue but what you want to say is something is so seriously wrong with these women that they deserve the beating, right?

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      • avatar

        Addie Pray January 26, 2012, 7:53 am

        I just vomited in my mouth thinking about Mwalt’s deep thoughts.

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    • rainbow

      rainbow January 26, 2012, 9:00 am

      Yep, something IS seriously wrong with them. They are being isolated and victimized.

      It doesn’t mean they caused it, that they should magically have the skills to turn the situation around at a time you find convenient, or that you would do better in their place.

      Also, I’ve been there. And people who are so quick to put you down and are so sure it would never happen to them are usually the less healthy ones, talking out of their asses hoping all the noise will distract you from noticing they’re in some pretty fucked up codependent dynamics too, and themselves from realizing that even though the situation is not the same they are pretty weak and trapped themselves.

      A strong, independent and healthy person would never say what you just said.

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    • avatar

      jlyfsh January 26, 2012, 11:28 am

      Obviously you’ve never had to deal with anything like this or seen a loved one go through it, or more than likely be very empathetic. My father was abusive and my mother stayed with him until I was 10. She wasn’t stupid she was terrified. He had her convinced that if she tried to leave him he would hunt her down and hurt her and then he would end up with us. That was her worst fear that he would get us and she wouldn’t be there to protect us. It took time to build up the reserves and safety net to get out. But, hey I’m sure you’re perfect and something like that could never happen to you.

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      • avatar

        Addie Pray January 26, 2012, 11:42 am

        You can’t reach someone whose heart is so misplaced. It’s like you’re speaking two different languages.

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    • avatar

      Eljay January 26, 2012, 11:43 am

      Holy Hell, Mwalt, what’s wrong with you?

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    • Dear Wendy

      Wendy January 26, 2012, 1:18 pm

      I’d like to point out that this is the same person who shared this bit of wisdom, so take her comments with a huge bucket of salt:

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      • avatar

        Temperance January 26, 2012, 5:45 pm

        I feel like Mwalt is a dude, because the things Mwalt says are things that men tend to say to women.

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    • avatar

      Temperance January 26, 2012, 5:42 pm

      This is a bad comment, and you should feel bad.

      Of course it’s frustrating to counsel or try to help women who keep going back to their abusers … but the abuser is at fault, not the victim. Of course there are mental issues at play, but when a woman has been isolated from her family and friends, and has nowhere to turn … where else is she going to go?

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    • avatar

      EB January 27, 2012, 1:38 am

      I can’t think of a more inappropriate article to voice such callous and utterly tactless remarks. In addition, I’m a bit confused why you are reading this piece in the first place as it provides tips for people who actually WANT to SUPPORT those facing domestic abuse and clearly you are NOT one of those people.

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    • avatar

      NikkiMic March 14, 2013, 2:27 pm

      If you believe something is wrong with them, all the more reason to feel sympathetic and want to help.

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  • theattack

    theattack January 26, 2012, 1:14 pm

    About calling the police: You should always call anonymously if you hear something going on. I completely disagree with the advice to only call with permission. You are rarely going to get permission to call from a victim, because they often still love their abusers. And a police report can be very important for getting orders of protection, or having him pay for your attorney fees in a divorce, or receiving professional support if she doesn’t want to take out an order of protection. CALL THE POLICE.

    And about the idea that you should only call if children are being abused… No. If children are present, you need to call too. Victims of domestic violence are charged with failure to protect their children all the time. They have their children removed from them often because the victims thought it was okay as long as the kids weren’t being hit. Wrong wrong wrong. In many states, it is mandatory for the police to arrest someone in domestic disputes. This gives the mom a chance to get out, thus protecting her children in the future. It also gives her a potential defense later. The police came, report was made, order of protection was filed for herself AND the children, so she did take steps to protect the child.

    I appreciate a post about domestic violence, but as someone else who works with it every single day, the advice to not call the police just churns my stomach.

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    • avatar

      Temperance January 26, 2012, 5:46 pm

      I agree. Plus, if you ASK the victim, you could be putting them in danger, because their abuser might hear you and hurt them more.

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  • avatar

    Renee January 26, 2012, 1:32 pm

    “I have no sympathy for women who, time and time again, get beaten and refuse to leave.”

    Wow….

    DV is absolutely nothing like an argument you may have in a healthy relationship, where you might be upset about something without tearing apart the person’s dignity.

    It’s not they’re refusing to leave, it’s that the offender WON’T allow them to leave or even be left alone. Probably the offender won’t even let them use the bathroom by themselves. It’s modern day captivity.

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    • avatar

      Temperance January 26, 2012, 5:49 pm

      THIS. I worked as a domestic violence interviewer in family court, and on several occasions, the woman I was interviewing would tell me that her abuser caught her coming into the courthouse and tried to follow her to stop her from filing.

      I’ve also had cases where men threatened their ex-girlfriends and wives in custody hearings in full view of the sheriffs who are throughout the courtroom. Abusers think that they have full control, and they can spin everything so the woman is “crazy” ( a form of gaslighting ).

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      • theattack

        theattack January 26, 2012, 8:08 pm

        This is one reason why the Family Justice Center is so amazing. There aren’t very many locations, but they have staff members from various agencies who assist people in filing orders of protection. The petitions stay there in the office and one staff member takes them down to file them all together. The victims never end up there to file it. I seriously looooooove the Family Justice Center. They also have people there representing the sheriff’s department, the department of children’s services, legal aide, a free therapist for victims of domestic violence, representatives from shelters, and other agencies too.

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  • avatar

    spot January 26, 2012, 10:28 pm

    Wow, totally disgusted by MWALT’s comment. I could go into detail with my thoughts but I think everyone here has already said what I am thinking.

    Just to reiterate what so many other comments have said about tip#1 (re: victim blaming), it is so important that people understand this. So many people victim blame without realizing it at all. As a victim of date rape, you don’t know how many people asked me if I was drunk or what I was wearing when it happened. For some people, it seemed innocent–like they were just curious or interested, and they didn’t even realize how painful it was to hear them ask that. Even my parents went straight into interrogating me as to why I was out so late on a weeknight, and what my behavior had been like, how I had been dancing, why I wasn’t more careful, etc. The WORST (and I think often unintentional) type of victim-blaming in these situations is when people say something along the lines of “well, sucks that you had to learn your lesson the hard way,” or “at least now you will know to be more careful.” I used to feel so affected by the rape that I felt the need to talk about it constantly (only to close friends) because it was constantly on my mind, but at this point I don’t tell anyone anymore because I feel like in the back of their heads, even if they don’t say it, they are wondering if I was drunk and what I was wearing, how I was dancing, why I took a drink that I didn’t see the guy pour, etc.

    Glad to see that so many DW readers are so sensitive and understanding, though.

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    • avatar

      Eljay January 27, 2012, 9:34 am

      I completely agree. I had finally worked up the nerve to tell a new friend (male) about my rape, and the very FIRST thing he said was “so what part did you play in all this?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! When I asked for clarification (more like dude wtf?), he asked what I was wearing, had I been overly seductive around this person, had I encouraged him at all, etc. Seriously? He was completely serious and couldn’t understand my outrage. So, I again reiterated that I was home, alone, asleep….only to be awakened with a gun to my temple. Yeah, my bad.

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      • rainbow

        rainbow January 27, 2012, 11:36 am

        That’s awful. People can be really clueless and cruel sometimes. Did you find (even look for?) a way to get him to be more respectful, or did you cut him off? I really can’t tell when it’s time to tell someone to fuck off, and I end up giving people too many chances. I’m working on it.

        I had to quit seeing a couple of my friends who couldn’t understand basic human empathy when I started talking about what happened openly. One of them (a friend in common) wouldn’t stop talking about the guy like we were regular friendly exes, or something. He even came to me all happy with the news that he was moving in with the 17-year-old he had gotten pregnant on purpose and is most likely abusing to this day (they even had another child). The other one said “Well, he isn’t that tall or big really. You could have stopped him if you really wanted to”. And BOTH OF THEM KEPT GIVING HIM MY NUMBER.

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      • avatar

        Eljay January 27, 2012, 2:32 pm

        That is just mind-blowingly (is that even a word?) unbelievable to me!!! People never cease to absolutely amaze me with this type of insanity.

        I did not completely cut dude-face out of my life, however, we are not nearly as close as we once were. He insisted that there MUST have been SOMETHING that I did to “encourage” this guy to do what he did. I refused to talk about it further, and started to distance myself from him little by little. I now only talk to him once/maybe twice a month just to say hello & see how his family is doing (I had become pretty close with his family after about a year of hanging out with him). Every now & then, he’ll ask me, “what happened to us? We used to be so close.” He is truly clueless. Unbelievable.

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  • Amybelle

    Amybelle January 26, 2012, 11:29 pm

    This, you explain it perfectly. I agree too that a lot of the time it’s unintentional. It can be hard to see your own bias

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