Thursday, 6 October 2011


Rape and sexual assault have been the hot topics du jour in the last few months with Dominique Strauss Kahn, Ken Clarke, Nadine Dorries, Coronation Street and the Slutwalk movement all providing opportunities to discuss the issue. I was discussing this with a friend the other week when she basically said 'I know what to say about rape 'on paper', but I don't know what to say to someone who has just told me it happened to them.' I wanted to hug her. Of course you don't really know what to say to someone who has just disclosed something so personal and painful. But the mature (but difficult) solution is to admit that rather than blunder on for the sake of it.

I half forgot about the conversation until another friend linked to these amazing pieces about what and what not to say to a cancer patient from The Awl and it got me thinking about the social minefield that is talking about traumatic events and what we should say or do and whether there are certain things that are universivally insensitive or are all traumas different? Has anyone ever published an etiquette guide on such things? But since it's unlikely they included the seen as taboo affects of sexual violence, I thought I'd make a few  suggestions myself.

1) Don't say 'things happen for a reason' to a rape victim or try to find explanations. I use the word victim here specifically. Someone who has recently been sexually assaulted or only just been able to tell someone is feeling victimised. They need empathy and a shoulder to lean on. They don't need problem solving or theories or any other reason to wonder why it happened or chances to ask 'what if' further. They are already doing that. Don't encourage it. Seeking to 'explain' an attack also skirts dangerously close to victim blaming....

2) Don't ask what they were wearing. I really don't want to patronise you by explaining why this is a bad idea, but suffice to say you don't usually find yourself asking what the colour the car that drove into someone was or what style of front door the burgled house had. (And if you do, then frankly, you need to re-think your priorities when conversing with people because you are either missing the point or inutterably shallow.)

3) Don't lunge at them to give them a big comforting hug without asking first. Some victims crave touch and the reassurance that they aren't 'damaged goods' after rape. Others will freak the fuck out if you start touching them without permission because it is a massive trigger. You don't need to be super formal and put in a written request for a pat on the back next Tuesday, but just say 'Is there anything I can do to help? Would you like a hug?' That way you've given them back bodily autonomy and control and allowed them to say no without offending you.

4) Don't make it about you. You may be dying inside seeing the person you love go through this, but certainly right at the start, it isn't about you. So if you feel hurt that your previously affectionate friend flinches when you touch her, don't tell her that her right now. Swallow your feelings temporarily, make her feel OK and then talk to someone else about how you feel. Your friend can't take your pain as well as her own, mainly because it makes her feel guilty about 'creating' it. Seek other sources of help and only show how you are suffering in a way that shows it's because you love them, not because you blame them for bringing this hell to your door. There's a world of difference between ' I hate to see someone as lovely as you feel so bad about this' and 'have you any idea how hard it is for me to see you like this?'

5) Consider privacy, but don't get too hung up on it. Not making life trickier for the victim and keeping their privacy is a hard one, but take their cues. You may find you need to write stuff down, yell at the cat, sob to a houseplant or seek help for yourself from Rape Crisis or a counsellor, but it is vital not make someone feel even worse. Rape and sexual assault creates so much guilt already that we can't cope with it from other sources. We already feel terrible in ourselves for 'spoiling' it for everyone else and any silence or shutting the subject down compounds it.

6) Don't take over. Ask if your actions are ok. Don't tell her she must go to the police. She may not want you to come to appointments themselves, but to meet her afterwards for a life giving martini and some distraction. And if you don't know what to do or say, be honest and say you don't know. She probably doesn't know either and the pressure of feeling like she has to be strong for other people is something she doesn't need.

7) Under no circumstance tell her she needs to do this for all the other potential or past victims. She is struggling to keep herself together and protect those around her, she cannot take on the pressure and weight of all these other invisible unknown women too. And it's not fair to ask. You're asking her to take on the way society feels, the work of the police, judiciary and prison service all while recovering from trauma. Setting aside the fact the police often don't play their part, does that seem a fair thing to do to someone vulnerable?

8) Don't ask what actually happened. You may not quite understand the ins and outs of the assault, but don't pry. It's impersonal, extremely rude and tends to sound disbelieving. I thought my first assault was an attempted rape for about eighteen months when one of the women at WAR happened to describe the same event happening to another woman as a rape and a big lightbulb went on in my head. Legally it was assault by penetration but it always felt like a rape to me and it was important for me to own that. I wasn't lying when I switched terms, but it also wasn't appropriate for people as to say ' so what actually happened?' as if I was changing the details daily. I also, ironically for such a chatterbox, literally didn't have the words to describe it for in some cases years after the event. Some aspects I only articulated for the first time to my therapist last year and other bits I still cannot actually form the words to describe aloud. You may also have to prepare yourself for hearing some really brutal stuff when you ask such personal questions. It's not a pretty thing to describe, so be ready and don't hold it against the victim if her recollection gives you nightmares.

9) Realise there isn't a 'right' or 'wrong' way to react to trauma. Some people will cry. Some will be seemingly untouched. I sobbed daily and at the drop of a hat after the first rape. I have never shed a tear over the second one. Neither time did I follow the rape victim trope of bathing repeatedly. I simply cleaned and painted the whole house obsessively in the weeks after not realising it was the damned spot I was trying to out. Traumatised minds work differently to untraumatised ones, but it takes time for the traumatised person to make sense of it all.

10) Don't say all men are bastards/evil/rapists. That just makes a frightened woman want to stay in the house alone with the doors and windows locked forever and ever. You also don't need to go overboard and show her photo albums of the amazing enlightened men you know. Just try be normal. And if you are a man? Don't yell and threaten violence against the 'scum' who did it. You'll scare her. She needs to know men aren't all secretly violent. And that 'scum'? He might be her partner, her dad, her uncle, her friend, all people she loved and now fears. She needs to know they are in the wrong, not that her judgement in being with them was wrong.

11) Don't say 'you of all people should know better' if the woman has previous experience of rape and abuse or is a strong feisty woman. Rape is not like measles. You aren't immune to it for life after it happens once. And being raped doesn't give you a magical all seeing all knowing power to spot sexual predators at fifty feet. If it did, Neighbourhood Watch schemes would actually count for something. And rape victims would never end up broke and on benefits, because the police would hire them to help them out and improve the conviction rate about a gazillion-fold. Plus the biggest risk factor for being raped is prior abuse or trauma, especially in childhood. Being a victim makes you vulnerable.

12) Judge wisely. Sometimes in the searing aftermath of extreme trauma, people act strangely and do things you aren't comfortable with. Just consider this stage as something akin to an Outward Bound version of breaking up with someone. The stakes are kind of higher this time so she might go in for something a bit more outre than a new fringe. Lots of traumatised people end up clinging to risky and ultimately unhelpful behaviours to stop themselves feeling like they are drowning in their new world. Women who have been raped often become promiscuous for a variety of reasons. They also find themselves having 'just the one' to take the edge off. Or developing all or nothing behaviours with food. These things are really really hard for you to watch. We know that. We just need someone to try and see that we're doing it because we're frightened and confused and emotionally adrift, not telling us we are bad people and then trotting each example of our failings out for years to come like exhibits in a courtroom of friendship. When things are better, we'll apologise. But dislike the action, not the person.

13) Ask questions, but don't interrogate or bombard them with queries. Like when walking with someone else, take their pace. Don't try and speed them up. If you don't understand, seek other sources of enlightenment. This might also lead to you finding out things that can help and that you can suggest gently. Rape victims crave control and this makes their minds one track. You changing the route seems minor to you, to them it can make feel like they are reliving the moment of no control when they were raped. Remember, you can't problem solve this situation. No suggestion in the world can make her unraped and take away the problem.

14) Mirror their words. Do they use the R word? Are they saying 'the incident'? Do they prefer 'survivor' to 'victim'? Copy them. The first time I had to use the words 'rape victim' in relation to myself was like being punched in the stomach. It felt like those words were ripping the grasp I had on my life further apart. I still hate that I could even be described that way and on bad days, it makes me want to vomit. I can detach it the rest of the time, but words matter.

15) Think carefully about how to cheer the person up. None of the following are a good idea.*

a) A DVD of Rosemary's Baby for someone who has been drugged and raped. She probably hasn't worried about being impregnated by Satan in with all the other shit going on. Don't be the one to give her the irrational fear. Plus films by child rapists aren't ideal right now generally.

b) A copy of The Lovely Bones. Not only is it a terrible terrible book, it perpetuates the feeling that you've ruined everyone else's life by being raped and make you feel guiltier. And telling the victim who calmly explained she didn't like it, that lending it to her was designed to remind them to be grateful he didn't kill them as well isn't helpful. Your average recent rape victim has enough going on without getting a conviction for ABH with a paperback as well.

c) A vibrator. Sexual pleasure may be the last thing on her mind and even if it isn't, I always think it's a private thing at any time unless the person asks you how to increase it. Handing them something pink and sparkly and cock shaped and explaining your reasoning as  'helping them out since they won't be able to consider having sex with a real man again' wins gold and sets a world record at the Insensitivity Olympics. The fact that she's gone silent and is opening and closing her mouth a lot isn't a preview of what she's going to do with the thing. It's watching someone's mind actually boggle.

d) But don't be utterly po faced and super serious. We aren't invalids. We won't break if someone smiles. Everyone needs some breathing space. The night I came home from my forensic examination, my friend Jo ordered us Chinese takeaway, failed to make up some flatpack furniture, gave up and we watched CSI instead. (Yes, I know. CSI after the day I'd had? You'd think not, but it was my choice and an episode I still love. I sympathise with it being hard to second guess the situation.) Switching off and thinking about other stuff for a while is great for everyone involved, especially if there are prawn crackers. But be prepared that kindness might make people emotional. Even thinking about some of the kindnesses people offered me makes my eyes leak even now.

I'm pretty sure all of these tips would apply to any life altering event from death to divorce, but hopefully they do highlight a bit of the extra issues round violent assault and trauma. So basically, be gentle, let them set the pace, look after yourself too and stay calm. We'll love you all the more for it. And don't beat yourself up if you think you've done it wrong. How are you meant to know if no one tells or guides you?

*All of these things happened to me. I no longer speak to any of the people involved. I can just about see the humour in them now.


  1. I read your blog and your comments on another blog about rape. what the south Wales Police did is f*****ing disgusting. I hope you are fine even though I'm sure you are, you seem like a strong woman. xxxxxxx Delores

  2. Thank you Delores. I'm doing my best and hoping that other women who have been through tough stuff find some help hearing it spoken about!