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My best friend was raped: what can I do for her?

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Suze asks:

First off, thank you for this site. It's wonderful. Now, I'm a just-graduated senior, and my best friend went with a big group to Florida for their senior trip. She called me wasted and crying, upset and saying that this guy I'll call E wanted to have sex with her, she told him no, and he did it anyway. His side of the story was that she didn't protest. Sounds like rape, right? But she's known for teasing guys, and people might not believe her. And they liked each other a while back--E never displayed any signs of being likely to take advantage of someone.

I have no idea how to handle this situation because there's so much gray area. How can I help my best friend?

Heather Corinna replies:

It's actually, in my book, not grey at all.

I'm a very talented cook, and my friends love it when I cook for them. Some crave my meals intensely. If I have a friend over, and I have them smell some fresh basil I picked up at the market, show them a beautiful tomato from my garden, does my doing that oblige me to cook something for them with those ingredients? Have I promised, committed or consented to doing so? Could we reasonably say that if, after showing them those things, they forced me to cook against my will with the rationalization that I "teased" them with those ingredients, that they'd be in the right and that forcing me to do something I didn't want to do was anything but an exploitation and an abuse? Even if I did at some point say I was going to cook, and then decided that I just wasn't in the mood, would it be okay for them to force me to, anyway, because I "made" them hungry, and thus, am somehow obligated to sate them?

People disbelieve victims of sexual violence for every reason under the sun: based on how we were dressed, the way we walk, the way we talk, what our color is, what our social class is, what our gender is (this is a biggie with male survivors), what our sexual orientation is, if we've been sexually active before or not, if we wear our hair this way, if we have this size of hips, breasts, thighs, penises, if we're disabled, if we've enjoyed consensual sex before or not...you name it, it's been used as a way to rationalize sexual violence. But there's not a one of those things which justifies it or ever has. The fact that your friend flirts or is sometimes seductive when she's feeling that -- if she is at all, since often reputations aren't even based in truths or reality -- doesn't make her victimization any less valid than it would for someone who isn't flirty. Flirting is not consent, nor is a person being flirted with somehow being given permission or the right to do anything or everything sexual they want to do to that person.

You're rarely going to come across someone who rapes who says anything BUT that their victim wanted it or didn't protest.

The idea that people who rape will stand right up and say they raped someone, rather than say anything and everything they can to make it their victim's fault, is false. Some of that is because no one wants to be exposed as a rapist, and some of that is based on the fact that part of the motivation to rape someone is about proving you're more powerful than they are, and making rape the victim's fault -- especially if you can get that victim to believe it herself or himself -- is part of that power dynamic, as well as yet another way, beyond rape itself, to debase a victim.

Too, a person not protesting -- even though in this case your friend did protest -- still isn't consent. Consent to sex isn't just the absence of a "no." Consent is an enthusiastic, strong yes: an expressed wish, physically and verbally, to share a mutually felt desire. The desire for sex is not passive or weak, so it doesn't make a lot of sense for anyone to suggest that the expression of that desire would or should be. In fact, if you want one way to spot someone who is a potential rapist or a rape enabler, pay attention when you hear a person say that not saying no to sex is the same as saying yes. And know that were the shoe on the other foot, and were some man forcing himself on them, they certainly would not say their lack of protest was equivalent to consent.

Even her reputation for "teasing guys," may well be based in part on sexism and the idea that women being flirtatious without giving men what they want justifies dissing, dehumanizing or assaulting someone. Pinning someone with a reputation as a "slut" or a "tease" also often results in socially isolating a person, which makes it easier to abuse them. If you deconstruct those ideas a bit, you'll see that they're based in some pretty profound double-standards and kinds of entitlement, especially since often when men get flirty with women, and consensual sex does happen, that sex still is sometimes more about men getting what they want or desire (ON women or TO women rather than WITH women or FOR women), and far less so women. If men flirt with women, and don't "deliver" sex, do people tend to think about women as having been wronged in some way, or being robbed of sex they're entitled to because a man flirted?

Not all men behave that way, mind you, but there is a sizeable group of men who do, and a pretty darn big group of men who enable that dynamic, where sex is about something they "get," rather than about something truly shared. Either way, women are on the losing end of this idea, and men are only so benefitted by it. Either way, women are often unlikely to have their desires respected OR met -- whether that's about being denied the right to say no, or about the sex they're having consensually still being primarily about what men want, with female partners secondary or barely taken into consideration at all. And either way, men also lose -- even though some may think they have won, and even though even when they lose it still hurts the women or men they treat this way -- if they either rape or come to sex only as conquest, because they're not really having sex, sharing sex, with another person: they're raping or masturbating. Neither of those things, when another person is involved, hold a candle to what real sexual partnership can offer us. I'm not by any means speaking to how all men, or even a majority, operate, nor am I saying it's impossible for women to behave the same way, were the power balance shifted between men and women in the world. However, this is all very pervasive, and unfortunately, many people do still subscribe to this kind of thinking, some quite self-aware of it, some totally unaware.

All of that also means, tough a pill as this can be to swallow, that there's not a single thing a one of us can do to guarantee we will be believed, or to prevent harassment after assault. I was 11 years old when I was first assaulted, and as someone who is very public about being a survivor, I will still occasionally get letters from people I don't even know telling me why I deserved to be abused, or that I must have done something to "ask for it." Every few weeks here, because we do talk candidly about rape and sexual assault here, and because we do support victims and protest rape and enabling rape, I'll get a letter from some guy explaining to me -- and he'll usually frame it as that: as doing me a favor to inform my silly naivete -- why it is that women deserve rape and what it is we do to make men feel they have no choice but to rape us. It's ugly and depressing, it's horrendously ignorant, but some degree of it is also sadly inescapable. People's attitudes have been changing, people are getting more informed, but we've still a very long way to go.

But as someone who is in a support position, while you can't protect your friend from backlash, what you can do is make clear that YOU believe her and that YOU support her. You can make clear that there isn't any grey area here. She said no, this guy raped her, purposefully dismissing her no to get what he wanted against her will. She was violated and abused by this person. That's not murky: it's incredibly clear-cut. It can be helpful to try and let go of terms like "taking advantage," too. He didn't take advantage. He raped. Using phrases and words that make something violent, terrifying, abusive and harmful seem less so or benign not only can feed into enabling those things, it can make it a lot tougher for victims of abuses to turn into survivors, and put the blame where it belongs, calling a spade a spade. A lot of those phrases we hear -- like "taking advantage," "grey rape," or calling any kind of rape sex -- come from a cultural desire to deny or dismiss abuses; from the desire of those who abuse or enable abuse to shirk responsibility.

Because we like someone doesn't mean we want to have sex with them, want to have a given kind of sex with them, or want to have sex with them yet or at this moment. It certainly does not mean we want them to rape us. You can remind your friend of that. You can also remind her that she didn't have sex: she was raped, and that liking this person doesn't mean she can't ever trust her judgment again. People don't tend to show us their ugliest stuff right off the bat, so it's entirely possible she had no way of knowing the person she liked was a rapist. The idea that any of us can know with clarity who will and won't rape isn't so sound: all kinds of people rape, and there often are not easy signs to look for. The ones that can appear, too, are often things we're socialized to believe are normal and benign, not signals of violence or hatred. Watch how many people sit in cars at a stoplight bopping their heads while the radio croons out a sweet little ditty about "bitches and hoes" to get one simple idea of how amazingly unaware many people are when it comes to their attitudes and those of others.

But mostly, you can listen to her and be responsive to what she expresses as her needs. Listening might be hard for you, especially since you care for her. For instance, particularly given all the victim-blaming afoot in the world, it's normal for a rape survivor to blame themselves for a while, and that can be hard to hear when you know it's not her fault and when you see how blaming herself hurts her. She'll likely have a range of emotions as she works through this: some will be tougher than others to deal with. Just know you also get to have healthy limits: you can still support her even if sometimes, you need to ask for some time to yourself, or for her to let you help her find additional sources of support so that you don't get burnt out. She might also express that she wants to talk about anything else, or to have some time for herself. Just know that she's the expert on her own needs, and the ones she expresses which you can help with are the ones to help her with if you also feel capable of doing that.

You can ask if she wants help from you in reporting her rape, or in seeking out STI testing, pregnancy testing, emergency contraception or help should she have become pregnant or acquired an infection. You can see if she wants to try going to a support group for survivors, and if so, if she wants your help finding one, or would like you to come with her. You can offer to go to a bookstore with her and find a couple good books on surviving rape.

And you can just love her a whole, big lot. You're here asking what to do to help her, so it's clear you feel that already. So, keep on doing exactly what you are with that love and care.

I'm tossing in a couple of links for both you and she should they be of use:

written 25 May 2008 . updated 21 Nov 2012

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