We all have had those moments: we are in the middle of a conversation with some sweet soul and we just want it to end. We want to move on to the next gent in the cocktail line or we just want to be alone with our thoughts—but regardless, this exchange needs to end. Never fear! I have discovered a way to end 99% of all conversations. It does not fail. It is the four-move checkmate of conversation. And I will share it with you. It usually goes like this:
Spencer: Hey, you look tired.
Me: Yah, I was up late last night.
Spencer: *wink* Doing what?
Me: I was at the hospital.
Spencer: Oh shoot, I’m sorry. Are you ok?
Me: Oh yah, I’m fine. I was there as a counselor.
Spencer: Oh that’s so cool, what kind of counselor?
Me: Ummm, I’m a rape crisis counselor. I act as an advocate for survivors at the hospital.
Spencer changes the topic to the best stir-frying pans.
Now, I must admit, not every conversation goes like that. There are different iterations. Another common one is: “Oh that’s so interesting. Did you choose to have the overnight shift? I feel like I wouldn’t be able to wake up.” And then the conversation will evolve to how I schedule my volunteer hours and why I decided to take a shift at such an un-earthly hour.
Another reaction: “Oh that is so intense, I don’t think I could do that. I couldn’t handle my emotions. You are such a great person for doing that.” At this point I usually thank them and we continue on. What I want to say though and what I probably should say is you could handle your emotions. You could do this if you chose to. Volunteering here doesn’t make me a great person. I am doing something I am passionate about; that makes me no different than you. The only difference is I have gone through counselor training.
Here is the response I would love to get more often: “What does this counseling involve? What do you do with the survivors?” If I found out that you did something novel, (like, let’s say making books using vellum parchment from cows you raised) I would probably say: “Oh, wow. How did you get into that?” Instead however, I am confronted with silence, with an awkward shift of the eyes as people realize they have stumbled into an untouchable ground.
I told another rape crisis counselor about this phenomenon of conversation shut down. She took an old school feminist approach: people feel guilty about rape. They are either someone who assaults other and me talking exposes their guilt or they are guilty for not acting to stop rape. Their silence is a manifestation of this guilt. I don’t really think it’s that. I don’t think that people shut down because they think they are being called out as propagators of rape. No, I think it is more shock of being confronted with something they can normally ignore. Rape is hushed up, feared. It is veiled in silence. It never happens to us, it happens to them. Those other people. Sure, it is a problem out there, but not a problem here. I, just by explaining why I have huge bags under my eyes, have brought up this unseemly thing best left kept in someone else’s dusty closet.
The topic is intimidating. It is so scary in itself, in its implications and its weight. If you (thankfully) haven’t had too much experience in the department, you might just not know what to talk about. It’s like me in the Israel-Palestine debate: I feel so uninformed that if you ask me about Israeli settlements I will just stare at you and then ask you what you think of them.
Yes, rape, assault, incest are huge topics. But that doesn’t mean that by not talking about them, they go away. Through not talking about assault, rape culture will continue to thrive through silence. It is this awkwardness, this intimidation, this weight that stems from the accustomed silence of rape. Cradling this silence is—as my old school feminist friend would say— acceptance of rape. It is acceptance because it fails to see what a huge effect assault has upon our lives and our community.
And all this can be related back to the simple shift of both eyes and conversation.
Silence creates a void between the magnitude of the problem and the attention it receives. We all know the statistics about rape, how it is everywhere. Yet it is so taboo even a volunteer saying what she does on weeknights hushes a room.
Where are the survivors? Have we created a place where people are willing to share their experiences? No. Our culture is one of victim blaming, one of ‘that girl shouldn’t have been wearing that,’ ‘that girl should have locked her window,’ ‘she shouldn’t have been at that party anyway,’ ‘she was so drunk she deserved it.’
You know, all the times I have gone out to parties wearing a skimpy dress I have not been raped. However, I can be sitting in my bedroom wearing sweatpants and a high-school T-shirt and be assaulted. It doesn’t have anything to do with what I am wearing. In the vast majority of incidents the survivor knows the perpetrator. The “classic” rape scene of random guy and drunk girl at bar is rare. It does happen, but I have not seen it.
It was this silence around rape that actually drove me to be a counselor. A while back, several of my friends were violated. In talking with them, I realized I had no idea how to console them or what to say. I didn’t know how to help them heal. The pain they felt was so vast. and at times the despair so overwhelming. I wanted to offer the best support I could but I did not know how to act in such a situation I did not have the tools. So I became a counselor.
To conclude, here is a brief run-down how you could respond if your friend, your lover, your sister, or brother says they have been assaulted. Obviously, this is by no means a complete list, but it provides some basic tools that counselors commonly use and may be useful to you:
Don’t judge the survivor: they have enough going on without you telling them their skirt was too short. This judgment puts the blame on the survivor. You may be angry, but your anger should be directed at the perpetrator, not the person you love.
Don’t ask for details. Studies have shown that going over details re-traumatizes people who are suffering from PTSD or RTS (rape-trauma syndrome, which is a form of PTSD). Don’t ask probing questions; let the survivor tell you what they want to tell you. When I first started as a counselor I wanted to know all the details before I gave advice. In reality, the details are not important for me, this recounting is hurtful to the survivor, and I shouldn’t be giving advice about what is best for the survivor: only they know that.
Do use the term survivor over victim. Saying victim puts all the emphasis on the immutable past. The person will always be a victim and there is nothing that can do about it. Saying survivor however puts the emphasis on what can be done in the future. Yes, something terrible did happen, but the survivor survived. They lived. They can heal.
Do validate. Survivors can go through a range of emotions: anger, guilt, depression, etc. All of these are normal reactions for a survivor. Rape is a major trauma. You can say: ‘you are not crazy’ ‘this is an a normal response to an abnormal situation.’ Statements like these show support for the survivor, and make them feel more normal.
Do be aware of your own limitations. Be aware of what sets you off and upsets you and know your own boundaries. Secondary trauma-when you can experience trauma from internalizing the survivor’s story. Take the time that you need so you can be as supportive as you can be.
Do believe them.