You Need Help: After Sexual Assault

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you seek advice and we try our very best to give it.   has traditionally been done by way of individual Formspring accounts, Autostraddle’s Tumblr and a Formspring Friday column, which has all been very fun and insightful. But, because Formspring has turned off its tumblr feed functionality and we’re wildly optimistic w/r/t our time-management skills, we thought we’d go one further and let you use our ASS private messaging to share advice-related feelings, too.

Today’s “You Need Help” is a question about coping with sexual assault that was sent to Riese, who passed it on to Kate because she thought Kate would be better at answering it. Because we’re all one big family here, helping each other.


Q: 

Two nights ago I was sexually assaulted literally yards away from my university campus. I reported it to campus security and to the city police the next day. Because the nature of the attack wasn’t rape (“only” forced penetration with fingers and groping) they didn’t see the need for a sexual assault kit. I gave them the clothes I was wearing that and agreed to photographs of my injuries.

My problem is the way it was handled and my the reactions of my friends. There was a lot of victim blaming language coming from the female campus officer who interviewed me (You shouldn’t walk alone, pay attention to your surroundings, did you scream?, did you try and fight? And so on.)

I also felt like they were minimizing the assault. I know they mean well but hearing “at least he didn’t rape you” makes me feel that much worse. I already feel guilty enough that it wasn’t an assault that allowed there to be physical evidence so the chance of catching him are very slim.

I am blaming myself and I’m not sure who to turn to for support. I am fighting off self-injury urges and trying not to do something drastic with my appearance as a way to cope.

How do I deal with an assault that wasn’t rape? How can I keep from feeling like my assault is being minimized? How can I get support for what happened to me (survive being a survivor), while acknowledging worse has happened to others?

I don’t know where else to turn and this place has always felt safe to me.

A:

Dear Friend,

I’m so sorry for everything you’ve just been through. I’m also incredibly proud of your strength in retelling your story here with the wounds so fresh. That was something I was not able to do, and something so many of us aren’t able to do for any number of reasons, and it’s so important when some of us are able to report what happened so that it is communicated to the police, society, the world, that we are here and we have survived, like a little S.O.S. signal at sea.

I’m glad you recognized victim-blaming for what it is, as survivors are fed such lines like sustenance and it’s so difficult to disconnect from that version of reality. That recognition means that rationally you can further recognize that kind of bullshit and realize that you can discount it entirely. Please, please know that this was not your fault, not in any way. Recognize that when you blame yourself, your thoughts are just as irrational as the victim-blamers around you. And I know, it can be impossible to not blame yourself, to not give in to the pressures of all those people saying all those shitty things around you, but please, please, please try to find your strength and fight it. Maybe your strength is your rationality. Use that rationality to realize how irrational it is to blame yourself. Maybe your strength is something else. Find it and know it’ll arm you against a lot of the instances of self-blame and the feelings of self-harm.

There are so many different ways to be assaulted and traumatized, but what matters is that they all end in trauma and the survivors left behind are all equally important. Your needs, your pain, your journey to recovering and moving on and whatever comes next for you, is just as important as every other survivor. It is not your job to feel like you are not entitled to your pain because others have been assaulted in more horrific ways. Those survivors are all dealing in their own way, and you need to deal in yours. Your experience is completely valid, and your current mental state is completely justified. No survivor community will ever oust you our for not having “suffered enough” (which you have, honey, you have!) and your journey to recovery does not require you to acknowledge any kind of privilege or account for others who have been through worse. Surviving is as highly personal as anything else, and while we are all here for you and love you and believe in you and are here if you need us, survival also means surviving on your own path, and that’s the most important thing you can do. Right now you need to put yourself first.

I know how hard it is to have friends who question, even victim blame. It’s the absolute worst, and yes, it can fuck up friendships. Acknowledge that this is a situation I doubt they have much experience in, and whatever you need to hear right now, it’s very unlikely you’re not going to hear it from another survivor. There’s very few ways to communicate the kind of experience you’re going through, and very few ways to properly deal with it, so if you need to create distance from those who are saying things that could hurt you, know it is necessary and justified and okay. Sometimes we feel a need to stay close to those who are saying unintentionally hurtful things because they don’t really mean it and we feel we owe them something. Well, if they’re damaging your recovery, they need distance. Know that the people you have to push away are being replaced by other people around the world who love you, care about you, want to see you through this.

You will get through this, I promise. We all do. We’re survivors, it’s in our job descriptions. If you need anything, feel free to send me a direct message and I can either talk it out with you or point you in the right direction.

Best,

Kate

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Hard-lovin' butch made of tears, sweat, and spit, in that order. Professional lonesome polecat. Kate is living proof that you can take the hillperson out of the mountains, but she's still probably going to run back to the mountains anyway. Kate prefers the trashy to the classy, and the tender to everything else. Full-time writer, part-time lover. Heart got so big and soggy that she had to cut off all her sleeves.

Kate has written 124 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. Thumb up 14

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    Hello,

    I am so sorry for what has happened to you. As a Prevention Coordinator and Educator for a Sexual Assault Agency, I thought I would let you know a couple options available to you. Even if your campus police says you don’t need a rape kit, you can go to the hospital and have one done within a certain amount of days. It depends on what state you are in. NY, it is 96 hours from the sexual assault, in MA it is 120. It is entirely up to you whether you want to do this, but your sexual assault definitely makes this something you can do, whether there was penis penetration is irrelevant. There may be scrapes, bruises, fingernail marking, etc. You don’t need to have insurance, the state will pay for this, at least in MA.

    There are wonderful resources in some communities where you can get free and confidential counseling if you would like additional help with some of the feelings that are arising. This is also just something to think about, no pressure!

    If I knew what school you were at, I’d personally call and try to educate your campus police.

    Thinking about you and hope you get the support you deserve.

  2. Thumb up 9

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    I am so sorry that this happened to you, and that your university’s police handled it this way. You are brave to reach out for help, and you deserve help. I strongly encourage you to reach out to your local sexual assault crisis agency. These groups have very well-trained volunteers and professionals who want to help you, no matter what kind of assault it was. Rainn.org can direct you to your local agency- many of them are associated with Planned Parenthood.

    The way your university police handled this is SO FAR AWAY from okay. They still should have helped you get a kit done, and it might not be too late, if the assault was recent. This is the FIRST thing Sexual Assault Crisis Advocates (I’m one) learn. Like what K said, you can have one done even up to 120 hours in some places. There are other kinds of evidence they look for, like hair or clothing fibers. You can have one done at an emergency room and it will (most likely, depending on your state) be free. You don’t need insurance. It doesn’t matter if the assault didn’t involve a penis. If you go to the hospital, have them call an Advocate for you. These people know what’s up.

    And that officer did not do her job correctly- they need to ask a lot of questions for the report and investigation, but none of them should be things that are victim-blaming, like the ones you listed. The university police should have gotten an Advocate for you to have with you in the room, who could have stopped the inappropriate questions. Almost every county in the country has an organization that trains and sends out Advocates.

    I’m explaining this so you can know that the way you were treated is NOT how police are supposed to handle it. It is not your fault that they handled it wrong- it is theirs. It is not your fault that this happened to you- it is the fault of the person who hurt you. And there is nothing valid to “At least he didn’t rape you”. He did something awful to you and that’s all that matters, not what has happened to other people.

    Stay strong, and get the help you want/need. You’re not alone. Sexual assault is much more common than is reported or recognized.

  3. Thumb up 7

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    As someone whose sexual assault also didn’t follow the traditional narrative of what rape looks like, I feel for you. Every survivor I’ve spoken to of any form of sexual assault has legitimized my desire to refer to my experience as I see fit, and I hope you cone to feel able to do the same, but I want you to know that your experience IS within legal definitions of rape: http://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/attorney-general-eric-holder-announces-revisions-to-the-uniform-crime-reports-definition-of-rape#disablemobile so if you want to use that term, you have a right to. Good luck – it can be devastating trying to heal from something people want to blame you for or say didn’t happen, but you deserve anything it takes for you to get better.

  4. Thumb up 3

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    I don’t really know what else to say besides that you’re incredibly strong for sharing your story, and Kade – you’re such an amazing writer, so thank you for joining the Autostraddle team.

    The only thing I want to ask is: what is the definition of rape? I assumed it was any form of non-consensual sexual contact, which would include penetration by fingers. That’s ridiculous to say that without a penis, it’s not “real” rape. What the fuck is “real” and “authentic” if the trauma is the same?

    • Thumb up 4

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      language and rape…a complicated relationship.

      there are many, many definitions of rape. there is the dictionary definition, the legal definition, personal definitions. thus it is easy for people to say “well, at least it wasn’t rape” or “she says she got raped but it doesn’t *sound* like rape” and feel justified in whatever definition of rape they’ve absorbed as the truth.

      the problem with rape is not just that there are many definitions floating around (although having a personal way of thinking about it can be helpful and healing, and that deserves credit), but that society believes that RAPE DEFINES. language in the world of survivorship means that we don’t use the term victim – we are not victims OF rape who are actively destroyed and oppressed by it, we are survivors who are actively surviving, moving forward, living.

      • Thumb up 5

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        “language in the world of survivorship means that we don’t use the term victim – we are not victims OF rape who are actively destroyed and oppressed by it, we are survivors who are actively surviving, moving forward, living.”

        true…..AND we’re sometimes also victims, and that’s ok, too.
        i’m about 13 years and what feels like a million miles away (/sometimes feels like only a couple miles away) from the person I was when I was first frustrated by this language, but my initial frustrations with this still stand.

        i always felt like that “survivor” title didn’t fit for me, like i didn’t deserve it, because i *wasn’t* moving forward or really living a particularly fulfilling life. or, at least, i saw absolutely none of that “moving forward,” even though i had an excellent therapist and was supposedly doing all the things you do to become a “survivor.” i felt like a victim, but i couldn’t really tell people that because the expectation – even expectations from other survivors – was that i call myself a survivor and then just be ok.
        and that wasn’t me or where i was or, really, where i needed to be. i needed to let myself feel all of that pain and all of that loss for a while and just be really sad about it. i needed to be destroyed. just for a little while. not for always, just for a minute, because what happened really was destructive and i needed to acknowledge that.

        so what i’m saying, i guess, is that language matters in the way that non-victims/survivors and the larger community talks about sexual assault and the aftermath…AND it matters within the victim/survivor community, too. victim and survivor aren’t mutually exclusive terms. it’s ok to be both.

  5. Thumb up 11

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    I was sexually assaulted on my campus back when I was a freshman, like yours, mine wasn’t a traditional rape, though there was groping and more and it was even done in a public setting with other students who witnessed it. Of the ten or so witnesses only one, a girl who later became a close friend but at the time was a total stranger spoke up and stopped what was going on before it could escalate further. To this day and through all of the shit she went through for several years I have been and always will be eternally grateful for the fact she spoke up when I was too terrified/shocked. I was at the event with several friends, including a recent ex, but none of them understood why I was so messed up afterwards. I felt like it was my fault, like I’d deserved it for not fighting harder (I was a newly minted blackbelt), and all my “friends” told me I was overreacting. Like this is just what happens in college, guys pin you and violate you. I reported it anonymously to the school through the guidance counselor, but because I was afraid to file a formal report (because my friends said I was overreacting and I felt all the shame I think one human can feel) the man who assaulted me was a regular on campus.

    Needless to say, I went through a dark time involving lots of drinking, an eating disorder relapse that eventually landed me in the hospital, and lots of promiscuity. I felt equal parts fear and disgust towards my body. I never wanted to feel so powerless again and couldn’t shake the feeling of being unclean.

    Other than the counselor and one ex boyfriend who bullied the info out of me, I never told anyone. Even with the friend who saved me (the only person from that period still in my life) it has always been an unspoken rule that we never talk about that night. I’ve since become a sexual rights activist on our campus. Just thinking the word “forced” is enough to make me physically ill, reading this post, writing this response, reliving the fear, the shame, the exposure, has been enough to make me cry like I never did.

    I never felt like I had the right to. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been sexually assaulted in any way, but never felt like I had the right to call myself a survivor. Hopefully I’m not the only one who reads this and finally feels like they aren’t alone, that they have every right to survive, and to tell the truth to those who love them, or at the very least not continue to feel ashamed of something that is absolutely not their fault.

  6. Thumb up 1

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    I don’t have any answers as to how to deal with what you are going through and I am incredibly sorry that all of this is happening to you. I can say that I have been through something very similar however I did not contact any authorities. It took me a long time to even realize what had actually happened to me and all of the victim blaming language was coming from myself. I guess I just wanted to say that I think you are very brave for reporting it and for knowing that they way it is being handled is not right. You should not feel guilty for any of it because none of it is your fault. I hope you can hold on to your strength and find the support you need to get through this.

  7. Thumb up 3

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    I was so angry for you, as I read this. I hate how people always try to find excuses in the way that every thing is not as bad as it seems. It feels like it is really selfish from their part, because they just do not want to go through this with you.
    I hope that you will find support in this article and through our comments. Nothing in the world can excuse what this person did to you and how people around you are reacting. As if they would of liked the fact that you went through worst… What kind of people are they?
    I wish you the best. To you and to all those people that have been through this as well.

  8. Thumb up 3

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    Thank you, Autostraddle for posting this. I can’t even. Too many feelings.

    I am so sorry this happened to you. I’m trying to put my feelings into words, but it’s really hard, so I’ll do my best. My feelings are saying something like, “I’m so sorry that you had to go through the same terrible thing I had to go through.” Because there are no words to make you feel better and it really fucking sucks.
    I had my non-traditional sexual assault when I was 16, from a friend, during school.
    When I reported the assault, because I had just gotten out of the hospital for a suicide attempt, I wasn’t taken seriously. When they called my mother to tell them what happened, they acted like I had lied. I was so hurt/upset/alone I almost dropped out of school.
    Over the years, my therapist helped me cope. After five years, we finally dissected why I hadn’t yelled, ran, etc. It was because I thought I could stop it. I thought I could get him to take his hand out of my pants. I was sure I could handle the situation. In the end, I just couldn’t.
    That was the only way I could let go of my guilt.

    But remember, this is not your fault. You were so brave, you had enough courage to report it.

    I found out a year later the man who assaulted me did it to another girl. She never went forward.
    If she had, he may have actually been punished and held accountable.

    Don’t let anyone minimize what happened to you. Though what happened to me wasn’t “rape,” I still deal with the flashbacks. And I still hide when I see people that look like him. And I still carry I knife with me to the places I’m afraid he’ll be.
    What happened to you is just as real as what happened to other victims of assault.

    I really hope you choose to seek therapy. There’s no shame in it, I’ve been going for six years now. It’s helped me in ways I can’t even count. I hope it will help you solidify that you are not at fault.

    I wish I could hug you, cuddle you, or if you wanted, just touch your shoulder in support.
    Know that we support you.

  9. Thumb up 1

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    If you have a counseling center on your campus, please go and talk to someone, and if not or if you need more support, call or visit the Rape Assault Incest National Network- they even have an IM hotline. http://www.rainn.org/get-help/national-sexual-assault-online-hotline

    You have EVERY right to all you feel, and GOOD for you for calling sexual assault what it is! You are coming at this from a position of strength that is ADMIRABLE, and please hold on to that strength to avoid hurting or changing yourself- there is NOTHING about YOU that is wrong, that caused this, that deserves punishment. I’ve also experienced an assault that was not rape, and still felt overwhelming shame, humiliation, fear, and I wanted the part of my body that was groped to disappear. I was extremely lucky to have had a therapist to help me practice telling my story in order to report it, to help me turn the blame back on the perpetrator where it belonged, to help me know the responses of people who responded as your friends did were wrong, and to help me confront one of the people I reported it to about the poor way it was handled.

  10. Thumb up 6

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    1. Just like there doesn’t need a penis for it to qualify as sex, there doesn’t need to be a penis for it to qualify as rape. Still, I totally understand why you would hesitate to call it that, because the “r word” can feel so big and scary and overwhelming.
    2. That feeling you have that your assault was not bad enough to justify your trauma? Is a feeling that almost every survivor I have ever known has had, regardless of the circumstances of their assault. NO ONE HAS THE RIGHT TO TELL YOU HOW TO FEEL ABOUT THIS. Especially people who are not survivors themselves. They might mean very well, but sometimes the advice that people try to give you after your assault can be very invalidating. I can’t tell you how times I have heard “You shouldn’t let this rule your life.” But chances are that you are already trying your hardest every day to make it just go away already.
    3. As hard as it might be to believe right now, there will come a day when this is not the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning.

  11. Thumb up 11

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    I burst into tears when I saw this. I didn’t expect anything to be actually be written. I just needed to tell someone I knew would care.
    This is the most cared for and supported I have felt since this all happened. The level of compassion and empathy that you all have shown me is overwhelming. There are no words for how much I needed this and how very thankful I am to all of you.

  12. Thumb up 0

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    I wasn’t gonna comment because I didn’t know what to say and because I think that is what a lot of people feel when they hear bad things have happened to good people. I am a survivor and primarily as a method of coping I didn’t talk to anyone except my very best friend about the details (because she was there when I got home) until recently when I basically wrote them for the world to see as kind of a way of getting it out once and for all. I have a therapist and even in that space I felt as if the series of events leading up to my assault made it my fault. I felt like I had to hide it because it makes people think you are broken or unstable or attention seeking. This is not your problem and it is certainly not your fault. In the years since I have struggled to figure out who my “feelings” friends are and who my “fair-weather” friends are and sometimes it makes for a lot of heartache. What I can tell you is that there are certainly people who can handle it, who can be there, and listen and be empathetic. Those people will also require care and I have tried to give them space when they ask for it or a safe word for when my feelings are overwhelming them. This is just a suggestion and right now considering that not much time has passed I can only try to remember where you are, but just be sure to take care of yourself one day and one step at a time. It is not your fault and this community is for you.

  13. Thumb up 1

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    Thank you for posting this .. so many thoughts… I’ve been thinking lately how my attack has been haunting me in may different ways.. like in my need to control things.. in my lack of being able to let go. I was 19 years old and I met a guy who promised me that he wanted me to a model, I know completely cliche, and even writing this out, I feel stupid.. anyways, I went with him to a hotel room, a completely dingy hotel room and then made out with him, but when I wanted to leave, he wouldn’t let me, not until he came, then he proceeded to make me touch his penis, and then fingered me and told me I didn’t feel like a virgin…

    then I ran out of the hotel room naked holding my clothing.. I remember running into two strangers who asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital, I declined and then I went to where I was staying with a relative … I remember going into a coffee shop and this woman saying I had a nice smile.. and I remember talking to a woman with a dog.. and telling her what happened. and then I remember lying in bed and wanting to die.. literally wanting to die.. the next day I saw the movie Boys Don’t Cry .. and I shared with my dad what happened. I didn’t want to share with my mom because I felt like she might blame me, .. and I did try to prosecute him.. my dad encouraged me to… my mom encouraged me to stop because I went to the room with him..

    to this day, I cry when try to masterbate and have a hard time coming.. I think I still blame myself. I think i wonder if I had it as bad as someone who was raped.. I still feel shame.. I don’t think I ever wrote this out before.. would love to connect with someone who understands these feelings..

  14. Thumb up 0

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    You are very brave for telling your story, and I’m sorry that some people have been irresponsible and wrong in how they have responded. But, please please don’t hurt yourself. Know that you have so much worth. When it all becomes too much to think about, and you desperately need an outlet, try running. If you don’t feel comfortable going alone, find a supportive friend and ask them to go with you. You cannot run and cry at the same time, so if you need to take a rest and cry or talk, do it, but try to keep moving. Run or walk and focus only on breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. Feel how strong you are as you move yourself forward. When you’re done, focus on what you’ve just accomplished. Remember that you have been, will be, and are now already so much more than this.

  15. Thumb up 1

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    This is so timely… I unfortunately got roofied and taken advantage of, at a party where I was practicing all preemptive safety measures (not that prevention is the victim’s responsibility). This happened on Saturday, the 1st.

    Who knew you could put rohypnol in cigarettes?

    I feel lucky that the guy who took advantage of me didn’t get very far, but… It’s still so shitty. Worst part? People saw this happening, and didn’t stop it, until my friend heard that I looked like I was “having a good time.” I’m not sure how a strange man pawing a passed out girl looks like fun, but… Moral of the story: so thankful for best friends, and renewed passion for bystander intervention training!

  16. Thumb up 1

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    Thanks for this. You’re very brave to post it, and I’m sorry you were not taken seriously.

    I experienced an assault that didn’t fit the legal definition of rape because there was no penetration at all. A friend (or so I thought) pinned me down and nakedly humped me without penetration. He was much stronger than me and I was in a position where I could not push him off. Plus, I was under the influence of marijuana (by choice) and was having a hard time processing what was happening because I was so confused. I ended up repressing it for a few years and remained friends with the guy, but if I had remembered and told anyone at the time, I can’t imagine they would have understood how. “At least you weren’t penetrated,” people say. But it was still a violation and a betrayal and quite traumatic (traumatic enough to repress).

    It’s scary how many people have been victims of such things, and that’s only the ones we hear about.

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    this is coming at the most perfect time for me, thank you so so much, my heart goes out to this person, and all of you in the comments talking about it. We have to talk about, we have to take it’s power away.

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    This is very timely for me as well. To start, I think its really wonderful that we have all been brave enough to speak up about our personal stories. Your bravery in telling your own has emboldened me to tell mine for the first time. Thank you. All of you are so amazing and strong and it has helped me immensely to know I am in good company as a survivor.

    I am in a strange position because my assault happened before my brain was formed enough to make specific visual memories (younger than 4). My whole life I have had panic attacks where I relive the assault and feel somebody is hovering over my bed touching me. Because of my amazing therapist, and a family member who came forward about their own experiences as a child with my abuser, I have just recently sorted out these panic attacks and realized what had happened to me. When my therapist suggested that I might have been sexual abused, the shoe fit so well I almost felt relieved. My whole life I had guilted myself for being mentally unwell, for never feeling like a virgin, for even suggesting to myself in private that I might have been abused. Because my abuser has been dead for ten years there can be no justice for me. All I can hope is that conversations like this one can continue. We are all in the struggle to heal with you. Much love.

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