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Q: So I’ve been dating this girl for about a month and a half now. I’m currently on vacation while she’s back home and she told me she had to tell me something important when I got back in a week. So, being impatient, I pressed the matter and she told me she’d been raped. Her friend had a party at a bar or something, which I told her to go to so that she could let loose and have fun while I was gone, even though she didn’t want to. Basically her friend found her outside, took her home and she woke up bruised, bloody, and couldn’t remember a thing. She got ahold of the police and got medical attention, but there wasn’t much evidence other than the bartender telling her she went to the bathroom then left with some guy. And the only consolation I had for her was that I hope she’s okay and she should talk to a counselor or trusted adult. She hasn’t told her parent because she thinks they’d freak and she’s feeling embarrassed and ashamed and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do because I feel bad for pushing her to go. And everything seems a mess.
A: Let’s start with this: what you said to your girlfriend was not bad at all. You obviously believe her and do not blame her and that is huge. HUGE. Often when someone discloses sexual assault, the first and sometimes only person they tell is a partner, friend, or family member. How that person reacts is a big deal. You did not judge her or blame her. You obviously care about her and showed concern. You believed her. You did a really good thing there. If you had been judgmental or jealous or refused to believe what happened, she might have been more likely to believe that it was her fault. You did a great job in supporting her.
Where to go from here is a valid question. There’s so much shame and silence around sexual assault, even though it’s horrifyingly common. In the U.S., a sexual assault happens every 2 minutes. 1 out of 6 women and 1 out of 33 men have experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, and that’s just based on reported numbers. For the LGBTQ community, the numbers are comparable or even higher. 1 out of 8 lesbian women and almost half of bisexual women experience rape in their lifetime. The stats are also disproportionately high for gay and bisexual men. Transgender people are most at risk, 64% likely to experience sexual assault. It’s a huge problem in our culture and in our LGBTQ community. Your girlfriend is absolutely not alone.
Talking about it is another thing, though. We don’t ever see or learn how to talk about sexual assault. It’s not something you see in the media. On TV, there is either the SVU version of sexual assault, where virtually every survivor gets justice from a court (which is completely false — 97% of rapists walk free) or the Lifetime movie version where the victim has PTSD or flies into a revenge-fantasy rage. There’s still a lot of shame and victim-blaming out there and it makes sense that your girlfriend doesn’t want to tell her parents because she’s afraid they will judge her. (For the record, she doesn’t ever have to tell them if she doesn’t want to. She can still get confidential and free counseling from your local rape crisis program, even if she is a minor.)
With all this silence around sexual assault, it is not surprising you and your girlfriend are struggling with how to talk about this and wondering how it will affect your relatively new relationship. You might start by acknowledging how unsettling and uncomfortable the situation is, if you haven’t already. It’s OK to say that you don’t know exactly what to say, that hearing this over the phone makes it hard to offer her the support you want to give, and that this is completely new territory for you. Chances are, it is uncomfortable and upsetting and new for her, too. The most important thing you can say and do, which you’ve already said, is that you are there to support her.
OK, great. But “support” is a vague term, right? Like, what does that even mean? What can you actually do for your partner? What should you not do? Here are some tips, based on my experience as a sexual assault advocate and hotline counselor:
- Listen. Don’t judge. Don’t tell her what to do. It’s up to your girlfriend what —if anything — she wants to do next. She may need time to heal. She may need to process this by herself. She may want to talk about it with a trusted close friend or a counselor. She may want to talk to you. She may decide to follow up on the police report. She may decide to let it go. She may be comfortable jumping right back into your relationship. She may need to take things slow for awhile. And it’s possible that she might be mostly OK. Whatever happens next, the decision should be 100% hers. Your role is to listen, affirm to her that anything she chooses will be right, and make sure she knows you’ll support her in her decisions. Sexual assault takes away a person’s power. It’s important not to make this worse by putting pressure on your girlfriend to do something they don’t want or aren’t ready for yet. Your job is to listen, not to fix.
- Don’t be weird, but do check in. Check in with your partner about how they are feeling and be there to listen, but don’t be a weirdo. Don’t avoid them or hang all over them or tip toe around them like they are made of glass and might shatter at any moment. Ideally, you should try to have at least one conversation where you and your partner talk about what might be helpful to them, what they want from you, what they don’t want, how you can check in and communicate with each other. Have this face-to-face, if you can, and in a safe and neutral space. Unless your partner wants you to, don’t ask them about it every single day. Act like a normal person, yourself, the person they love. It’s OK to show them you’re there in little ways that are unrelated to the sexual assault. Make them their favorite food. Send them funny pictures of cats.
- Understand this may (or may not) affect your sexual intimacy. After sexual assault, people can react in many ways. Some people may be uncomfortable being touched or grabbed, even by their loved ones. Some people may have a hard time feeling sexy and sexual again. Some people may not be OK with certain kinds of sex or with sex at all. When your body has been violated, it can take time to feel like you have control of it again. Sometimes not letting anyone else touch you is a way to maintain control and safety. It is, of course, also possible that your partner may be totally fine with sex and it is possible that having affirming, trusting sex with you is a way to deal with the sexual assault, too. Be extra open to your partner when it comes to sex and consent. If you are being intimate and your partner suddenly pulls away or starts tearing up or goes limp, check in and let them know it’s OK to stop. Usually, over time, most people are able to go on and have a healthy sex life again. Sometimes people need to do some healing work with a counselor to get there.
- Take care of yourself, too. This is important. Really, really important. Hearing that someone you care deeply about has been sexually assaulted can be extremely upsetting, even traumatizing. It makes your heart hurt and it can make you feel powerless, too. If you are a survivor of sexual assault or sexual abuse, it may open old wounds for you. Even if you have never experienced sexual assault, you may start experiencing survivor’s guilt. You may just feel really sad or really angry or really confused. Reaching out to AS was a great thing to do. There are other places you can reach out to get support for yourself, including your local rape crisis center or the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1.800.656.HOPE). You deserve support, too. You may need to heal, too. Your emotions are valid, too.
This is a relatively new relationship. You may go on to date for a million years and have a beautiful unicorn-themed wedding on a private island. That might happen. You also might go your separate ways. It is hard to say right now. When something traumatic happens at the beginning of a relationship, it can pull people closer together. It can also push people apart. By no fault of your own or your girlfriend, this may be too much for you right now. It may be that you need to step back, take a break, or be just friends for a while. It may be too hard to sort your feelings about the relationship out from your feelings about the sexual assault. It is really hard to tell. Only you two know or will come to know.
The last thing I want to say is that you are not at fault any more than your girlfriend is. Neither one of you knew this would happen. It shouldn’t happen. We shouldn’t have to be afraid to go out to a party with friends or go to a bar. We shouldn’t have to be afraid. The only person who fucked up here is the rapist. They are the only one who deserves the blame, all of the blame.
On top of which, you had no way of knowing. You were thinking of her happiness when you suggested she go out with friends instead of sit at home alone. You were being a good, caring girlfriend. Neither of you could have prevented this. You can wish that circumstances were different. You can wish you had not told her to go. You can wish that you were there with her and maybe you could have stopped it. You can obsess over all the “what if’s” and none of that will change what happened. Honestly, even if all the “what if’s” had happened, this still could have happened to your girlfriend that night or at some point in her life. So give yourself permission to let go of that guilt. You don’t deserve that burden and neither does your girlfriend.
You are doing such a good job right now. Reaching out to ask for more ways to support your girlfriend is 100% the right thing to do. Supporting and believing your girlfriend was the best way to respond. I will be thinking of you both and sending you all my love.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault and you need resources or to talk, help is available 24/7 through RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org.
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