You know, every time I type "etiquette," even though it is spelled correctly, it just looks wrong.
ANYWAY. Hey, everyone! Someone, and this someone was male, recently emailed me saying he was trying to figure out a non-mansplainy way to talk about rape with me, and, look, if you are reading my blog and emailing me with the self-awareness that you COULD be mansplainy, nothing out of your mouth (or keyboard!) is going to be offensive or wrong, period. And being that there are no perfect responses, sometimes even from other women who have been raped (that book Lucky: A Memoir? I hated that book), I think you are fine.
Ok, the most important rule ever ever ever here? NEVER, under any circumstances, ever, no matter who is around you, rape survivors or no, EVER say, after maybe let's say a physically strenuous boxing class, "You guys, I am so sore I feel like I've been raped." NEVER. EVER. Because then you are probably my former roommate from South Africa with whom I was stuck last summer, and/or a really terrible human being.
But, here's the thing: a lot of very nice people do not know what to do or how to act upon finding out that an acquaintance or friend or someone they love has been raped. So I thought I'd try to do my best to explain what could be appropriate or helpful. I will be drawing from my own experiences, so understand that some of these will be very specific to me; I by no means can speak for all rape survivors. Also, I will try not to be too gender essentialist here, because women aren't necessarily better at dealing with this than guys (although most are, for reasons I'll get to in a second) and I do know a man who has been raped. So, if I am using a certain pronoun in places, it is probably more because I am retelling something that actually happened.
Many of my friends ended up finding out I was raped incidentally, because I dropped it into a conversation, usually to prove a point or give a perspective. Most guys, in my experience, do not handle this well. I have been told it was "unfair" for me to just put that out there and expect everyone to finish the conversation. Or I have been informed I just "killed" the conversation. And, fuck you all: I have been raped. This is a fact. It is a fact like the fact that I have two cats, my grandmother died last year, and evidence class is so boring my brain contemplates how to escape my skull and make a break for the lecture hall door. I understand this may have great impact on you, the listener, but to me, it just is. And if I have just thrown it into a conversation to make a point, it is probably that I would like you to react like I have just made a point. Because sometimes, I would like my rape to be just that, a fact that occurred, and sometimes it just is, so, you know, go with that.
If it is bothering you, feel free to ask later. "Can I ask you about your rape?" is a perfectly acceptable question. Or, "Would you feel comfortable talking about being raped?" Something like that. The woman (or man) might say no, because they don't feel like talking about it, or they don't want to tell you, or whatever. Don't take the answer personally, because it may have nothing to do with you; I usually calculate how much emotional time and space I can give myself later if I start freaking out or have a bad night. If I have a lot of law school reading to do, I will say no. Please do not just ask, "So what happened?" This puts the rape victim in the uncomfortable position of having to fend you off, and then maybe feeling bad for not wanting to talk about it. You would never ask a friend out in public over lunch, randomly, "So tell me about your favorite sexual fantasy!" So don't ask about her worst.
Also, you might not want to ask when there is a group of people listening, because while the rape survivor may be happy to share with you, there may be someone else she does not feel comfortable speaking in front of. So just be aware of that.
Guys, for the most part, treat rape like fucking Voldemort, the Evil Whose Name We Shall Not Speak. And guys mostly do this because they can pretend rape is a rare and terrible occurrence. Women know better. We also negotiate our entire lives around the threat of rape. We watch our friends and our drinks like hawks at bars, get jealous of seeing men jogging at night without a care, purposefully change our schedules so we will not be walking in scary places after dark by ourselves, and negotiate our safety with every new man whom we may allow access to us alone. I do not think I know a single woman who hasn't been sexually assaulted, harassed, or raped (see Chloebug's comment). So while many guys get overly precious about oh my god how horrible . . . yeah, it IS horrible, but let's not act like this is a rare, unspeakable evil. 1 in 6 women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape. So gentlemen, sack up a bit, please.
If someone does decide to sit down and tell you her story, just listen. Rape survivors often struggle with blaming themselves, so, "Why would you do that?" or "Why didn't you do this?" questions are so not welcome. Do not put the rape survivor in the situation of having to defend the fact that it was, indeed, rape. When she is done, you can ask questions about her reaction or how she is dealing with it if you want to get a better handle on how she is. And when she is done, don't suggest ways she can cheer herself up, or distract herself. Believe me, she's already thought of whatever you could suggest, and is perfectly adept at managing her shit as best she can. You could ask, "Is there anything I can do to help? What would be most helpful to you?" Those are good questions. I wouldn't really recommend telling her, "I really feel _____ after hearing this," because then, if she is me, she will feel bad for making you feel bad, or she will quickly try to change the subject because she feels like she may now be burdening you. This is just one of those conversations that I think has to be so not about you at all. If you are one of those gentlemen (ahem) who cannot ever be so not about you all the time, don't begin this conversation in the first place.
For me, at least, after I have initially told you the story, I will not explicitly tell you how I am coping with my trauma. This is mostly because I feel like a downer bringing it up later in normal daily conversation, and I don't really know how to say, after you told me about partying all weekend, "Hey, so updates on my rape brain . . ." If you are wondering how someone is managing, you may have to ask them directly. In fact, I will never tell you unless you ask directly, because I will feel bad bringing up something so depressing and difficult. But if you ask me, "How has the working through trauma been? Are you ok? Anything I can do?" I will answer honestly and explain. Other rape survivors may tell you not to ask. But to me, it is touching when someone is thoughtful enough and brave enough to bring it up and want to know.
If a partner tells you that she has been raped, there may be a lot of things that you both need to work out, or not many at all. It will depend on where she is in her recovery, which is not always linear, so recognize that she may go from getting better to worse at points or have flashbacks. Consensual, safe sex has been a large part of my recovery. Having a male partner ask explicitly for permission to do each and every thing he wants to do in bed with me makes me feel like I am safe and in control. It feels like I am reclaiming the act of sex. Then there are other little things that are me-specific - being submissive helps me rewrite the rape narrative in my head, because it is now safe and healthy and about my pleasure and I can have control over the person "ravishing" me, whereas playacting as a dominant for whatever reason triggers me (yeah, I dunno).
Oh, and this is a biggie for me: if you are my partner, do NOT initiate or attempt sex when I am asleep, or half asleep. First off, just because we may have had sex a number of hours ago does not mean I am consenting now. There is no open access to my body, and when you do this, it makes me feel like I have just been made invisible. It means that you are acting out your desires on me, instead of with me as a willing participant. There should be no sex without enthusiastic consent, every time. Second, if you know me at all, and you know how much I do and how little sleep I get, this sleep I am getting right now may be the most exciting thing I have done all week. So piss off.
Ok, I may think of more, but I have kind of stalled out here. If you have any questions, feel free to email me or write them in comments and I will be happy to address them. Or, if you are a survivor, feel free to put your own experiences in comments.
And, also, a final thing: I am no expert on this. I am not even an expert on myself. One of my favorite reactions is a friend of mine who listened, and heard me, and then got craaaaazy angry and furious. Like, yelled and stomped and growled and was just SO MAD that that had happened to me. I loved it. Because, weirdly, one of the emotions that rape survivors may have the hardest time accessing, even though it would make the most sense, in reality, to have, is anger. I have never managed to really get angry at what my rapist has done to me, what with being so busy putting all kinds of blame on myself. So here was someone getting that kind of angry FOR me. Readers, I just loved it. And I would not have been able to guess that I would have adored such a reaction until I was watching it before my eyes. We are all just guessing and feeling our way through this. As long as there is understanding, and communication, and support, and however much space we all need, we'll manage to make it through to the other side.