In a piece on Thought Catalog yesterday, an anonymous writer asked readers whether or not she* should explain to her best friend that he was raped.
My best friend and I sat down to dinner. He told me that he had been sexually assaulted by a friend several months ago when they were drunk. He didn’t use those words—“sexually assaulted”.
He said it felt minor because it didn’t escalate.
He said he felt guilty for causing more problems.
He never said “rape” or “sexually assaulted.” …
But do I tell him he was raped? According to state law, he was sexually assaulted. According to him, he was just too drunk to realize what was happening and say no. In my mind, that is rape. But in his mind, it’s just an unfortunate incident.
The writer goes on to question what defines sexual assault: is it how you feel or what the law says? She then wonders whether it is important to tell her friend he was sexually assaulted or simply let him move on.
“Do I tell him that he was raped or do I let him continue thinking it was just an unfortunate incident?” she asks. “Am I victimizing him or is society?”
This is (obviously) a deeply complex and problematic dilemma; the act of discussing somebody else’s sexual assault is delicate enough as is, let alone when you add judgment to the mix. First off, I’m not going to tell you what exactly I think the writer should do; I don’t know this person, nor do I know her friend, nor do I know the whole situation. Nevertheless, it is a hugely important issue to discuss, particularly given the dynamic as of late regarding bystanders and people being knowledgeable of others’ rapes.
On the one hand, when you know a friend of yours has been harmed, it can be difficult not to become reactive, particularly when your friend does not want to take the course of action you see fits the best. Whether it’s going to the police or acknowledging the rape itself, it can be such a difficult, painful process for a survivor to go through. (That said, in the event of, say, a child who has been assaulted, you should always tell somebody, as children aren’t exactly equipped with many decision-making skills.)
On Law & Order: SVU, the detectives occasionally guilt victims into acknowledging, reporting or testifying with statements like, “What if he rapes another victim? That would be on you, that would be your responsibility.” Pushing guilty emotions onto an already traumatized person is an awfully insensitive and potentially damaging thing to do. Rather than showing that person how much you support them, it just makes him feel further stressed out about the attacker — you know, the only person involved who was responsible for the assault.
But what about people who simply don’t understand that they were victimized in the first place? For example, those who were heavily intoxicated or individuals who have been raped by their partners and have a difficult time discerning whether they had the power to refuse (our culture is backward, after all, and spousal rape wasn’t even nationally illegal until 1993). Should those survivors be informed that they were, indeed, raped? Is it up to the survivor to define her or his rape, or should others feel obligated to do so?
I can only tell you in a clearcut manner what I would do: let the person know I am open to discussing whatever he feels the need to talk about, then do everything in my power to ensure that the assailant is removed from my friend’s life permanently. Is it a perfect solution? No, but I know that I have never wanted the choice of pressing charges or discussing my assaults taken out of my own hands; having my loved ones impose those actions upon me and my life would have only made me feel more powerless. Listening is important, and that includes the understanding that the means by which you two discuss that rape should be on the victim’s terms — not yours. But again, that is simply what I would do, not necessarily some conclusive, advisable decision for all situations like this.
I won’t proclaim to know exactly what to do in this situation; all I want to do (and feel comfortable doing, really) is to discuss why this is such a difficult issue. That means I also want to know your opinions, dear readers: if a friend is the victim of sexual assault, should you discuss the issue with him in accordance to his own terms, even if you don’t see that method as the best way to do so?
*As the writer’s gender isn’t known, I’m using female pronouns for simplicity’s sake.