• Mon, Apr 29 - 2:40 pm ET

Should You Use The Term ‘Sexual Assault’ For Your Survivor Friend’s Attack, Even If He Refuses To?


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.

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  • anna

    i went through a situation similar a few years ago. My ex’s little sister was getting wild, and she ran away from home. We found her about a week later, wandering home crying and high. she kept saying she was raped, that a college guy had shot her up with heroin and had sex with her (unmoving, unconsenting, basically unconcious) 16 year old body.
    We took her back to our house, fed her, let her sleep. When she woke up she denied any of it ever happened. My Ex kept preaching that she was raped, however. She would roll her eyes at him and say she wasn’t. I was torn between telling her or not, but was angry at my ex for deciding that she was raped. She pretty obviously was, but she gets to decide when she comes to terms with it. And using “my little sister was raped” as an excuse for his behavior just turned it into being all about him, like always.

    • http://www.facebook.com/sameurysm Samantha Escobar

      God, that sounds terrible. Very few things are as frustrating as when people make others’ awful situations about themselves. Obviously, rape does affect people besides the survivor, but that doesn’t somehow mean the survivor isn’t the absolute most important person affected.

    • http://www.schonwan.com/ Jan Li

      That will affect both side, one will be accused to prison, and one will be hurt on the body also spirit

  • Eileen

    I would definitely bring up the terminology. Part of the problem with rape culture is the assumption that “taking advantage” of someone drunk, while not necessarily a GOOD thing to do, isn’t a crime. He gets to decide whether he wants to press charges, or feel like a victim, but if he doesn’t feel good about what happened, reminding him that it’s technically illegal isn’t a bad idea. I firmly believe that not enough men have ever worried about not having their “no”s listened to to understand women’s perspectives on this issue.

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    • John H

      (Programming note: I’m a guy, and I was sexually assaulted by a girlfriend who refused to respect my insistence on condom use for any activity involving genital-genital contact; while it’s entirely possible this guy is in a totally different place than I was then or am now, I can relate to the experience.)

      I agree – silencing discussion or rape and assault AS rape and assault, obfuscating the nature of the violation by refusing to label it for what it is, works to normalize rape/sexual assault. It works to construct rapes committed by acquaintances or partners as somehow not-rape. I don’t think one should badger a victim/survivor about the terminology ze wishes to use, and I also don’t think we have an obligation to buy into someone else’s framing of the issue. Rape apologetics and reinforcing rape culture memes is still a problem when it comes from rape victims/survivors, in a way similar to anti-feminist rhetoric still being problematic when it comes from women like Phyllis Schlafly or Sarah Palin. Being kind and supporting someone isn’t necessarily the same thing as being nice or agreeing with them.

      I’d be careful with phrasing, saying something like, “What you’re describing meets the definition of sexual assault* – she had sex with you without your consent, and that’s the legal definition of assault.” Focusing on legalities is a way to avoid implying that the victim/survivor MUST conceive of someone attacking hir in a certain way while also pointing out that one way that we describe what happened is “sexual assault”. For both women and men, but even more so for men, there may be a sense that the victim/survivor isn’t ALLOWED to feel bad about being attacked (victim-blaming, rape apologism, constructing men as constantly desiring sex from anyone and everyone), and labeling the attack as assault (more possibilities: “If that happened to me, I would consider it assault,” or, “As far as I’m concerned, sex without consent is assault or rape;” it’s possible to insist on using one’s own naming scheme oneself while not insisting others use it) could actually be empowering. Labeling rape or assault rape or assault isn’t telling someone how to feel about it or what to do; we need to establish a mutually-intelligible vocabulary to be able to even talk about sexual violence, which we need to be able to do if we’re going to combat it.

      *Depending on one’s legal jurisdiction, “rape” may require penetration of the victim; being made to penetrate someone else without consent or non-consensual non-penatrative sexual activity would be defined as sexual assault

  • JennyWren

    Yeah, it’s difficult…obviously the writer is scared and angry for her friend and wants to protect and defend him as much as possible. And maybe she feels that only by correctly labeling and describing the act against him can it be recognized that he was wronged. You can’t force people to feel the way you think they should, or to do what you think is best for them. Maybe in a few months or a few years her friend will feel more able to say “I was sexually assaulted/I was raped,” maybe he won’t. But right now he’s dealing with in the way he feels is best. It’s good to want to advocate for victims of sexual injustice, but not if by doing so we take away their agency.

  • samantha

    Forcing someone to use terminology that they do not feel reflects their experience can be just as hurtful and harmful as experiencing rape or other trauma. If your friend does not want to press charges, or is unable to due to our messed up legal system, then why force him to define his assault with terminology that makes you feel more comfortable? Because it defines a clear perpetrator and victim?

    By defining rape and sexual assault for someone else, you are determining and defining someone else’s ability to consent. If a person cannot or doesn’t want to view their personal experience as rape, even though you would in their shoes, then the best thing you can do for them is sit there and listen, helping them figure out a way to deal with the trauma and aftermath on their own terms.

    Even if you disagree with your friend’s view of their assault, it doesn’t mean you are totally helpless. Instead, you could focus the energy on changing laws and cultural perception and knowledge of what consent actually is, so if someone else is in your friend’s position, and chooses to define it as rape and pursue legal recourse, that it is much easier for them.

    Really though, if a person cannot determine if they were raped or not, then how can they be expected to be able to give consent in the future? Consent is given by an individual, not cultural appropriation. Let your friend decide what is best for him and channel any negative feelings you have to helping others who are asking for the kind of help you want to give.

  • Cassie

    I think that making him label it in a scary way will make the experience worse for him. He can’t do anything about it- it’s in the past- so if he wants to brush it off as a drunken mistake rather than rape I think that’s ok. Considering it a drunken mistake makes it easier to deal with, probably.

  • Sweetdiculous

    If BOTH parties are drunk, then BOTH are to blame for unwanted sex. :/