How About We Try Just Listening to Trauma Victims?

Last year was a terrible time for rape victims. Multiple high-profile cases of rape and sexual assault hit the news, including some that involved decades of assaults that had gone largely ignored, and those involving beloved public figures that no one wanted to hold accountable for their actions. ‘Not the man I know‘ is a familiar refrain in the world of, for lack of a better term, rape politics. Because apparently only bad people rape, and only those who wear giant Rs on their chests sexually assault people.

The same, though, could be said of almost every other year, and the internet has really shown that, with year after wearying year of prominent sexual assault in the news. Over and over again, the same repeated threads, the same stories, the same horrific and infuriating narratives surrounding victims/survivors — a term I use to recognise that some people identify as victims, and others as survivors, and that neither term should be privileged or elevated above the other, because when it comes to identifying your own experiences and how you relate to them, you are the best judge of the way you feel.

Media organisations seem determined to ignore the actual voices of victims/survivors, taking a strange pride in not centring their voices even when they are ready and willing to speak. These attitudes are in part why rape goes unaddressed for so long, why people who speak out are silenced and why their voices are ignored until the tide of voices becomes so strong that it’s impossible to keep ignoring them. As victims/survivors fight back, especially when they are facing public figures down and accusing them of terrible, violating crimes, they’re often smeared in the media to avoid legitimising their experiences.

Meanwhile, those who know victims/survivors are made uncomfortable and uneasy by their knowledge and experiences. They don’t want to face people who have endured trauma and they turn away — they recommend visiting a therapist or suggest that people might want to ‘seek help’ and they provide information about rape hotlines or just ignore attempts to reach out. Victims/survivors are left out in the cold as they try to process their experiences and as they search for whatever resolution they need — the media and often law enforcement deny them justice, the people they would turn to for support are ignoring them, and they may have limited access to a community of people with similar experiences because of shame about traumatic experiences and sexual assault.

Thus the creation of the illusion of ‘strength’ and the demand that victims/survivors be strong people, be independent, refrain from bothering the people around them with the icky reality of their horrific experiences. And the perpetuation of shame and stigma that enables the persistent meme that victims/survivors are to blame, that we shouldn’t hold people accountable for sexual assault, that we should tiptoe around these issues and refuse to confront them, that we shouldn’t talk about them in the media.

People struggling with these issues sometimes ask what they can do about sexual assault, especially when confronted with awful statistics about rape. Facing down the reality of sexual assault can be sobering for people who have never directly experienced it, especially when they are dealing directly with someone who has been assaulted and they want to help. And they want to know how to help, what should be done, how to put a stop to this.

The one thing that never seems to occur to so many is this: Try listening to victims.

Try actually just sitting down and listening to them. Tell them you’re open to listening and they can talk as much or as little as they want, and that they don’t even have to talk about their sexual assaults. Tell them you’re there, that you’re a friend, that if they want to talk about a ridiculous TV show or the garden or books or whatever, you’re happy to have that conversation. If they want to talk about something else, that’s fine too. Tell them that you will respect their boundaries and that you are focused on their needs, that you will take cues from them when it comes to what they want to do, and how.

But how can you read rape victims/survivors, you say, how can you know what to do? Try listening. Listening is an art, and it’s a learned one, but it started with this: Focusing. Being attentive. Engaging directly with someone rather than letting your mind skitter and whirl around the room. Don’t think about what you’re going to do at work tomorrow or whether you remembered to put the roast in the fridge to thaw or the book you’re reading or how awkward and uncomfortable you feel. Open yourself up to a conversation that might consist of long silences or uneasy speech about nothing in particular or a frank discussion of trauma. Open yourself to watching physical cues, to know when to approach and when to lean away, when to offer a hug and when not to touch, when to brew a cuppa and when to stay seated on the couch, when someone needs your focused attention and when someone wants a break.

Just. Listen. Listening is hard. It can make for an uneasy time, especially when you are struggling to help someone you love. But remember that someone approached you in the hopes of getting help, whatever that looks like for this person, and that someone has entrusted you with something very personal and raw. Pay attention. That person might want help going to law enforcement and seeking that kind of resolution. That person might want your affirmations of support. That person might want the assurance that being a victim/survivor doesn’t mean you’re to blame, that you aren’t soiled and dirty and untouchable. Sometimes, just being a friend, a friend who listens, a partner who focuses wholly on the needs of someone else, is what a victim/survivor needs.

Image: Håkan Dahlström