More than a year ago I wrote this post on “gray area” violence that has now made it onto the RFAS Recommended Reading page. Reflecting back on that now, I’ve got some thoughts on how to give reassurance to people whose stories set off those kinds of red flags for you — when someone relates a past experience that sounds, to you, exactly like rape, sexual assault, or abuse, but they themselves explicitly communicate that, for whatever reason, they see it as more of a gray area.
Here’s a rough outline of what’s been helpful and unhelpful, in my experience, from on both sides of the problem.
Tip #1: What you shouldn’t do — as I hope would be obvious — is try and confront them like it’s something to argue about. Telling someone they’re wrong about how to feel or how to describe their own experience will have hostile overtones, no matter how you go about it; can, effectively, feel like punishment for disclosing at all; and, likely, will put them on the defensive, which means putting them in a position to invalidate themselves even further. If you aim is to be supportive of victims and survivors, this is exactly what not to do.
In more general terms, you can point out that you wouldn’t apply the rule they’re applying to themselves (about what “counts”) to other people — that certain rape myths, for instance, are just that: myths. There’s a difference between explaining what an experience “can” be classified and dictating what it is. If you’re wondering what that difference looks like, here’s an example [cw: rape].
In contrast, talking in Platonic terms about what inherently is or isn’t violence, and telling them what the should see it as and how they’re supposed to talk about it, may not be so helpful (and is definitely patronizing).
Tip #2: Without applying type-specific labels to the experience, you can still criticize choices on behalf of the perpetrator. This one is tricky, because self-blame may lead someone to speak in defense of the person who hurt or exploited them (“it wasn’t their fault,” “they didn’t do anything wrong,” “they didn’t know what they were doing,” “that’s just their way of showing love,” “they couldn’t keep depriving themselves,” “it’s different for people who aren’t ace“). In some circumstances (use your best judgement here), you may be able to condemn something the perpetrator could have done differently, in a way that the person you’re addressing will be less likely to resist or contradict. Criticizing the perpetrator without labeling the type of violence can look like:
- That’s a horrible thing to do to anyone.
- They shouldn’t have done that.
- It’s cruel that they didn’t even care about your reaction.
- They could have easily not done that.
- That’s inexcusable.
- They didn’t give you a real chance to say no.
- They didn’t listen.
If you emphasize that those things are what matter to you as the listener, you can potentially circumvent a discussion of whether the experience was “really” rape, sexual assault, or abuse, etc.
Tip #3: Highlight reaction and perception as important in their own right. If someone is expressing that they think their negative feelings about the experience don’t matter because of their behaviors at the time, you can place emphasis on those feelings as something that matters to you. This also applies to feelings that may have changed or worsened since the original event, which still matter even if they took time to manifest.
Choosing a different focus than the person you’re replying to doesn’t have to mean arguing or direct contradiction. It can just mean devoting more of your message or reply to those current feelings instead of those elements of the past.
For example, if someone is talking about how they outwardly didn’t react and didn’t communicate what they were feeling inside, you can validate those then-unspoken feelings as justified, talk about how they make sense to you as corresponds to what was happening to them, or suggest the idea of (non)consent as a felt experience (that can change after the fact) rather than an interaction template, all without even acknowledging how they outwardly acted. Emphasizing past or current internal reaction can look like:
- You’re not silly to feel that way.
- That sounds really frightening.
- It obviously hurt you.
- Lots of survivors experience that.
- No one should have to deal with this.
- That’s how you experienced it, and I don’t blame you.
- You have a right to be angry.
- Well, it bothered you enough that you’re writing about it now.
- Those feelings themselves mean something.
These sorts of remarks have helped me in the past, and I hope that using them as a template can help someone support others, too.
Tip #4: Take a moment to consider. Do you need to say anything at all?
Most of these tips have been about circumstances where a response is warranted, but pay attention for signals that someone just needs space to talk. Sometimes someone just needs an opportunity to work through something without making it a conversation or feeling like they’re going to be assessed at the end. Be mindful of this possibility.
Tip #5: One less general set of don’ts: don’t make it about yourself.
If a story leaves you feeling outraged, don’t put that feeling ahead of the person who lived it by making a dramatic show of your reaction or making threats against the perpetrator. Not only might that encourage them to defend them to you, but it also puts them in the position of having to do emotional labor on you, which would be selfish to do knowingly. Saying the perpetrator acted wrongly is one thing, saying you want to personally punish them is another.
Unless your reaction would be the exact same, you don’t need to tell them how you would feel in their shoes. Telling them they have a right to feel [blank] is one thing, telling them they should be more upset or a different kind of upset is another. “You have every right to be angry” is okay, but “You should be furious” or “If I was you I would never speak to her again” is not.
When you’re trying to support someone who doesn’t necessarily see themselves as (or is uncertain about being) a victim, survivor, or target of violence or abuse, pretty much the same guidelines apply as usual: don’t gaslight them, don’t act hostile, do cite reassuring messages, and do validate their feelings. It’s just a matter of doing all that without foisting a label on them that they’re not prepared to accept — by, instead, encouraging them to see the option as open.