Talking about taboos like rape trauma can be hard — yet helpful. But then what actions do you take for healing?
By Alice Gut
“You know what you did was wrong, right?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t do it again.”
This is how K, my best friend freshman year at university, made peace with the older boy who raped her when she was fourteen. He was a friend of her older brother, and as such she saw him again a few years later. She hadn’t told anyone. When I met her a few years after that, she didn’t suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) like I would later.
Instead, her processing of her trauma and confrontation with her rapist was like K: direct and effective. She would later leave home on her eighteenth birthday, earn a university degree, join the Marines, buy a red convertible, marry and divorce. She was good at taking action to try to get what she wanted.
I haven’t been so effective myself. When I recently remembered a rape after nearly three years, I published a pseudonymous account of it here. Then I used that essay to initiate dialogue through a go-between (a mutual acquaintance) with the rapist and two witnesses. The rapist admitted to our mutual acquaintance that he had sex with me and it was wrong. The three men agreed to write what happened, to help answer my questions since I had blacked out… And maybe also give me the social recognition that evidence suggests helps victims heal.
We know that being believed helps and being blamed hurts. So I asked the mutual acquaintance who was not there to believe and not blame me, and she did. And I asked the rapist and witnesses to just say what happened, and they said they would.
That was four months ago. Perhaps they’ll say what happened someday, and it will help, hurt, or do nothing. Perhaps they’ll never say. For now I only know how the limbo feels. It’s unpleasant.
For one thing, the trauma has stayed relatively present in my mind as I expected a resolution that never came. As the weeks and then months slipped by, I felt conned. But also intrigued: What’s the psychology of avoiding getting this done? Are there perceived incentives, real or fake, at work here? What’s so hard about apologizing for a rape?
I’m a non-confrontational person. I’m against retributive justice and the resource-greedy, ineffectual way policing in America is done today. I’m not sure I would sick that machine on anyone. My unwillingness to punish is not generally something that I advertise, for obvious reasons. It makes me helpless against injustice.
But I accept that. In part because there is no viable alternative that I can stomach. And in part because I think we all are — helpless, vulnerable, mortal, human, interdependent, reliant on the trustworthiness of perfect strangers and the kindness of kin found and made. I just happen to know it more than most.
Yet, I can’t sign a binding contract agreeing to not press charges if the guys will just say what happened, to try to help me heal. What if I could? What if I could formally agree that I will pose no threat, I will never talk to the police or a lawyer — if my rapist and these two witnesses will just say what happened in an informal, restorative justice-style dialogue where the goal is merely social recognition? In other words: Do me the courtesy of acknowledging and apologizing, and I’ll do what I’m already doing and move on with my life. I lose nothing, and might gain in healing. They risk nothing, and might gain in personal and social reflection on what happened as well.
Formalizing this sort of a fork between criminal and restorative justice processes might help give victims more agency by giving restorative justice more teeth — as long as it’s possible to revert to the criminal justice option if the rapist doesn’t participate in good faith. But the option doesn’t seem to exist right now.
Because it doesn’t exist, I can’t offer a credible commitment to not pose a threat by reporting the rape to police. So are these guys reasonably afraid of being prosecuted or subpoenaed to testify (respectively) if they just say what happened?
The statistics say no: The likelihood that a rapist in America today will be incarcerated for the crime is 6%. So the vast majority of rapists don’t see a day in jail. Even high-profile serial rapists don’t have much, if anything, to fear from criminal justice. Whether it’s Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein, we all know cases of famous serial sexual predators who used drugs, power, or other means of coercion to victimize numerous young women — and were never held to criminal account in spite of having apologized (in Cosby’s case) and confessed on tape (in Weinstein’s).
As a society we’ve come a long way in thinking and talking about rape . But not in criminally investigating, prosecuting, and sentencing it. Rape is effectively decriminalized.
In some cases, rape reporting is even worse than worthless. Rather than resulting in justice, reporting rape often victimizes women in a “second assault.” That’s because first responders (like doctors and police) can engage in victim-blaming. And so police across America have routinely ignored, downgraded, lost, failed to investigate, and even prosecuted victims for making rape complaints that turned out to be provably well-founded.
You report at your own risk… And most people don’t. The vast majorityof sexual violence goes unreported.
But if formal options for responding to rape suck and informal options don’t seem to work either, what is to be done? Why won’t my rapist say what happened? What’s so hard about apologizing when you make a mistake? And more importantly, what am I going to do about it?
When I try to put myself in his position, I can imagine being too frightened of possible consequences to apologize. It doesn’t matter how unlikely they are. I might just be too cowardly to admit what I had done, if I were him. The criminal justice system is really horrible, and I might want to avoid contact with it — even at the cost of hurting someone I had already hurt.
In the end, I can’t fathom doing what he did in the first place. Sex is such a sacred part of human life. It powers and empowers us to bond, experiment, flow, and flourish. To degrade that sacredness by having sex with someone’s body when they can’t even respond by making eye contact, much less moving or talking, is vile to me on an almost religious level. I can’t understand doing it as a matter of sexual preference, either. Unconscious suicidal people aren’t sexy. Exposing someone who has blacked out to drugs they don’t want to do and sex they don’t want to have is extremely dominating, but not the least bit sexy. Maybe the new-old adage is right that rape is not about sex. It’s about power.
So it’s time for me to stop giving the rapist who hurt me and the witnesses who did not protect me any power over me at all. It sounds a bit self-congratulatory, but I’ve made many good changes and choices since this happened. They literally can’t ever touch me again — they don’t know my new name, field, or country. They had a chance to do the right thing and they blew it. I don’t have to leave that door open. It puts them back in control of my headspace. So I’m closing it now.
Still, it was hard but good for me to try to resolve things this way. After careful consideration, I tried the option that made sense to me — restorative justice in the protocol I share below. It didn’t work. Now I move on with my life, focusing affirmatively on what I love and want rather than on what has hurt me. I accept that I can’t do anything else. I’m powerless to create a different outcome, and it would hurt me too much to try. I can see those facts and still love myself. I can’t see them and let this rape affect my life any more than it has to.
This, to me, points to the primary problem with #MeToo that has bothered me all this fall-winter as I listened in silence, feeling for a lot of hurting people, hashing out a lot of questions in my head. Attention is a resource — limited and valuable. Drawing attention to dark problems for which there are no good solutions is psychologically, socially, and professionally stressful. So before we go to battle, we have to ask ourselves as activists what the win is — is it a win that we find meaningful? does it look feasible? is it worth the potential cost?
There is simply not sufficient evidence supporting the claim that doing something — anything — as opposed to doing exactly nothing about rape (or sexual harassment) helps victims heal. Not pursuing extremely unlikely to succeed criminal justice processes. Not pursuing enforcement teeth-free restorative justice. Maybe the fact that most victims choose to do nothing should tell us that doing nothing is smart.
A lot of recent news and culture has focused on talking about sexual violence and harassment as if that in itself does good. But it hasn’t done me any good. Maybe it has done you good — and if so, I celebrate your success. Maybe it hasn’t — and if not, I want you to thrive too. And me too.
So here’s some other stuff that might help.
Resources for Improving Quality of Life after Rape Trauma
Option 1: CAP it — Care, Affirmative focus, Prevention.
Trauma causes stress. You may still need to seek medical or psychological Care, get more social or professional support in havingAffirmative focus on what you enjoy doing and want to achieve, and work long-term to Prevent re-victimization or other problems from occurring. Here is a resource cheat sheet to get you started on all those things.
In general, RAINN — the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network — maintains a list of U.S. national sexual violence survivor resources. See also Rape Crisis England & Wales, Hilfe Telefon (Germany), Rape Crisis Network Europe, and these lists of lists of resources for other places (1,2, 3).
Planned Parenthood is also a good resource on screening for sexually transmitted diseases, while The STD Project offers resources internationally.
Post-traumatic stress, depression, social anxiety, and substance abuse are common in rape victims. Reach out for professional help when you need it. If you’re considering suicide, you can email the Samaritans for help or find a helpline anywhere in the world. There are also lots of free online resources that can help with distress tolerance, like The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook, this Youtube video onEmotional Freedom Technique, and this computerized Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for depression and anxiety.
“If you feed it, it will grow; if you starve it, it will die,” as the old adage goes. Sometimes beating traumatic stress means focusing away from trauma, and on the bright spots instead. What do you enjoy doing? How can you do more of it? Here are some free online resources to get you started if you want to try a more structured affirmative focus intervention: the best possible selves exercise, gratitude journal, funny things journal, random acts of kindness, flow, and life design.
Re-victimization is a common problem among child abuse and rape survivors especially. It doesn’t mean it’s your fault. We don’t know why re-victimization exists for sure, but researchers suspect that the same things that can make a person especially vulnerable to the bad luck of one such event, also tend to make one especially vulnerable to re-victimization.
Some possible risk factors — like small stature or disability — might not be changeable. Others are. Since alcohol is the most common date-rape drug, and alcohol and drugs can both contribute to victimization, getting help stopping or modifying substance use or abuse can help make you safer. Resources available for this are listed here (U.S.) and here(international).
Treating traumatic stress (see above/Care) might also help prevent re-victimization. Untreated post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, common in rape victims, can contribute to people not being as present or picking up on threat cues as well as others.
We just don’t know from available evidence whether reporting helps victims heal, or how criminal and restorative justice options compare — to each other or to pursuing neither option — when it comes to victim well-being. But both options do exist…
Option 2: Report the crime to law enforcement and pursue criminal justice.
Some people who have experienced completed or attempted rape say that reporting the crime to law enforcement helped them heal. RAINN — the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network — offers information about police reporting in the U.S., including how to do it and answers to some common questions. Rape Crisis Network Europe offers similar resources for Europe. Hot Peach Pages offers an international directory of abuse resources.
Statutes of limitations for reporting completed or attempted rape vary.Here is a U.S. state law database on rape statutes. If the event occurred in another country, the above Hot Peach international abuse resource directory should get you to someone who can help determine the relevant statute of limitations.
There are lots of good reasons to give report a chance. It might help stop the perpetrator from hurting other people, protecting those who are more vulnerable than you (like children). It might help you heal to learn more about what happened through a police investigation. And it might help you heal through gaining social recognition of the crime.
Option 3: Apply or modify this restorative justice protocol to pursue an alternate kind of justice.
Some people who have experienced completed or attempted rape say that reporting the crime to law enforcement only compounded their trauma. But criminal justice is not the only possible way of responding to injustice. There is another way: restorative justice.
Restorative justice is a way of responding to injustice that emphasizes repairing damage and changing harmful patterns, rather than seeking punishment (“an eye for an eye”) in response to crime. This gives you a restorative justice process to use.
This restorative justice process has three elements: expressive writing, social recognition, and confrontation.
1. Expressive writing.
Writing about traumatic events has physical and psychological health benefits for many populations. Dr. James Pennebaker’s expressive writing exercise is the most commonly used one. Try writing for 20 minutes a day for four days in a row about the rape/sexual assault/sexual harassment. The evidence supports this writing exercise for victims of attempted and completed rape, so you might try it even though it’s not fun. Be as detailed as possible, and personalize it — say how the event made you feel.
Expect it to make you feel a bit down for an hour or two, especially the first few days. Write only for yourself and don’t edit. Just get it all out.
2. Social recognition.
Take a break from it for as long as you want. It might be a week, or it might be a month, or two months. Then return to your writing. Try to be compassionate towards yourself. The first person you are seeking recognition from is yourself.
One way to get distance on trauma is to rewrite your narrative in the third person. Pretend you are your friend. Another way to distance is by rewriting the ending to have a redemptive, positive, exceptionalist spin. People who try those third-person and ending rewriting tricks with memorable bad events fare better. You don’t even have to believe what you say that is redemptive or positive — just find an angle that makes it sound like you learned, grew, did good, or won. Tell the truth, but spin at the end.
Then make it social. People with poor social support are much more likely to develop chronic traumatic stress, and conversely people who get social recognition are better able to heal. So although it can be hard, scary, and you can’t control other people’s responses, try anyway.
You might try reading your essay to a friend, posting it under a pseudonym on a free and open writing platform like Medium and sending the link to someone who has been supportive of you in the past, or taking it to a support group or mental health professional to talk about.
Part of restorative justice is giving people who have wronged you a chance to make amends. Although it may be very frightening, give the offender an opening to acknowledge what he/she did and how it hurt you.
Think about what would feel like a safe way to open the door to this exchange. In writing, over email or by letter? By phone or in person? Or through a mediator, mutual acquaintance, community (school, church, other organization) leader or just a trusted friend? Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Keep it short and simple. Instead of expressing every detail of what happened and how it made you feel, like in the expressive writing exercise, in this step you want to focus on understanding and going forward. You might say things like “Help me understand why I did X and then you did Y,” asking for help understanding what happened. If you’re comfortable sharing the account with the offender that you shared with someone supportive in the social recognition step, then you might say “I think you/this person might benefit from a read and a think on my essay about what happened.” If you think an apology would help you heal, then think about saying that.
Remember that the point is not to retaliate, punish, or cause harm. You already expressed the full extent of what happened and the harm the offender caused. Hopefully you already got social recognition of what happened as well. No one can undo the damage that was done, but you can confront the person who hurt you and ask him/her to help you understand or heal.
If you don’t know the offender, seeking restorative justice is still possible if it’s something you want to do. You might try going through the normal expressive writing and social recognition steps, and modifying this last confrontation step to account for the fact that you can’t directly confront the unknown offender. Can you confront him or her through a mutual acquaintance, witness, or simply in your own imagination? If such confrontation is impossible or doesn’t work out for you, can you imagine another ending that makes the trauma not matter in your life anymore, shows how you’re stronger and wiser now, or otherwise gives you a win?
Disclaimer: The information in this list is not presented as a source of medical or legal advice. You should not rely, for medical or legal advice, on statements or representations made within the list or by any externally referenced Internet sites. If you need medical advice upon which you intend to rely in the course of your medical care, consult a competent, independent physician. If you need legal advice upon which you intend to rely in the course of your legal affairs, consult a competent, independent attorney. The author does not assume any responsibility for actions or non-actions taken by people who have read this piece, and no one shall be entitled to a claim for detrimental reliance on any information provided or expressed. Now have some kittens.