What Happens Now
In fall of 2015 I was sexually assaulted by a comedian that I was dating at the time. Our relationship continued on and off for a year and a half during which time he manipulated and emotionally abused me. When I was finally able to end things, he continued to contact and harass me for six months despite me asking to be left alone and outlining boundaries.
Attempting to articulate what happened to me has been extremely difficult. One of the weapons used by my abuser was that everything was relative; I may be upset about how he treated me, but he was upset about how I acted, and that is what caused him to treat me that way. When I would set boundaries he would use the language of agreement to seem diplomatic but would guilt me by stating that what I was asking for hurt his feelings. Things that I said I needed were deemed plausible or implausible based on how they affected him and how he felt. Between trauma impeding me from remembering these things with 100% clarity and my internalized doubt developed during the relationship, it has taken a year of therapy to begin to re-settle and find reality. Hell, it took my therapist labelling his behaviour as sexual assault and emotional abuse for me to even understand that that’s what it was.
I structured this piece by recounting what happened to me, directly addressing other survivors who have been in a similar situation, and directly addressing those who have perpetrated similar violence. I spoke to my experience in an attempt to connect with people who are experiencing or who have experienced similar instances of assault and abuse and reaffirm that their experiences are valid. Further, though it should not be the responsibility of the survivor, and what happened to me cannot be changed, I want to use the knowledge I have now to give insight on what could be done to further preserve safety in similar tense and awful situations. I do not mean to imply that sexual assault or emotional abuse can be avoided by a survivor changing their actions. Abuse can only be halted by the person enacting the abuse. Rather, what I am attempting to put forth is information I wish I had known at the time. I cannot know whether I would have used this information or not, or whether it would have helped. Further, I am a white, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle class woman. What I am putting forward cannot be universally applied to all survivors. Each survivor is different, and their ability to react, respond, ask for help, leave, or seek legal means, or contact the police is different. The knowledge I am putting forward brings me comfort and I wanted to share it with the hope that it might bring others comfort too.
For cisgendered men, or anyone else who has been asking themselves how to better treat women or romantic partners, I want to call attention to how to recognize and eliminate abusive behaviour by offering a clearer understanding of what is and is not appropriate. My analysis assumes that the person perpetrating the abuse does not know they are doing so. This is very rarely the case. I am approaching from this angle with the hope of reaching those who consider themselves ‘nice guys’ who could not imagine enacting violence and generating some reflection into whether or not they have indeed found themselves in similar situations. Again, there is no excuse for sexual assault. There is no way to make things go back to the way they were. But if you have been violent towards others, are truly remorseful, and are seeking rehabilitation, this is perhaps a very, very small place to start.
Finally, I want those who are outside of these situations of abuse to know how to help in both proactive and reactive ways. I am not an expert, this is not a definitive list. This is an attempt to use my experience to help others avoid similar treatment.
I would like to note that if we lived in a society that supported survivors, it would not seem like a subversive or shocking act to come forward about our sexual assaults and emotional abuse.
Unfortunately, we live in an opposite reality. Survivors who name their abusers are picked apart and questioned as if they are responsible for the abuse they have endured and not merely speaking to their experience. On top of that is considerable internal conflict. There was always hope that things could be different if I acted a little more sympathetic or tried to help him a different way that I hadn’t tried before. By taking on responsibility for the actions of my abuser, I was able to trick myself into thinking I could be the solution.
Ultimately, before an abuser can correct their behaviours they must first recognize that what they are doing is abuse. Unfortunately, they usually do not recognize that they are abusers until external pressure mounts to the extent of forcing them to recognize their actions. For me, sharing what happened has very little to do with what happens to my abuser. For me, it is about my own healing, and hopefully the healing of others who have been abused. Yes, I am anti-rapist, but to invoke systemic change in the ways we support those who have overcome violence, it is more important to me to note that I am pro-survivor.
I. THE SEXUAL ASSAULT
I was sleeping over at his apartment. We were in his bed. I don’t remember the exact wording, but he said something along the lines of, ‘I think it’s weird we haven’t had sex yet.’ Which made me roll my eyes. I said that I disagreed. I immediately felt uncomfortable asserting these boundaries while trying to seem cool and down and still interested- just not in sex right then. I liked him and was interested in being physically intimate, I just still needed some time to adjust. He began to talk about how we had been sleeping over at each other’s places, and repeated that he thought it was weird. He alluded that it wasn’t what adults did. I disagreed. There was more back and forth. He began to get upset. He asked sincerely if I thought he was unattractive. He repeatedly asked why I didn’t want to have sex. I felt embarrassed and backed into a corner. I didn’t want to be asked anymore. I gave in. We did it. I didn’t enjoy it. He came. I did not. I remember I felt bad and confused.
When my therapist first labelled this as assault, I had a hard time wrapping my head around it. I knew it felt wrong, but I was hesitant to use the word “assault”. I had always envisioned assault as including physical battery of some sort. However, if a close friend had recounted this to me, I would have certainly considered it as such. So why was it different for me? I had facilitated workshops that spoke about sexual assault. I taught and believed that for sex to be sex and not rape, consent had to be given, but also, it had to be constant, enthusiastic, and without coercion. This was blatant coercion and it was certainly not enthusiastic. I think I avoided the label of assault because it felt contradictory that it could happen to me, as I considered myself a ‘strong person’. As long as I can remember, people have told me that I act much older than my age. Mostly, that made me proud. In this moment it did not. Daniel is five years older than me, something I never considered as an imbalance of power because I always considered myself five years older than I was. Worse, as I began to unravel what had happened to me, I used my own perceived maturity as an indicator of an ability and responsibility to deal with it on my own. I stayed in his bed because I wanted to be able to ‘handle’ the situation. Giving in felt like proving him wrong about everything he was questioning me about. I wish I knew that I didn’t owe him anything, and that my discomfort was proof enough.
If I knew then what I knew now I would obviously have never gone over that night. But that’s not what happened. I wish I knew that I could have left. I tried to stand my ground and just roll over and go to sleep, but he was insistent. He clearly had no interest in listening. One ‘no’ is enough. There was no convincing him. If you can, get up and say you need to go home. Go to the bathroom with your phone and say your friend texted you that she is pregnant with food poisoning and you have to go. It is not rude. If it was (miraculously) a one time lapse in judgement on the perpetrator’s part, they will not hold it against you. That is likely not the case. You are not missing out on anything if it is with someone who does not respect your boundaries. Do not let being polite or not wanting to mess up your chances with someone stand in the way of what you feel in yourself to be right or wrong. You should not need to compromise to feel accepted. Know that if you were not able to do this, or recognize in hindsight that this happened to you, it is not your fault. The actions of your abuser were their choice and their choice alone. Nothing you did invited them to treat you like this. I think it’s important to note that though I did not orgasm, even if you did, it does not lessen the sexual assault. These instances can be confusing. Speak to someone you trust about it. Do not suffer in silence.
If you are on the other side of this equation, note that at no time, in any scenario, does anyone ever owe you sex. Not if you bought them coffee, not if you’ve been dating for five years, not if they said yes last time, not if they have sex with lots of other people, not if they do sex work, not if you love them, not if you had a bunch of sex all the time with your last partner and shouldn’t that be the same with everyone?, not if you really, really want to. They don’t. Ever. End of story. Once you understand that, you will understand that when someone doesn’t want to have sex with you, you shouldn’t take it personally. People have different reasons for saying no. More importantly, reasons to not want to have sex don’t vary in strength. ‘No’ is reason enough. Anything questioned or pushed past that is assault. I may have given in to sex, but it’s not because I wanted to have sex. It was because I didn’t want to have to say no anymore. That is coercion. If you find yourself asking a potential sexual partner “why not?” Turn the questions on yourself. Why do I feel entitled to sex after I have been told no? What are the potential consequences of my actions? How am I making the other person feel by continuing to ask?
Another element to my sexual assault was guilt. When Daniel asked if I didn’t want to have sex because I didn’t find him attractive, I felt guilty for making him feel bad about himself. Between the lines, what he was saying was, ‘if you say no to sex, you are saying that this is true and that makes me feel bad. Don’t make me feel bad.’ My analysis assumes that the person instigating the assault is unaware that they are doing so. So, again, if you feel personally attacked by someone telling you they don’t want to have sex with you, look inward. Your insecurities are not an excuse to cross someone’s boundaries. If you are truly the good person you think you are, know that your internal conflicts should not be held over the head of another person in search of validation. End of story.
II. PROCESSING THE SEXUAL ASSAULT
We weren’t in touch regularly after that night. One evening we wound up at a bar with some mutual friends and he walked me home. I invited him up. He declined and said that he felt weird about how things had happened last time. As I mentioned, I didn’t recognize at the time that it was assault. In part I thought he was referencing sleeping together and then him not being in touch. I still liked him and I wanted him to like me too. I told him it was okay. He said he felt bad about it. He got upset. I comforted him.
It kind of blows my mind reflecting on how Daniel immediately knew what he did and that it happened to me and it still took me many months to realize. It has caused me to constantly revisit moments of abuse in my mind and wonder whether he was ill-intentioned from the beginning of our relationship, deliberately making me feel confused and vulnerable to get what he wanted, or he was so unbelievably self-involved that he couldn’t understand how the things he did could negatively affect me. I wondered which one is worse. I wondered if there was any difference between the two.
If someone assaults you and wants to address it with you, you are not required to be their crying shoulder. Sexual assault is a crime of power. By calling on the survivor to support the abuser in their grief about the abuse, this crime is perpetuated. This is because the feelings of the abuser are still being addressed first, and further, are continuing to be addressed at the expense of the feelings of the survivor. As the survivor, you have the right to tell them that you have no interest in discussing the assault with them. You do not owe them a pat on the back or a hug or even a conversation if that is not within your interests. You have the right to speak to anyone you deem appropriate about what happened, as it is no longer about the abuser and their needs, it is about your safety and your needs. If your abuser wants to speak to you about the assault and you are interested in doing so, you are allowed to set the terms. Your trust has been violated –do what you need to do to feel safe. Bring a friend, ask to meet in a public space. Anything that makes you feel more comfortable. If the abuser is interested in talking because they are sincerely remorseful, they will respect what it is you’re asking of them.
If you have somehow, by accident, assaulted someone and only realize after the fact, take a good long look at yourself and how this could have happened. What were you prioritizing when this took place? What made you feel that your interests were more important than someone’s boundaries? Think about how you have deeply and irreversibly changed someone else’s life for the worse for your own benefit. Reflect on your identity and the identity of the person you abused. What power or privileges might you inherently hold that would allow you to harm someone without fear of consequence? Do you hold higher status in a mutual community? Is there systemic privilege related to gender, race, sexuality, ability, or age that you used to your benefit? Recognize that due to your actions, addressing this will not be easy. As you face consequences for your actions, life will get harder. Accept that you determined your fate when you decided to assault someone. When you reach out to the person you assaulted, address what you have done in clear terms. Do not approach them in person or by phone, send them a message that they can read when they are ready. Apologize. State that you are interested in going forward in whatever way they deem fit. Note that you will not contact them in any way, shape, or form unless there is explicit interest from them. Ask if there are any mutual locations you should temporarily or permanently stop visiting. Tell them that you will not approach them in public or message them again unless that is something they are interested in. If they do respond, respect their wishes. If they don’t respond, respect their space and time. Do not double message them. Seek help. Talk to a friend that you trust. Seek out a therapist if it is financially feasible (there are many sliding scale options in large cities across Canada.) It should be a priority for you to figure out the root of your behaviour and try to fix it.
III. ASKING FOR CONSENT
A few times after the sexual assault, I tried to speak with Daniel about consent and how to apply it to our sexual relationship. These memories are particularly foggy. The first time I brought it up, I mentioned it was because “the first time we had sex was not entirely consensual.” I was nervous to talk about it and afraid he would get upset. He did not address my comment towards the first time we had sex. Instead, he explained to me that due to his own negative feelings about his body, that talking about sex made him feel anxious about sex. He also said that talking about sex during sex made it feel like I didn’t trust him, and that using the word consent made him feel like he was doing things I didn’t want him to do. I tried to find middle ground, and he began to get frustrated as the conversation went on. I dropped it. That night I spoke to some friends about what to do when someone you’re sleeping with has issues with self-image making consent in sex difficult. One of my friends (and I love him for this) reiterated that you cannot have sex without consent and that sex without consent is sexual assault. He suggested that if we could not find middle ground, we should stop sleeping together.
I sent a long text message to Daniel that night outlining that consent was extremely important to me and that if we were going to continue to have sex we would need to find middle ground.
A few days later, we went to eat at a restaurant. Things were awkward, but fine. We ordered some food when suddenly he became quite angry and began speaking about how my text message had hurt his feelings. He began to raise his voice a bit, which frightened me. I went to the bathroom to collect myself, and when I came back, I told him that I didn’t want to have the conversation right then because we were in public. He said something along the lines of ‘you can’t run away from your problems, you need to address them.’ I began to cry and told him that I felt embarrassed and wanted to go somewhere more private. Against my wishes, he continued, talking about how bad I made him feel and that if I needed to have verbal consent during sex that we should stop sleeping together. I apologized for sending the message and agreed that we should stop sleeping together. I noted that I supposed this meant we were breaking up.
It was during festival season and he had a big show coming up. Not knowing we were going to argue, I had brought him a gift. I gave it to him and he replied something along the lines of ‘if we hadn’t hooked up I’d tell you that I love you.’ I told him I loved him too. We left the restaurant and he was cheery again, chatting like we were friends. That evening we ended up at the same comedy show. He sat down next to me and reached for my hand, holding it the whole time.
Something about Daniel that would be impressive if it weren’t so upsetting is his ability to literally ignore the whole of what I was saying to speak to a point I had already addressed. He was able to take a conversation that stemmed from me addressing his abuse to speaking about how my words were hurtful. He did this constantly. Once he suggested that if I were going to create boundaries that hurt his feelings that I should make them and not tell him about them. This behavior leads me to think he was so distanced from the repercussions of his actions that no amount of discussion would lead to change. This eventually became the groundwork of how I mentally pulled myself out of the relationship and ended it.
If you are in a relationship with someone who you love and they do not listen to you when you set boundaries, they do not have your best interest in mind. When you love someone, you want them to have emotional safety. I was extremely lucky to move into an apartment with a bunch of lovely queers right around the time I started therapy. I recounted this behaviour one evening and one of my roommates made this comment, “You have told me that Daniel has told you that he loves you, but what does he do to show you that he loves you?” I responded by listing all of the things we could talk about in regards to comedy that I couldn’t with other people, how I loved his work and thought he was talented and great. My roommate replied, “It sounds like you have a lot in common. But what does he do to show you that he loves you?” I couldn’t think of a single thing. If reading this excerpt seems familiar to you, reflect on your relationship with the person you’re seeing. How do they show you that they love you? Do they respect your time? Do they respect your needs? Do they respect your boundaries? When you tell them something they do hurts you, do they acknowledge it and actively change? Do they check in about how the changes they are making are going and if they are working?
Of course Daniel and I had good moments. Once he found my roommate’s ukulele and started playing Tonight You Belong To Me and we sang an impromptu duet. Is that not that good good Wes Anderson shit? But just because buddy loves to play a little guitar doesn’t mean he listens to and respects your boundaries.
If someone backs you into a conversation you are not ready to have, you have the right to say no. You have the right to get up and leave without saying anything. If the conversation is not to an end of finding common ground, you do not need to have it. A good rule of thumb is to make a Want/Will/Won’t chart. In your relationship, you list what you want, what you will do, and what you won’t do. Each section is subject to change over the course of the relationship. Discuss these things with your partner. See if they match their Want/Will/Won’ts. Negotiate if you want to, but stay steadfast to your Won’ts. In this instance, Daniel was not interested in hearing what I had to say or negotiating. He was interested in asserting power. This was a common theme — every time I laid out a boundary, he would become extremely upset and relentless until I acquiesced. Tell a friend about what happened. If you’re afraid the instance will be murky in your memory later on, write some brief notes down about what happened or leave yourself a voice note. Remember that the boundaries you stated are not irrational and that you made them for a reason. Take steps to separate yourself from this partner either for a break or permanently, whichever feels safer.
If you find yourself becoming enraged when a partner is expressing the need for certain boundaries, pause. Ask for them to clearly state what they mean. Take a moment to think them over. Reflect on what is triggering your anger. Remember that you love this person, and they are telling you what they need from the relationship. Listen to them. Really listen to them. If they say they want to move to a different location to continue to talk, listen. If you care for this person then you will want to try and have this conversation in an ideal environment for both of you. Try to understand why they might be expressing these boundaries. Realize that they are sharing them with you because they love you and want to make things work. If you truly believe the boundaries laid out will be harmful to you, suggest some time away. This time away is not to serve as an ultimatum (“either you drop this or we break up!”), but more as a way to reflect on why you feel attacked by another person stating what they need to feel safe and supported. If you truly feel the boundaries won’t work, say as much and end things. If your feelings about your partner’s boundaries do not change, then do not attempt to re-enter the relationship. It is unfair to you and your partner.
IV. EMOTIONAL ABUSE
Over the course of my relationship with Daniel, he would say strange and conflicting things about my comedy. Some days he would talk about how I was going to be his boss some day. Other days he would list my accomplishments to me and tell me that I was ‘The Queen of Comedy’ in an exasperated tone of voice. Uncomfortable and confused, I would match his accomplishments with mine and tell him that he was also a very talented comedian. He would then tell me that everyone liked me more, and that he was jealous of the relationships I had with comics that he had known longer than me. I would apologize and reassure him that everyone liked him a lot.
Once he had an opportunity to elect me for a weekend featuring up-and-coming comedians and when I asked him if he did, he said, “No. Why, do you think you deserve it?”
Another instance was when he was booking a weekend and was noting that he wasn’t sure what women he should put on. I asked if he had thought of me and he said he “didn’t really consider me a stand up.”
I was asked to host a show that I had wanted to host for a while and when I told him, he told me that he was asked to do it first but couldn’t do it, so he guessed they came to me. As I got more opportunities, these comments became more frequent. My perception of my comedic ability wavered. I learned not to tell him when I got certain gigs.
This was one of the worst and most damaging parts of my relationship with Daniel. As I was new to the scene and 21 when I met him, I lived for his positive comments towards my comedy. I thought he was hilarious. I would invite him to my best shows and hope he would come (he would not). I began to question my comedic abilities. It caused me to become less confident on stage, and in turn, do worse. He’d give me small, unsolicited notes here and there. He made me feel like I wasn’t cut out for stand up, something that I loved, and I believed him.
If you are dating someone who makes you feel that you are not good at the thing you love to do, they are not worth your time. Do not even combat their mean comments. If you can leave, do so. Someone who loves you should be your biggest fan. That doesn’t mean they have to lie and say everything you do is perfect, but they should never make you feel ashamed for your accomplishments or try to get you to compare them to theirs. Loving someone else is an extremely vulnerable position. Whether they realize it or not, their opinions on your passions matter because you trust and value their judgement. You do not need someone who is constantly putting you down or making you question your work. Seriously, if this sounds familiar, tell a friend that you trust. Try to remember that you are valuable and your work is valuable. You deserve someone who recognizes that.
If you find yourself putting down your partner’s work, first and foremost, stop it. There is no productive benefit to being cruel. Are you providing constructive criticism because you love them and want to see them do their best? Did they ask you for your opinion? If both of those things are not present, leave it alone. Think about what insecurities are driving you to compare yourself to them. Reflect on more conducive ways to deal with your internal issues. Apologize sincerely and speak to your own internal conflict that caused you to think it was appropriate to make comments like the ones you did. Speak to how you know this is not an excuse. Reiterate that you support them and that you do believe in their abilities. If you find yourself feeling competitive again, remember that your partner’s success is not an indication of your own ability or inability. Seek help.
V. DISRESPECTING BOUNDARIES
Over the course of our relationship we had broken up three times, the third being the most recent and the most final. The pattern of each break up was the same. Problems would build until ultimately I told Daniel I wanted to be left alone. He would continue to contact me. I would block and delete him on facebook, twitter, and instagram as he would continue to try and message me. During the first break up, because he was blocked everywhere else, he messaged me trying to talk through tinder (where we had matched when we were still friends), so I deleted the app. During the second break up, after clearly asking him to leave me alone and him failing to respect my wishes, I also blocked his number because of messages he would send me like ‘what if I/we die before we resolve this?’ and ‘are you going to ignore me forever?’ He solicited a friend to speak to me at a rehearsal we were both in. I felt scared. He knew where I lived. He had walked me to my office. I showed my office colleague a photo of him and spoke a little bit about what happened. We spoke about what we would do if he showed up. Daniel continued to contact me over the course of a few months until I told him I would involve the police if he didn’t stop.
When we spoke between the second and third break, he expressed that he didn’t think he could handle me cutting him out ever again and that it made him extremely upset. I noted that his repeated crossing of my stated boundaries made me feel like he was going to show up at my house or place of work. To that he said, “I was going to.”
At one point when we were trying to be friends he decided (after my many attempts to get him to go) to make an appointment with a therapist. I asked him if he needed support. He suggested that we meet at a coffee shop before his appointment. After some small talk, he asked me if I was hooking up with or seeing anyone else. I told him that it made me uncomfortable to talk about. He pressured me until I told him. At one point I went to the bathroom and left my phone on the table and he asked if he could go through it while I was away.
The third and most recent break up I was explicit in asking for space. We had been fighting a lot and I recognized that we could no longer be friends. I voiced that, and he blocked and deleted me on all social media. I took it as him moving on and I did too. A month later he unblocked me and messaged me an apology that I didn’t respond to. A few weeks later he asked me to go for coffee as if nothing had happened. I declined and reiterated that I still did not want any contact and that if he continued to contact me I would block him. He sent me a message asking me to ‘help him out’ and putting forward a bunch of questions, many repetitive, asking why I needed space and what I thought about him or how I felt about him. Again, I blocked him on everything, including his number and email. A few weeks later he tried to speak to me when I was helping with setup on a show he was doing. I was on a ladder, alone, fixing some lights with nowhere to go. I had to literally yell for help from another colleague. A few months later, during a festival we were both in, he approached me twice in the green room when I was alone and attempted to start a casual conversation as if nothing had happened. I stayed silent until he walked away. The next day he emailed me from a different email address (I had blocked the one I had in my contacts). In July his mom added me on facebook — I am still unsure about whether she misclicked (I had only met her once) or an accidental or intentional add on his part through his mom’s profile.
In August, after a colleague and I spoke to the manager of an anti-oppressive event space about Daniel’s behaviour, the manager decided he wanted to cancel Daniel’s upcoming show. Through a series of miscommunications, the manager of the space revealed me and my colleague had brought Daniel’s behaviour to the manager’s attention. When he heard the news, Daniel proceeded to repeatedly message my colleague, and when she didn’t respond, show up at her apartment unannounced. When my colleague alerted me of Daniel’s behaviour, I was filled with fear. I called my roommates to see if anyone had come to our place. We created a plan for if he did show up; whoever answered the door would say I didn’t live there anymore and if he tried to come in, we would call the police. I was supposed to perform at my friend’s wedding that night, but I cancelled because I was too afraid to leave my house.
This is perhaps the most blatant example of Daniel’s complete disregard for my boundaries. What makes this more troubling is how he considers himself a feminist and ‘good guy’ and was still able to cross my boundaries without a second thought so easily, so many times, in such obvious ways. Daniel’s refusing to acknowledge my personal space or needs filled me with fear. His behaviour felt unpredictable. Some nights I repeatedly checked to make sure I had locked my door. I found myself watching the street from my balcony, fearing I would see him round the corner. I slept with my bedroom window shut and moved my dresser in front of it because it backed onto a fire escape. Some nights I mixed pills and alcohol to fall asleep, some nights I did not fall asleep at all. Whether or not these behaviours were rational, they all stemmed from the idea that my boundaries had been crossed so many times, I was not able to feel safe in places that were supposed to be safe. I felt unstable. Daniel’s ability to do something awful and then act like everything was fine made me feel like nothing had actually happened and that my feelings must be misplaced. This feeling of instability is what caused me to see a therapist in the first place.
If you find yourself in this situation, if you can, tell someone. Tell as many people that you trust as you can. If it is safe, tell people you live with. If you live alone, tell your neighbours. Tell your colleagues. Boil it down to, ‘this person I used to date will not leave me alone no matter how much I ask. I’m afraid they might show up. They look like _____. Let’s make a plan for what happens if they do.’ My therapist suggested that I make a plan for what I would do if he showed up in the situations that made me feel most anxious or vulnerable. In the moment it can be hard to scream, or run, or if they act like nothing weird is happening, be impolite. If you have a plan beforehand, it’s easy to fall back on. If you both perform at or frequent certain places or communities, tell a friend that is also attending and go to the event together. Meet up with people to walk to and from work or home. If you feel comfortable involving the police, do so. If you feel comfortable going more public with their name and behaviour, do so. Both of those felt very hard for me to do. Try to be insistent in being asked to be left alone. Try not to give in to responding to messages as there is no reasoning with someone who cannot respect ‘leave me alone’ the first time. If they get violent over messages, take screen shots.
If a someone tells you to leave them alone, leave them alone. There is no reason to continue to contact someone after they have asked you not to. It is not romantic. You will not convince them to change their mind. If they do change their mind, they will contact you. However it is very unlikely they will change their mind. By continuing to contact them, you are pushing them further away. Do not show up at their work or home announced or unannounced regardless of the circumstance. Do not solicit mutual friends to disrupt them at their place of work. Do not approach them in person. Leave them alone. You cannot simultaneously respect their wishes and continue to contact them. There is no middle ground. There is no exception to this rule.
VI. HOW TO HELP
There is a common misconception that when we are a friend, colleague, or partner hearing about another person’s sexual assault, that there is not much we can do as the abuse has already taken place. As with any horrible systemic problem, it is useful to publically denounce these bad behaviours in relation to current events on facebook/twitter/instagram (ie. condemning Weinstein/ Woody Allen/ Cosby). However, it can be tempting to stop there. In order to truly start to change the way society handles sexual assault and emotional abuse, we must be active in our pursuit of halting it. This means being proactive and reactive in our approaches to instances of these types of violence. Doing so should not be considered ‘extra work’. It should be considered the minimum of what can be done to support those we love and to break down oppressive systems that favour abusers and perpetuate violence.
AS A FRIEND
If a friend tells you they have been assaulted or emotionally abused, your first job is to listen. Sometimes it will come in coded language. An old colleague of mine who worked as a student support brought to my attention that she had found her students often prefaced stories of assault or abuse by saying, ‘something weird happened’. Listen closely for those words and give them full attention. Assault and abuse can be very confusing. Tell them that you love them and believe them and thank them for telling you. Express that the information they are sharing will be kept confidential, and stay true to your word. Ask them if there’s anything you can do to support them, whether it’s cooking them a meal or deleting the abuser off of facebook. You do not need to relate to them to show that you believe and support them. You do not need to give them advice. You just need to recognize that what happened to them was awful. Check in with them occasionally to see how they’re doing and if they need support. Offer to travel with them in high risk areas. Tell them that they can contact you if anything weird happens. If in conversations with other friends, people begin to gossip about what might have happened, shut it down. Speak on the topic to whatever extent the survivor has told you they are okay with. Protect your friend’s reputation. I had a friend offer to speak to Daniel on my behalf to try and get him to stop contacting me. If you feel you are able to do that in a way that keeps you and your friend safe, do so. If you see your friend re-entering a relationship with someone they have told you is an abuser, arrange to speak with them privately. Express your concern from a place of love. Do not get angry, there are reasons they may be going back that are complicated and take time to unknot. Tell them you will support them in the decisions they make, but that you are worried for them. If you have a relationship where you feel you can be explicit, tell them that you think they are putting themselves in danger and that they should contact you if anything weird happens. Check in in with them. Also, just hang out with them. A large part of my staying in that awful relationship with Daniel was because I was lonely. I wanted a close friend, and I felt very close to him. The relationship began to become less valuable once I was able to fill my life with people who actually loved and cared about me.
AS A COLLEAGUE
If a colleague tells you they were sexually assaulted, you fill a role very common to a friend. Depending on how close you are to the person, you can offer a similar emotional support. The difference lies in your relationship to the abuser. In my case, my colleagues may run shows or rooms or theatres. Do not book the abuser on the same line ups as the survivor. Hell, don’t book the abuser at all. If you are interested in proactively making your space more accessible, you do not need an abuser on the bill no matter how talented they are. Again, when turning down an abuser’s request to be on your show, ask the survivor whether or not they want to be mentioned. If they do not, tell the abuser there is a scheduling error and that you’ll be in touch with them when you have a spot, then don’t get in touch. Preserving the survivor’s anonymity is of utmost importance if that is what they are interested in. If the survivor says you can mention them, inform the abuser that you will not be booking them due to information you have obtained about their actions and that therefore they are not welcome in the space. Be steadfast in these decisions. Make a proactive statement about your show/room/theatre. State on a sign in your space or in your facebook event that you will not tolerate abuse of any kind. Book people whose acts reflect that. Educate yourself on systemic, institutional, and everyday oppression. Reflect on your inherent privilege due to your identity and recognize that you may not know how to fully address this issue. Talk about it with other showrunners and venue owners. Create systems of support. With the permission of the survivor, share names of abusive people with other showrunners. Create an anonymous feedback form. Allow people to call you out, and thank them for bringing ways you could be more accessible to your attention.
AS A PARTNER
If you begin to date someone who has been sexually assaulted or emotionally abused, recognize that boundaries may be outlined with more intensity than your previous relationships. Enter these conversations with the knowledge that you did not cause your partner to develop these anxieties, but that because they are present, you must approach them with care. If you are actively trying to respect your partner’s boundaries, try not to take some of their behaviour personally. I began to see someone after breaking up with Daniel, and upon going back to her apartment and hooking up for the first time I promptly had a panic attack and left with little explanation in the middle of the night. I dated another woman and despite my attraction to her I could not bring myself to be physically intimate past a hug hello and goodbye. Both of these women were extremely understanding and wonderful of my arguably unusual behaviour. I held onto anxiety that they were taking my actions personally when in reality they had done nothing wrong and I was constantly having my own internal freak outs. To some extent they did think that they caused the behaviour, which we would discuss at length until it was clear that they were not at fault.Try to be patient with your partner. They will speak to their experience when they can, if they can. They might still be figuring out what happened and how it has ultimately affected them. They might not have a clue. Express when things your partner does upset you, as you are not supposed to suffer in silence either. However, note that it will be a slightly slower trajectory to change. There will be some days that are better and some that are worse. Try not to chalk that up to them being ‘hard to read’. In fact, never tell them that they are hard to read. If you do not understand something, ask them about it from a loving place. Note that because you care about them, and that because this situation is different from most, you need to have better communication. When they set a boundary, respect it. When they realize their boundaries are different and need to shift them around, respect those changes. Check in. If they seem uncomfortable, they probably are. Ask them with care if there is something wrong and if they want to talk about it. I have found it extremely difficult to be emotionally vulnerable with new romantic partners on a conscious and subconscious level. This became clear with another person I dated. When she rightfully expressed concern over my inability to respond to her messages in a timely manner, I would often be confused at my own actions, and attempt to decipher if my behaviour was out of laziness, attempting to push her away, or if I had internalized the behaviour of my abuser. The last of those reasons became a great fear of mine- that I would unconsciously begin to treat the people I loved poorly because my own perception of love had been so warped. All to say, there was a lot going on in my brain that had very little to do with the people I was seeing. I tried to be open and consistent with my communication, but it is not always going to be easy. Being with someone who was emotionally abused or sexually assaulted does not mean that you have to be a martyr or do everything right. It just means that things might work a little differently than if you were dating someone without those experiences. Speak to when you don’t feel good about things, and create a dynamic where your partner can too.
If it’s not obvious, I am by no means an expert. These excerpts of advice come from my experience and what kind of support I received and some that I wish I was offered. Survivors vary in what they want, the most important thing is to listen to them and respect what they ask of you. Though their memories might be foggy at some points, survivors are the experts in their own experience. They will tell you what they want and need. Do not presuppose these things, especially in terms of outing their names or the names of their abusers without their consent. A lot about my recovery has been regaining control over my life and resetting and re-enforcing my boundaries. To have someone, though with the intent of care, disrupt these things can be extremely upsetting.
VII. IN CLOSING
So, that is what happened to me, how someone else might deal with those instances if they find themselves in them, and how a perpetrator of abuse might question themselves and correct their behaviour. To reiterate, in offering my thoughts on options for those on the receiving end of abuse, it is not meant to serve as ‘what should have been done’. In abuse and assault, what happens is never the fault of the survivor. I hope in sharing my experience and the actions I took afterward that other survivors feel seen, or might have a better idea of their options moving forward. It is not a definitive list and every survivor is different. When in doubt ask the survivor what they need. This is just a jumping off point for greater conversation. In regards to my advice for those on the perpetrating end, I hope it is a catalyst for reflection. I have read so many posts from cisgendered men outraged by the Weinstein case. I am willing to wager that unintentionally or intentionally, those men have exhibited similar behaviour to that which I have listed here in some form or another. Sometimes they do so without even realizing it. This can be a product of inherent privilege and what cisgendered men have been taught is permissible behaviour. Again, sexual assault is a crime of power. Some identities in our society hold more power than others. Whether people within those identities actively abuse that right, they still benefit from it. Therefore, they have the responsibility to fight against it. For cisgendered men who ask how they can stop contributing to this culture; I started a list. Again, it is not definitive, and it is not a perfect list for every survivor and their needs in terms of support. But it is a place for cisgendered dudes to check their behaviour and that of their friends, colleagues, neighbours, and family members in order to change their own habits and effect change in others. It is also important to note that there are many survivors who do not care for the rehabilitation of their abusers. That is completely valid. For me, I was interested in laying these things out. It was healing for me to do so. Do not expect this behaviour from other survivors, they do not owe you, or their abusers, a damn thing.
Also extremely important to note, I addressed cisgendered men above because I have noted a disproportionately high amount of cisgendered men who are shocked about stories of assault and what can be done about it. However, many cisgendered men have been sexually assaulted and emotionally abused. They too are survivors, and they deserve the same support. I am a cisgendered woman who was assaulted by a cisgendered man, so I spoke to my experience. However, the experiences of others should not be discounted or overlooked.
My recovery has been a long and painful one and it is still ongoing. I am going to be in therapy dealing with these feelings for a long time. I could not have gotten out of the relationship or progressed to the point I have without the unwavering support of my friends, family, and therapists. I am extremely lucky to have such a supportive community. If you are hurting or if something has happened to you, if you can, please tell someone. Getting out of my abusive relationship with Daniel was one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was worse before it got better. I could not have done it alone, and you do not need to do it alone.
Below are some resources from my friend Maya Koparkar:
- McGill Nightline: A peer resource offering a confidential, anonymous and non-judgemental listening, run by McGill students. Services include active listening, resource referrals and crisis management. 514–398–6246. http://ssmu.mcgill.ca/nightline
- Office for Sexual Violence, Response, Support, and Education: Resource run through the Office of the Dean of Students; for active listening as well as for addressing complaints and facilitating disciplinary action. They have trained Sexual Assault Respondents available on campus. http://www.mcgill.ca/osvrse/
- McGill Peer Support Centre: The Peer Support Centre offers free, non-judgemental peer support, and can help direct you toward other available resources. http://ssmu.mcgill.ca/psc/
- SACOMSS: The Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society is a volunteer-run organization committed to supporting survivors of sexual assault and their allies through direct support, advocacy, and outreach. Their services include Drop-In and Line (DIAL), Support Groups, Advocacy, and Outreach. http://www.sacomss.org/
- Tel-Aide: 514–935–1101. Offers 24/7 free, anonymous, non-judgmental listening centre for people in distress in both English and French.http://www.telaide.org/en/
Here are some resources from Toronto that I have gathered:
This site offers a number of resources, though not much information about each. They also offer services for contacting the police, though that may not feel like a plausible option for some survivors:
This site has resources for kids and teens with more extensive explanations of what is offered at each service. It also offers resources for specific genders:
This website offers crisis and assault shelters as well as a legal clinic:
Here are resources from the human rights campaign for survivors in the LGBT community:
Here are LGBT phone lines and resources for across Canada:
You are not alone. I believe you. You are valid, and I support you.