From derailing, to gaslighting, to unsolicited advice: people derail important conversations held by survivors of sexual assault.
TW/CW: this article discusses sexual assault/violence as well as gaslighting of a sexual assault survivor
By Gloria Oladipo
Sometimes, to shame the devil, we have to share our secrets. Especially when it comes to exposing predators in our midst—there is no room to comfort abusers. We have to share secrets that are the underbellies of our communities, the ones that “everyone knows” but no one actually talks about. We have to share secrets to keep our loved ones safe. We have to share secrets because silence is too comfortable, leaving survivors on the periphery and abusers still cared for.
At Cornell University, there is a serial rapist and predator who pretends to be a student and claims to be a part of several organizations. Like a chameleon, he hides, maneuvering his way into parties and social gatherings to prey on Black women. He even has a Tinder profile because why only ruin lives in person when the internet makes it easier? We talked for two weeks. He looked attractive, but he was slightly nerdy and came across as shy, tripping over himself to be respectful. He would disappear for days, leaving a trail of broken promises and deflated expectations in his wake. So when things went ok — well, even — I negotiated with myself, told myself to relax and not give in to my typical trauma responses. I told myself: “Give him a chance. Just give someone a chance.” And I did until I realized how many lives he destroyed because of how easy it was to abuse Black girls.
When I shared what happened online and alerted different university group chats about him, the response was positive. I had support, made fellowship among other survivors, and received gratitude for speaking up, for sharing the secret. But, even among the approving actions, some derailed the dialogue and purposefully or not, immobilized our discussions with their ego, their cruelty, and more. Saying “enough” in the face of wickedness is hard; saying “enough” under the criticism and conceit of others is almost unbearable.
As we have these conversations, how do we do it with generosity and care? Here are 4 things people do that harm conversations about sexual violence:
1. They won’t fucking listen
When you are in pain, people are so quick to offer help, too much and the wrong kind. They give you aspirin, crutches, an ice pack, and antiseptic when all you needed was a bandage. That’s what conversations exposing sexual violence look like. One or more come forward, giving voice to a community ill. With so many of us uncomfortable with pain and our mutual, failed attempts to stop it, we pile on “our help.” We offer suggestions that no one asked for (“Have you reported him? Have you called the police?”). They create groups of supposed leaders on campus to “fix” the community after years of no action and countless rumors of predation and assault. People send unsolicited regards, questions, tools, suggestions, and demands.
“Please just share the message, tell your friends, and stay safe.” That is all I asked for and instead, I’m met with all of these things that aren’t helping me. Listening is hard. Listening when you want to help is hard, but it hurts so much to be ignored. Help me in the ways that I am asking to be helped. Help us in the ways that we are asking to be helped. Anything and everything else that is not centering our needs is suspicious, performative, and unhelpful.
2. They take up so much space
Ego is one of the most useless things to offer during vulnerable conversations. When a person is confiding in you, showing you hidden parts of themselves, it is the worst time to try and center yourself. Oftentimes, when people witness atrocities, they scenario-play what they would do. Similarly, when men witness issues like sexual violence, their first reaction is something like: “If I see this man, I’ll kill him” or “You all should arm yourselves with [insert various assortment of weaponry that’s oddly accessible].” To me, the worst one of all may be, “If I were you, I would make a report.”
It does a disservice to all survivors when people center themselves and take away room from those coming forward with their experiences. These demands of what we as survivors should do are incredulous. Don’t you think we’ve considered arming ourselves? Why are we, people targeted by sexual violence, expected to enforce our own safety? Haven’t you seen the stack of reports in his file in the Title IX office? Why are people so reliant on official channels that only mimic accountability? Most of these responses come from those who have never had to use these woefully mismanaged and harmful channels.
Keep your opinion to yourself. Don’t play “Choose Your Own Adventure” with the trauma we expose to keep you safe from similar experiences. Save your commentary for your diary. Whether online or in-person, I promise you that ten out of ten times, no one gives a fuck what you would do. Keep your ears up and your mouth shut.
3. They try to “problem solve”
Similarly to the first two issues, the same goes for people trying to “problem solve,” especially when survivors are not asking you to. Sometimes (most of the time), the best thing to do in the face of a crisis is to build on what already exists compared to trying to create something new. When I exposed my abuser at Cornell online, there was a flurry of “student leaders” trying to create a debrief event when there was already one being coordinated by another survivor in the community. In the aftermath of sexual violence there is power in survivors working with each other because we are centering those who have been harmed.
There are so many considerations and tools that mostly only survivors and affected parties would think of. That’s why it’s so important, even with the fuel of good intentions, to center survivors always. Keep your ego in check and stay out of our way.
Recommended: 6 ESSENTIAL RESOURCES FOR VICTIMS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT
4. They invalidate survivors
If I tell you I’m bleeding, don’t make me prove it to you. Don’t ask to see the cut or demand intricate stories about how I got it. Don’t tell me that you have bled before and that I’m not acting like someone with a laceration should act. All of these basic guidelines concerning empathy towards someone else’s pain is not how people react to sexual assault. When I first posted in group chats about sexual violence happening in our community, people came with all kinds of questions and demands, all ones that felt invalidating.
Some asked me to detail what he “did” to me, as if that was anyone’s business. One person sent me a lengthy message about how I was “widely regarded” as hostile and aggressive and that I needed to be more open to other people’s problematic discussions in the group chat. When I told them to leave me alone, they retorted that I needed to “reflect” more and that since they were a survivor, they were trustworthy and could tell me how to process this situation and act in the future.
The litmus testing that we as survivors do to each other is one of the most frustrating things—silencing the specifics of other people’s trauma to assert what we think is best, is harmful. It was particularly violent and disheartening when another student discouraged myself and others from coming forward; she continually asserted that the group chat “wasn’t the right setting” and warned that we could be ruining reputations. Even as other similar experiences with the same abuser flooded the chat, she demanded that we stop talking. Even as I tried to approach her privately and asked that she apologize to another survivor she had put down, she told me to “grow up” and posted our private message in the group chat (one with over 1,000 people), ridiculing me publically. Obviously, her actions were extremely vile and cruel, but the attitude of “I am correct” is more common.
In these conversations, there is no room to comfort abusers. Each survivor will deal with sexual assault in a way that honors how they need to process what happened to them. Disrupting the conversation to play ‘devil’s advocate’ is additional, unnecessary violence.
Conversations on sexual violence are hard to have. They fucking hurt. But, if we want to protect ourselves and each other, if we want to keep abusers out of our community, we need to tell these secrets and figure out how to facilitate spaces where they can be held safely and respectfully.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a sophomore at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @glorels.