More than just “that girl”: on the treatment of sexual assault survivors

I sat there at the familiar coffeeshop basking in the presence of old friends and well-wishers, gulping down copious amounts of the bitter liquid while reliving memories with old friends and sharing thoughts with new ones, our conversations ranging from the Tea Party to our favorite foods to three-legged babies.

As with most of our conversations, this one took a turn toward gender equality and, in the course of the conversation, a woman I’d just met revealed to me she is a survivor of sexual assaults. Until that moment, I simply could not tell — she is intelligent, well-adjusted, charming and possesses various thoughts and dreams that seem just as “normal” as those of us who have had the privilege of not having lived through sexual assaults.

As we each said our goodbyes and I continued on my way, this woman was on my mind, as were many other women in my life who are survivors of sexual assaults. I was glad that I’d gotten to know each of them as human beings first and sexual assault survivors second, for there were more to who they are than their statuses as survivors. In short, their survivor statuses were only a small part of who they are as human beings, and a smaller part of their complete humanity, equipped with wide ranges of emotions, thoughts, needs, and characteristics. Yet, it also made me realize that too often, in our desire to support sexual assault survivors, too many of us make the mistake of seeing survivors as merely that, and thus, rather than seeing them as human beings who happened to also be survivors, we see survivors as “that girl.”

Although this treatment of survivors, no doubt, stems from a desire to do good, it also prevents survivors from being more than their statuses. Too many times, I’ve heard stories from friends whose identities are human beings have been lost after telling their stories of sexual assaults. The people who come into interaction with them either treat them as fragile victims who always need comfort, or as a burden that is too much to handle. Many of my survivor friends have had their relationships broken because significant others did not know how to treat them, shying away from them instead, for fear they might accidentally trigger a response that brings on flashbacks. Others label them as being too complicated to understand, and that their emotional needs, should there be any, are too much to handle, for the friends themselves do not the lived experiences to comfort or to make the situations better.

A particular story sticks out to me. A few years ago, in my research on sexual assaults and prevention, a survivor told the story of how her boyfriend became less involved after she was assaulted. This wasn’t because he did not want to support her, but because he saw her only as a survivor, and as such, defined their relationship based on her survivor status.

“He stopped being affectionate toward me,” she wrote. “It was as if he thought I was broken. We eventually parted because neither he couldn’t deal with the fact that I was a survivor.”

These stories stick out to me, because they highlight an important fact: that while the focus on the prevention of sexual assaults as important, it is just as important to focus on the post-assault treatment of survivors. How we treat survivors matters because it means the difference between giving back survivors their power and identity, allowing them the chance to be the person they wish to be, or forever labeling them based on an experience that, while traumatic and deserves our full attention, is only a small part of their complete humanity. Having already lost certain powers and identities, our treatment of survivors as only survivors only buries them deeper and takes more away from them.

To be sure, these stories aren’t taking place in the deep South where gender equality and feminism seem to be lacking. They are taking place on college campuses and news media, New York City and Boston, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles — all bastions of liberalism. This, then, isn’t a matter of being unwilling to support, but rather, being myopic in such support, and an over-abundant desire to help, which ends up making it worst for some survivors.

Hearing some of my friends speak about their experiences also lead me to believe that we aren’t focusing enough on giving friends and families, intimate partners and supporters, of survivors the tools they need to understand the complexity of sexual assaults and how to best support survivors after the fact. The cause of sexual assaults has many layers, and it’s important to peel back all layers to find the solutions we need. But it is also important that we focus on the treatment of survivors, because post-assault support – which in some cases means just leaving the survivors alone — is just as important as finding the cause and solution.

In the end, Elizabeth Smart is more than just the Mormon girl who was kidnapped and raped when she was 14. Smart is also a missionary, a college student, sister, daughter and friend. Lara Logan is more than just a rape survivor while covering the Egypt uprising. She is also a wife, mother and journalist. My friends are more than just victims and survivors, they are lovers, friends, daughters, college students, Soldiers and so many other others.

Until we see them as such, until we stop seeing survivors as mere survivors, but rather, human beings who so happened to have been assaulted, we are doing little to help them as human beings. By focusing only on their assaults, we prevent ourselves from knowing them as human beings, and as such, it hurts them because we only accept and define them as a small part of who they are. It also hurts us because it prevents us from learning from them, their thoughts and dreams, their other experiences and so many other worthwhile lessons that will help us become better human beings

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