When I was a sophomore in college, I met a girl I’ll call Megan. I met her through a guy who asked me out on a date–a date that crashed and burned when it became clear he wanted more to happen that night than dinner and a romantic comedy. Megan told me later on that this boy had assaulted her one night at a party; I refused to believe her. Why? Because she and this boy were part of a bigger circle of friends who ate lunch together daily, in the same booth, in the campus dining hall. At the time, I couldn’t fathom how or why she could stand to be around him if what she said was true. In my mind, she was not acting like I thought a “true victim” should.
In one act of terrible judgment, I told her what I thought of the situation. Needless to say, we are no longer friends. Two years later, after ending my own abusive relationship, I realized how wrong I was to judge her. The same accusations I made toward her–Why do you still hang out with him? Why haven’t you pressed charges?–were the same questions I would face from some of my own friends. It was then that I realized the dynamic of abusive relationships and sexual abuse, in general, is far more complex than we realize.
Because sexual abuse is such a complex, personal topic, I understand that not everyone will agree with my conclusions about what “counts,” or how victims “should act.” That’s okay; what really matters is that we are willing to suspend our judgments long enough to give people a chance to be heard.
For all I know, acting like nothing had changed was Megan’s way of deflecting the severity of what had happened to her. Maybe she was afraid of not being believed, of putting her friends through the stress of having to choose sides. Maybe that boy threatened her with more violence if she told. All or none of these possibilities could be true–if not for Megan, then certainly for scores of other women.
There are many things I could say about how to act (or how not to act) toward someone who has experienced abuse, but every person’s story is different, and every person will respond in his or her own way. One fact remains true: rape and sexual assault are some of the most underreported crimes in America, if not the world. Many perpetrators of these atrocities never see a day in court, or the inside of a prison cell. This is largely because shame and social stigmas prevent people from coming forward.
Not knowing how to define abuse for myself, I kept away from words like “victim” and “survivor.” But to live productively in a world full of judgment and condemnation, continuing to forge healthy relationships despite dealing with lingering damage, is indeed surviving something.
Excerpted from Someone You Already Know