7 Pitfalls to Avoid When Dating a Sexual Assault Survivor

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Sarah Beaulieu struggled to find the right way to tell people she was a sexual assault survivor. Here’s how you can support someone who opens up about sexual assault.

As a survivor of sexual violence, I always found it challenging to “come out” to a potential love interest about my history.  It never seemed to come up naturally in conversation on a date.

There is no right or wrong approach to telling a date that you are a survivor of sexual violence. It’s a completely personal decision, and you have to figure out what works for you. In college, one of my big motivations for sharing my story publicly at Take Back the Night was to share it with the entire universe of potential love interests all at once, so I didn’t have to tell it again and again every time I met someone new.

As the years went on, I experimented with many different tactics. Sometimes, I told people on the first date. Sometimes I told them BEFORE the first date. Sometimes I told them over coffee. Sometimes I told them after a second round of drinks. Sometimes, the relationship fizzled out before I had a chance to share my story at all.

On the one hand, I never felt like I wanted to hide my history of sexual violence from dates, just like I wouldn’t hide the death of a parent or a bad car accident. Being a survivor—and the resilience that goes along with it—is such a deep part of who I am. I knew I needed a partner with an appropriate level of spiritual depth, emotional intelligence, and empathy to join me on my lifelong journey of being a survivor. On the other hand, it was a personal story and one that I didn’t necessarily want to share in detail with someone unless I saw a future together.

Ultimately, I learned to open the door to my history a little bit at a time, in ways that tracked with the developing intimacy with the relationship. For example, I referred to “darker times,” or mentioned that I saw a therapist regularly. When I started volunteering at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center as a medical advocate and then as a survivor speaker, I found ways to drop volunteer experiences into the conversation. I found ways to start the conversation, and decided how deep I wanted to go based on the response.

As a survivor and as a human, I can only be the expert in my own experience. But throughout my decade of dating, I picked up a few pointers when it comes to encountering a survivor of sexual violence on a date.

♦◊♦

DO educate yourself. If you have never encountered a sexual violence survivor, please, please educate yourself before going on any more dates.  One out of four women and one out of six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Chances are, you will go on a date with a survivor, so do yourself and your future dates a favor and start learning about the issue now.  There are lots of places where you can go educate yourself at a place like RAINN, National Sexual Violence Resource Center, or 1in6, and here’s a link to a fact sheet from the Center for Disease Control.  That way, you won’t put yourself in the positions of asking your date to be your teacher and you are much less likely to say something that will later regret.

DON’T assume it’s baggage. I remember the look I would sometimes get from dates, “Oh god, this chick has baggage.”  Newsflash: All humans have baggage, it’s what makes us human. Being a survivor of sexual violence does not make you inherently damaged. Sure, it’s a trauma, but with proper, professional help, survivors can live and thrive in the world. And like I now tell my husband when we go away for the weekend: I may have a lot of baggage, but I’m strong enough to carry it myself.

Don’t try to fix it. Even if this person is at the beginning of the process, you do not need to save or fix the person. Sure, sometimes the person sharing might be doing so because they need some help, in which case you can refer them to a professional. You are probably not a therapist. And even if you are, you are on a date, not in a therapy session. If you want to fix something, try fixing the issue of sexual violence by talking about it more openly, volunteering with an anti-sexual violence organization, or attending an awareness or prevention workshop or event.

Do say something. This might be obvious. But stunned, open-mouthed silence was something I encountered far too often. You might be afraid of saying the wrong thing, but say something, anything. Try saying thank you. Whether it’s the first time or the 50th time sharing a story of sexual assault, it’s a hard thing to do. This person trusted you—yes you!—enough to tell you, so be grateful—and pumped—that you are that kind of person.

Here are some other suggestions if you find yourself at a loss for words:

  • Wow, thank you for telling me that. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for you.
  • I’m so grateful you trusted me enough to share that part of your life.
  • No one has ever shared that kind of story with me before, but I’m really glad you did. I know sexual violence impacts so many people.
  • I’m so sorry that happened to you. What kinds of things helped you along the way?

Don’t put your foot in your mouth. If you have taken the time to educate yourself, you probably won’t say any of these things: What were you wearing?  Why were you alone? Were you drunk? Was there a condom? Are you sure? That’s can’t be true. Who was it? How can you still speak to your family? Why didn’t you report it to the police? That must make sex really hard for you. 

Do call to follow up. If you decide you don’t like the person enough to continue dating them, call them. Go the extra step to let them know that you think they are brave/courageous/insert true and positive adjective here but that you don’t feel that special something you want to feel in order to go out on another date. Don’t make your date wonder whether you thought he or she was damaged goods because of sexual violence.

Don’t blab. Keep his or her confidence, even if you don’t continue dating. While we continue to reduce the shame and stigma around sexual violence, it’s still a personal story. It’s not to announce to your friends and families, or to gossip about online or in person. Hold and honor this story with respect and confidence. It’s not your story to tell.

Now that I’m married, I don’t have to share my story on romantic dates, but I still meet new friends and colleagues all the time.  And while I don’t have to tell them about my history of sexual violence, I often do because I think it’s an important way to make the issue more accessible and personal. By doing so, I hope to make it easier for friends, dates, and regular people to talk openly about the things that make them who they are.

 

Image: Flickr/ thurlbut

About Sarah Beaulieu

Sarah is the founder of The Enliven Project, a campaign to bring sexual violence out of the closet and more truth-telling to the world. Sarah has over 15 years experience in managing complex relationships and partnerships, fundraising, and systematic approaches to change. She is a sexual violence survivor and a truth teller, a poet, an intuitive, wife, mom, and a loyal friend. Views expressed here are her own. For more, visit www.theenlivenproject.com or follow her on Twitter: @sarahbeaulieu. 

Comments

  1. Suresh Singh says:

    It really breaks my heart, when I hear of a Lady go through this. I feel in weird way helpless that I can’t restore her confidence back and her dignity. I wish I could hug them and say it wasn’t your fault, please don’t hurt yourself further by thinking you did anything to cause this. It hurts me to know a man can not see how wrong he is….he wouldn’t dare to have such a wish on his female family members, but why does he think its OK to do that to another female :'( .

  2. Thanks for this article. My sister told me and my family about her assault at the Boston Crisis Center. What a great place. Your words were really helpful to me.

  3. OK, here’s a crazy idea. If this is in fact “The Good Men Project,” why not have some men write the articles? If there is a need for this kind of thing, the implication being that there is a shortage of good men, then maybe GOOD MEN could advise MEN on how to BE Good Men. I know and was raised by good men, I looked this group up, hoping to associate with more of the same.. and yet the last three or more articles I’ve seen posted were written by women. Are there NO good men you could consult? Is this group even for men at all?

    • Part of being a good man is realizing that the woman you begin to date and/or have a relationship with might share a traumatic experience of hers with you. These tips are appropriately written by a woman who was sexually assaulted, so who better to take advice from on how to respond to your significant other should they choose to share this? Also, there are a good number of articles written by men on this site, but that shouldn’t mean that advice can’t be taken from a woman. I always appreciate reading a man’s perspective on a female oriented site because it often adds another dimension to the conversation, especially it it’s related to them.

  4. I prefer to just not bring it up. Women don’t really seem to get it unless they themselves have been assaulted. The ones that don’t get it have zero clue about how it affects a man, and in many cases think less of them for it.

  5. Hi Sarah, Thanks for your story.

    I went through some terrible bullying when I was in school, not sexual abuse, but bad enough. To give you an example when I was about 12 my school principal held me about a foot off the ground and strangled me until I passed out just because I was complaining about being bullied. Even today I see things like Afghanistan prison camps and think they would be a walk in the park. (I’m not saying that’s true, just that I have had most of that done to me for 13 years of school)

    I am currently towards the end of a separation and one of the things my ex used against me in several of our arguments was that being bullied damaged me. To a certain extent it did because the first 18 years of my life was learning how to not show emotions because bullies will use them relentlessly against you. Even to this day I find it near impossible to replicate the facial expressions most people have when it comes to anger, frustration, hatred, fear, surprise and such. Now things have swung the opposite way because now I have been tormented and dehumanised by the very person I trusted because I don’t wear my feelings on my face. Because of this I think I will be very careful in how much of my story I let out in the future.

    One of the things I found was that people don’t believe you, that such things couldn’t happen, and that it was just an isolated incident. I find it extremely frustrating because they think of bullying as a couple of once off incidents and not a sustained way of life. The other thing is they don’t believe you because no one went to jail or got expelled. I would ask you honestly, if you were 10 and you just had your nose broken by some bullies parents, your parents didn’t believe you, the teachers don’t believe you, the school principal hates you, then who is left to turn to, who exactly do you trust to help you out of that life when every adult in your world thinks your exaggerating or making it up. Luckily one day I learned how to believe in myself, it just took 18 years.

    • James, I’m so sorry all of that happened to you, especially the not being believed. Learning to trust again is an everyday practice that happens moment to moment. Kudos to you for finding the courage to put one foot in front of the other, and know that you deserve to find the love and trust you are looking for in life.

  6. Christina Llanes says:

    These tips are fantastic not just for survivors of sexualassault, but for all survivors of trauma. I survived 18 years of child abuse, which I still count as gender violence because my father hated all women, especially me. It is always difficult to share this with a partner, especially because I am still suffering from the effects of PTSD. The worst response from a partner that I have ever gotten was when my boyfriend suggested that I stop sharing my past because he was afraid it would make me upset. This was particularly awful because he not only avoided having to listen to me talk about something difficult, but he also silenced me under the guise of caring for my well being. Boys, a survivor’s story is in her hands. If she wants to share it, don’t assume that you know better. You really don’t. Trauma is so isolating.

    For me, the difficulty is not as much sharing my past , but sharing my current difficulties with a close partner rather than a stranger. Most of my difficult issues have surfaced a year or so into my relationships, for example: sharing details of my childhood, bringing partners to meet my parents, explaining to them how triggers work, explaining the extreme emotional distress felt when experiencing a trigger (my current boyfriend doesn’t seem to understand how deleterious the effects of a trigger are), and explaining my propensity for panic attacks.

    The absolute worst thing for me to share is perhaps the most taboo and the most humiliating. As a result if the prolonged trauma, I developed a condition called vaginismus, which makes penetration almost impossible and extremely painful. This makes me feel even more like broken goods even though I have come so far in terms of healing and personal development. I know this is a site for men, but I wish there was a place where survivors and their partners could talk about taboo issues like this.

  7. i am a survivor of the sexual abuse/assault of incest & while I don’t make it a point to tell everyone, it’s not something i specifically hide. I speak on it only as a part of my experience & part of who I am, just like any other life event.

  8. I’m remaining anonymous here (sorry for the fake email and such), because I’m a sexual assault survivor several times over. I’ve just recently come to grips with the fact that the stuff that’s happened to me – since the age of 5 – was NOT normal. I grew up thinking every female went through some form of assault at some point in their lives – almost like it was some kind of “rite of passage”, if you will. I have two daughters and one son, and I have always made it my intent that they would not go through the stuff I did.

    I did tell one boyfriend, once, about *one* of my assaults. I trusted the wrong man. He used it as an excuse to add more assault to the list of events in my life (and brought a friend along for the ride). Years later, I told my best friend, and she was so shocked and hurt that I’d never told her before, it made *me* feel guilty for putting that on her. I’ve never told another person since. I’ve been happily married to a wonderful man for 10 years now, and he has absolutely no idea about any of it. I cannot imagine I will ever tell him, either.

    • I am so sorry all of this happened to you Mary. That guy is an absolute piece of sh*t . Your friend was also wrong to be angry with you- this is your story to share or not share as YOU please. You don’t have to share anything with your husband. It is already so amazing that you have been able to trust someone enough to marry them. You are already so strong and brave. I have found that been completely honest with my partner about my past traumas (I have had many, although they were all physical attacks rather than sexual ones) made our relationship stronger and more intimate. If you ever decide you want to tell your husband, maybe you could gage how he reacts to sexual assault by introducing articles about other people who were assaulted, or sharing articles on sexual assault just to see what he thinks. It might make it less scary. If you do tell him, maybe you can share this list with him. The thing is that trauma has a way of bleeding out into various parts of our lives, whether we are concious of it or not. If there are issues in the relationship, it is likely that your past experiences could be contributing to some of your behaviors or reactions. Either way, no one should have to go through what you have been through alone. Being able to talk to a counselor or therapist might be the first step towards being more comfortable sharing your past. I sincerely wish you a speedy healing and all the happiness this life can afford. You deserve it. 🙂

  9. This feels close at home to me for a different reason, I am a survivor of abuse but not sexual assault. It is always so hard to tell when is the appropriate time to divulge information about your trauma. You don’t want to be judged unfairly or have your past experiences affect the way people view you. The key term here is survivor. We are strong and telling that story may help to share that strength to others with similar experiences. Don’t bottle it up, but share in a safe environment. And know their misunderstanding is not a reflection of your self worth.

  10. This is a wonderful article and very helpful in navigating tricky territory. As a domestic violence survivor I identify strongly with the presumed baggege part. Because mine was publicized and I am an outspoken advocate, my history is all there when I am googled. It saddens me how presumptuous potential partners can be about who I am and perceived accompanying drama. As you note, we can’t have lived without having experienced something that shaped us. Thank you for addressing how to move past that.

    • Thank, you, Lisette. I think it’s true that this advice applies to anyone with a history of trauma. We all find ways to integrate it into our lives, and create pathways of understanding for ourselves and others. Even as a survivor myself, I never assume to know what it is like to be anyone else.

  11. Fine advice article. So many of the turns in it follow thought itself and experince. It takes courage to articulate these ideas; many women stay mum about what has happened in their pasts for fear that their futures and present lives will be robbed of joy and pleasure and belonging and family if they are known to be victims. I tried to train a man I knew away from bringing up women’s rapes from the past. He led with his memory that a black woman we knew had been sexually violated twenty years in the past, perhaps by a white man. I feel that who did it may matter to a conversation. Who did not do it but who was subjected to it is all anyone tends to know, and it sheds little light on what it is or what troubles it causes. The woman we knew in graduate school was not in our conversation and could not defend against the man’s portrayal of her as a lifelong victim. She had gone on to be highly effective in her field, something I emphasized to him. The word victim is circumstantial and not descriptive of the whole person. Social blame and shunning and mental illness diagnoses may attach to that person without safeguards and awareness.

  12. I was sexually assaulted on July 4th last year. Although he did not rape me (somehow, I managed to stop him before it happened), I have had a really hard time even trusting men since. I have never dated anybody before and I am not sure that I am ready to start doing so. I’m constantly afraid that I am damaged goods, and that is why nobody wants to date me. But I’ve been working really hard on rebuilding my confidence levels and developing positive self-talk. I feel so much stronger and happier now, and my assailant actually no longer attends the college that I attend. I’ve found that what has helped me the most has been my involvement with our sexual assault peer advocacy group. I am a peer advocate and I train other students to become advocates. I’m also part of a sexual assault awareness video campaign. Knowing that I can help other survivors has helped me heal. You are a brave woman, and I’m so happy that you have a loving and supportive relationship with your husband 🙂

  13. Jessica Hoy says:

    Great article! I was assaulted 7 years ago and it still has a huge effect on my dating life. I avoided dating all together for almost 5 years because I felt like damaged goods. It’s hard to open up to a new potential partner, I don’t want to scare them away but I don’t want to hide such a huge part of my life. I get really awkward around the 3rd or 4th date trying to avoid the physical relationship until I’ve shared my past with them. I feel like I should put a link to this article on my match.com account!

  14. I know a few women who are survivors of sexual assault, and all of them ended up confiding their stories to me. I don’t remember how well I did comforting them about it, although I didn’t reveal it to anyone else.
    So hopefully I didn’t make anything worse for them, and thanks for sharing.

    • I’m sure you did great, Glides! Just the fact that they are sharing their stories with you in the first place is a sign that you are a willing and empathic listener.

  15. My pleasure, Gint and Stromdal. Talking about sexual violence doesn’t have to be awkward and scary. Hopefully this will help others navigate these waters more easily. And yes, Marc, you did keep asking questions and if you put your foot in your mouth, you were smart enough to take it back out!

  16. stromdal says:

    Thank you for sharing, Sarah.

  17. Gint Aras says:

    Thanks for your wisdom and courage, Sarah.

  18. As the husband of this amazing woman, I was grateful and honored when she first shared her story with me. I’m also thankful that she has so patience, because. I’m sure I made some of these mistaks she listed. Even now, I still ask questions and learn more on my own.

  19. “Stunned open-mouthed silence” is what I got when I was asked what the “kinkiest” thing that ever happened to me (by my then BF, now hubby)….

    I agree, you have to pick carefully who and what you are about to tell…when I started doing karate, the GF of one of my sparring partners told me a story about how she was raped in her college dorm room when she was sick by an acquaintance of her roommate….I was surprised that she was able to open up to me like that (I barely knew her at the time)….but I was grateful, because the reason why I was taking karate was because of all the panic attacks I was having from my abusive ex stalking me….

    • Leia, the tell or not-to-tell question is always a dilemma! Because of my work, my story is relatively public, but there’s also the degree to which I share details vs. the headline. I am so glad that the stunned open-mouthed silence turned into a healthy and happy relationship! ~Sarah

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