Unheard Voices: Interviews on Coping After Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence

[Content warning: This piece discusses sexual violence, dating violence, PTSD, and panic attacks.]

Prevention Ed- Where Do I Fit In?

The Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative (SRI) describes sexual respect as “a commitment to each of us doing what we can to create an environment where sexual and gender-based misconduct is not tolerated.” While the preventative approach is a crucial perspective on campus violence, it can be difficult for survivors to figure out where they fit into SRI’s narrative of prevention.

I have many critiques of SRI, including my frustration with the checklist-style treatment of violence that definitely decreases the value of the learning experience, the failure to integrate survivors into education in manner sensitive to their triggers, and the lack of responsiveness to demands made by survivors on campus, to name a few. Despite these issues, I have to say that coming to Columbia was, for me, a huge shift in the right direction for coping with my own experiences of violence. I came from an environment where abuse and exploitation were not talked about at all. Campus dialogue helped me to confront the stress I was facing. The seemingly routine NSOP sessions started to give me a language and to define boundaries in a way that helped me to better think the violations I had faced and was continuing to face. A particularly dedicated psychologist at CPS went far beyond University limits to help me and then set me up for long-term treatment.

Having grown up in a conservative rural place where I felt I could not even recognize, let alone cope with my ongoing trauma, Columbia was in a lot of ways a safer place for me–not necessarily because of institutionalized systems that advocated for me, but more so because of specific students and select faculty members who work tirelessly to recognize students’ struggle and show support and solidarity for survivors, pushing our campus to openly talk about and adequately handle these issues.

From a survivor perspective, one shortcoming of the traditional preventative approach is that it does not prioritize conversations generated by those who have already experienced sexual assault. These repeated talks about prevention can sometimes make us feel isolated and invisible because they very rarely acknowledge the ongoing impact of abuse, which many of us face. I can remember contemplating how to finagle my way through the SRI education requirement during a time of extremely high post-traumatic stress. I did not want to have to receive the available education about consent and violation after hearing that the workshops were run halfheartedly and the videos would be very upsetting; submitting a creative piece to an unknown and untrusted stranger seemed highly uncomfortable. I felt exposed and pigeonholed. I ended up writing a poem in about fifteen minutes which ended up on display at the art show for the creative option exhibit, which I know only because I signed an email asking to put my work on display.

Throughout my broader coping process, I have found it challenging to learn how to present myself and manage the information coming at me in all these different environments where abuse is talked about differently and my experience will be perceived differently, or sometimes not acknowledged at all. It’s hard going from my home–where I know I am loved but talking about trauma can often be triggering or upsetting–to my friends who have not experienced the same difficulties I have but who support me fully, to survivor spaces and therapy where I really do the most work for helping myself.

Intimacy and Dating as a Survivor

I have found that one of the most difficult spaces to exist as a survivor is the intimate relationship world. I experience PTSD and general social anxiety, even in friendships. In a close relationship or even in a casual situation that could become intimate, it can feel absolutely necessary to disclose that I am a survivor in order to preface any emotional complications that I face. As I began recovery, I was really concerned with having consensual sexual experiences as a way of redefining the way I thought of myself sexually and intimately. I saw this as a mechanism for distancing myself from abuse and diluting the bad experiences I had with sexual vulnerability, but it was also really hard to have these initial experiences. Deep down I was not truly ready for these situations and they felt somehow inauthentic, yet they were also playing a huge role in my own pursuit of leaving behind the pain of trauma. Part of my retroactive discomfort comes from the memory that I was too afraid to disclose to my partners that I had previously experienced abuse and was still very much trying to recover. I often had feelings of confusion or shame. I also got these negative feelings from talking about my own ongoing stress, anxiety, and sadness with friends and family, as it was often intense and debilitating, and I resented this.

When I do disclose to someone, it can feel terrifying. A lot of the time when I disclose the recipient does not have the tools to support me, and while that is something I have come to expect, I still wish it were different. In most spaces, I find myself wishing that survivors had a more prominent voice in communicating their experiences and articulating how they want to be supported. I wish there were more education in this realm.

Given the debates surrounding the one-in-four statistic  and the huge number of survivors I know simply from encountering them on campus, I think it is really important to create more spaces for survivors to talk about their experience. This is especially important because most people probably know and love a survivor; moreover, for sexually active young people, encountering a survivor in an intimate context is also pretty likely. Of course, general emotional responsiveness and sensitivity should be part of the overarching definition of sexual and emotional respect in friendships and relationships in general, but our campus culture could definitely use finer-tuned education when it comes to knowing how to respond when someone discloses or shows ongoing trauma.

I chose to interview volunteer survivors* on topics relating to recovery, disclosure, intimacy, and triggers. These volunteers attend a variety of colleges and universities including Barnard and Columbia. They represent a range of identities and are of course not representative of all or most survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence– they are only a small sampling of college-aged students who agreed to participate. I conducted these interviews via email using open-ended, completely optional questions that I thought were specific and relevant to 1) survivors’ experiences with general support and intimate partnerships after abuse and 2) how they would like to be supported more fully in the future. Some contributors answered only a few questions as they were encouraged to stay within their comfort zones regarding what they wanted to share. This process was enlightening and insightful for me, and I really appreciate the contributions that were made. I realized that many experiences I have had with post traumatic stress and with recovery were common to other survivors, and I learned more about the tremendous variability in experiences and reactions. It is my hope that compiling and publishing these interviews will generate campus dialogue on supporting survivors from survivor perspectives, initiate conversation about the importance of prevention starting with discussions about the deeply damaging effects of violence, and emphasize the importance of sharing survivors’ stories and empowering their voices within University dialogue.

Interviews

Q: Reflect any experiences you might want to share dealing with self-doubt or self blame, especially relating to confusion surrounding future partners, family members, etc.. This question is mostly aiming to dig into common experiences of gas lighting by yourself or by others in the ongoing recovery process.

Bekah: About 5 months after I was assaulted I started seeing one of my guy friends who was totally gas lighting me but in a way that I couldn’t identify right away . . .  he began saying things like “you’re just so put together” (he probably meant functional), or “I wouldn’t be able to guess what happened to you.” I think he was trying to give me a confidence boost but it resulted in me questioning the gravity of my assault. I began wondering if he believed that I was raped, then I even questioned myself if what I went through was legitimate enough, or if I was reacting to the trauma in an abnormal way.  After I broke up with him (because he was making me literally question my sanity) it took a lot of therapy and hearing that there is no right way to be a survivor to get me to validate my own experiences again.

Katrina: I know that a lot of women after they have been assaulted tend to not want anyone to touch them and retract from physical contact, but I kind of had the opposite experience where I ended up throwing myself at anyone who would look at me. I think that I thought I was taking control of my body by doing that, but in reality I was really out of control. After a few months of this I really began to realize how much damage I was doing to myself and that I was just reliving the experience over and over in different ways.

Q: Do you have experiences you’d like to share regarding the need to disclose past experience(s) of sexual violence to partners in order to express your fears and feelings? Explain.

Bekah: Yes. It is extremely hard for me to have sex with someone without telling them beforehand what has happened to me (which has kind of ruined hook up culture in general for me). I have found that what may be a kink for someone else is a serious trigger for me. I also try to avoid being naked, vulnerable, and hysterically crying in my partners’ beds. I told my current girlfriend everything that she needed to know before we had sex. This includes the fact that I have experienced sexual abuse, that I live with PTSD on top of ADD and generalized anxiety disorder, I sometimes get flashbacks in bed, and that if I start crying while we are having sex, she should just cover me with something – a pillow, blanket, my clothes, a jacket – and stay close to me until I reach out for a hug.

Neha: The first time I told someone who I would eventually have sex with that I was raped and abused by my ex, he didn’t believe me at first. We ended up having a complicated relationship afterwards, and I think that that telling him didn’t help matters at all.

Camila: I have not told anyone I was with afterwards what had happened. I was scared they would see me as damaged or not want to be with me because of it. I had many fears but never felt forced/uncomfortable with the people after.

Katrina: I’ve never really felt the need to tell anyone unless I was in a relationship . . . Sometimes I would react in an odd way to something, like I would start crying or get really upset and then I would tell them but usually in a vague way.

Q: Did you experience, and how do you deal with, fear of repeated sexual violence? Explain.

Bekah: I was raped by my best guy friend in high school who I had trusted deeply, so I have always been kind of skeptical of new friends and people who were interested in me ever since. When I was raped it was also my first time having sex, and I got it in my mind that I needed to have sex with someone else (consensually of course) so that my assault wouldn’t be my only time. The reality was that I was just not ready to be intimate with anyone else until months after. I couldn’t trust anyone to respect my body and feared being out of control in any way (drunk, high) around people other than my tight knit group of girlfriends. I stayed in on the weekends, ignored any advances made on me, and made myself basically unavailable in the dating world.

Neha: I don’t date.

Maria: I’ve found this fear to be more of an issue in casual hook ups than in more serious relationships. But yes, the experience of sexual violence for me was really confusing – I didn’t understand how someone I thought I was friends with suddenly decided he wanted to force me into doing something I didn’t want to do. And the inexplicability of that act made it hard for me to trust other people, especially ones I knew less well than I knew him. And I think I’ve dealt with that in a couple of ways… first of all, these days I find myself less interested in super casual hook ups. They don’t feel quite safe enough often. When it comes to people I know better, I’ve actually found conversations about sexual violence before we ever have sex make me feel a lot more comfortable. It’s helped that I’ve spent a lot of time doing activism around sexual assault, and so the topic can come up without me having to disclose all my deepest personal traumas right away. So I guess I’ve dealt with the fear by trying to give the other person a sense of what I’ve been through because that gives them a better idea of what could trigger me and makes it easier for me to say something if I am triggered. Also, on the positive side, I’ve found it useful to be really clear with my partner about what I like and have gotten to a place where I’m a lot more comfortable talking during sex about what feels good and what doesn’t. And that’s not to say that being able to talk consent is enough to prevent violence, because that is definitely untrue, but i definitely feel more empowered than I used to.

Q: Has your style of interacting with potential partners been seriously altered by sexual violence? There are infinite ways this could be handled so answers can be broad–I.e., do/did you prefer to only meet people in public places, do/how do fears surrounding emotional intimacy manifest, etc.

Bekah: Sexual violence has significantly shaped the way that I go about dating people and being intimate with them. Most significantly (I mentioned this previously too) it has made it basically impossible for me to have a one-night stand or to participate in hookup culture. In college, sex positivity has been a really challenging concept to wrap my head around. Yes, it is true that sex – as long as it is consensual – is a positive and lovely thing. But what sex positivity usually amounts to is encouraging people to have one night stands and to hook up with many partners which is something that is not accessible to me and, I imagine, many other survivors. Sex positivity to me seems to only embrace hook up culture and not all consensual, positive sex. I can’t just go to a bar or club or party and find someone and go home with them. For me, I have to know someone before I have sex with them; I need to make sure that they know about my past experiences so that they aren’t completely taken off guard if I am triggered. Emotional intimacy for me definitely comes before physical intimacy. It doesn’t feel liberating or powerful for me to be worrying about having sex with someone I hardly know.

Katrina: I kind of talked about this in the first question, but I definitely had a harder time getting close to men. I sort of assumed, and still do to some extent, that the only reason they would want to speak to me or interact with me is to have sex with me. I really have a hard time thinking that a man I want to be intimate with can have any regard for my feelings, which of course isn’t fair but it’s a fear that does tend to take over my mindset.

Q: Have you dealt with “bad” experiences sexually that were triggering and difficult to explain or understand on your part or others’ because of previous experiences with sexual violence?

Bekah: Yes. In my current relationship, there have been many times where I was triggered and it was hard to explain exactly what triggered because a lot of times it’s not really an act, it’s a feeling or perhaps a similar situation to the one I was assaulted in that is hard to identify right away. I think that on both ends, mine and my girlfriend’s, there is often feelings of guilt when I am triggered in bed. I feel bad because it is not her fault, and it’s not really mine either, but I just wanted to have nice sex with my girlfriend. I think that she feels bad for triggering me at times too. But we get through it by communicating. We go over what happened, how it made us feel, and afterwards I always feel like we are on the same page. It’s really hard to have bad experiences with an amazing partner but it’s really beautiful when we work it out and get past it.

Katrina: I had been seeing a guy for about a month and we still hadn’t slept together, which was actually kind of a big deal for me during this time. When we finally decided to sleep together, he came over really drunk unexpectedly and was way rougher than he should have been and I started to bleed. I started crying, and for some reason he thought it had to do with me being on my period, or something like that, and began to comfort me. I was actually repulsed and pushed him away, screaming at him to get out. The worst thing, which is almost ridiculous, is that after that happened he never texted me again and we lost touch, and so a lot of my fears were fed into.

Q:  In general, what is one way future partners could be more supportive, sensitive, or aware for you?

Bekah: Definitely listening to what I have to say, and actively validating me when I disclose to them. My girlfriend has been really amazing; she has this way of letting me know that she has not forgotten what has happened to me, and even if the rest of the world is moving on, she remembers. I think that’s really important. There have been many people that I have disclosed to and then have never spoken to them about what happened ever again. I know that for some people it can be really hard to talk about these things, especially when they haven’t experienced it for themselves because they feel unprepared, but just asking a survivor how they are doing from time to time is a great way to say that you are thinking of them, remembering their experience, and thus, validating it. Also, I would say that recognizing that other stressors in life: school, work, etc. are obviously stressful for everyone but for me, and other survivors, stress makes our PTSD worse so just to be mindful during times like finals week in school to be extra compassionate and aware of a partner’s feelings.

Katrina: I think in general just asking more about what is OK and what isn’t. I think there are a lot of assumptions made, and when you say “no” to someone they tend to try to convince you otherwise and think you’re just playing hard to get. I think men should be more respectful of the soft signs of “no”, like, I’m not really sure, or “Ummm…” instead of a woman having to be absolutely forceful. It’s hard to do.

Maria: I think it’s really important to talk about what you like early on. Asking straight out about experiences of sexual violence in the beginning can be a lot, and in itself triggering, but if you start a conversation about what you do and don’t like that can open the door for someone to talk about traumas and triggers if they want to. And, though every survivor has their own unique needs, I think partners can try to be preemptively supportive by saying that they only want to do what the other person is comfortable with and that it is ok to stop at any time. I’ve felt a lot of guilt and shame around “making” my partners stop what they were doing, and hearing explicitly that they’re not mad is really important.

Also, it’s really great when people take it upon themselves to get educated about how trauma works. It’s important to talk to your partner about their own experiences, but it can also get really exhausting to explain everything all the time. If you know your partner has gone through trauma, then go do some reading (there’s a lot of resources out there actually, though I can’t find them right now). When I’m triggered, it can be hard to say what I need. I don’t want my partner to just make a decision for me or tell me how I should want to be taken care of, but showing that they care and are trying by presenting options and letting me choose can be really nice.

Q: Have you had experiences in dating or hookups that you think are specifically discriminatory against survivors?

Katrina: I’m not sure that this is exactly an answer to the question but I did have a guy I was seeing tell me that we all have issues in our past, and I should have been more careful. “It’s just sex,” is how he finished up his little speech. I honestly was without words. I think that men first of all don’t realize how much more vulnerable it is during sex when you’re a woman than a man – I mean, as a woman you are literally being penetrated by something – but also, the mindset that “it’s just sex” when it’s a violent and horrific act makes sex not into just sex for the victim – or at least myself.

Building Community, Rethinking Prevention Ed

For me, one of the most powerful and validating processes I have undergone happened by relating with other survivors and learning about the formal aspects of my own psychological reaction to trauma. I am now able to better listen to my feelings and stop blaming myself for my challenges in recovery.

The weightiest yet perhaps most important piece of knowledge I have taken away from these interviews is the knowledge of how deeply and painfully abuse and violation can affect the lives of survivors. Whereas the most casual campus conversations I hear from students usually address disciplinary and technical aspects of sexual violence, I hope that over time the conversation shifts to speak more to those whose lives are affected by these situations for which they never asked. The hairsplitting technicalities and vague ethical categorizations of “badness” assigned to rapists, violators, and attackers do not do justice to the ills they engender in the lives of the victim. Violence and violation create long-lasting, deeply rooted, unpredictable pain, and while their occurrence is undoubtedly “bad” in infinite ways, talking about and understanding their effects in sensitive, appropriate ways can support those already coping and help others understand the weight of this violence and its effects.

Survivors need spaces to heal–in community, in sharing stories, and in relating to and validating one another. In the broader University community, talking about the impacts of sexual assault and corroborating survivors’ needs works to destigmatize and humanize the “survivor” identity, which is especially important in a culture that focuses far too much on what rapists have to lose by taking responsibility for their actions. That, in itself, is one form of prevention.

*Some names have been changed upon request of the contributor.

 

Author Information: The author is an undergraduate student at Columbia University.

Image Credit: ‘All Hands’ by Diane Perin Hock. Photo: Kati Turcu/Epoch Times.

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