Though the work of Global Rights for Women focuses on systems change and legal form, we believe that in order to do our work effectively, we have to be continuously connected to the voices and experiences of survivors. In a four-part series on trauma-informed skills, Twin Cities, Minnesota advocate and survivor Sarah Super shares her insights on how we can be trauma-sensitive in our support of survivors of gender-based violence. Read on for the third installment in Sarah’s series. Click here for Part One and Two in the series.
In all human relationships, there are expectations that feel healthy to assume: your caregiver should protect you; your spouse or partner should love you; your friend should be supportive of you; even a stranger walking past you on the street should respect you – your space, your body, your human dignity. This is the unspoken human contract for how we should treat each other and be in relationship.
Perpetrators of gender-based violence follow this unspoken contract most of the time, which allows the community to be deceived in believing perpetrators are people worth trusting all of the time. When a perpetrator commits an act of gender-based violence, it is an extreme and horrific deviation from the way they behave with most people most of the time. When they do this, they not only abuse a person’s human rights, but they also betray the very relationship they have with the victim; they betray what it means to be family, to be a friend, a partner, a colleague, a leader, a coach, a teacher, a human being. The victim, who most often knows and trusts their attacker, is left to pick up the pieces when trust is shattered, questioning, “Is there anyone I can trust?”
In my personal experience, I was raped by a man I had dated for 7 months. Not once in the months we dated did I question my safety. I loved him. And I trusted him, as did my friends and family. But everything changed on the one night when he broke into my apartment and raped me at knifepoint. It changed not only the way I understood his true character, but it also made me question everyone else’s. I became suspect of everyone becoming a perpetrator in my life.
Truthfully, it felt, as it does for many survivors, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because unless allies recognize that betrayal is foundational to the traumatic experience and actively strive to counteract it, they can easily re-enact it. Trauma survivors are hyper-alert to experiences in which a person deviates from the way they expect them to, and these deviations trigger the memory of being betrayed and thus, being unsafe. Being triggered by experiences of betrayal do not simply bring back the memory of being raped by someone once trusted, they can manifest as though the person causing the immediate harm is now another perpetrator. This is a frightening, whole-body experience that can motivate a survivor to push people away in an effort to perceivably protect themselves. When people don’t know how to respond to triggering a survivor, it can leave a survivor isolated in their suffering, adding to their pain.
So how allies respond to these triggers can make a profound difference: a healing response may help the survivor regain their sense of trust in people and the goodness of the world while a negative response may compound the survivor’s belief that people are untrustworthy and that they are ultimately alone in their suffering. My experience tells me that it is possible for people to respond to triggers in a way that maintains, even deepens, the relationship with the survivor. However, my experience also tells me that most people do not know how to respond when they trigger a survivor and typically turn to the defenses of rape culture (denial, shame, minimization).
The natural response for most is to defend their actions. But, it is important to emphasize that statements like “That’s not what I meant,” and “My intentions were good,” mean almost nothing to a trauma survivor. Impact trumps intention. So if you have triggered a survivor, the first thing you can do is to own the painful impact you caused; not defend your intention.
Another damaging response is to shame the survivor. This shame shows up in phrases like, “This is crazy,” or “Put things in perspective.” There’s a centuries-old history of calling women crazy, psychotic, and hysterical. It is rooted in Freud’s psychological diagnosis of hysteria, which he later discovered stemmed from child sexual abuse. Shaming a survivor for the trauma they face because someone abused their basic human rights will only add to their suffering.
Finally, many people will try to remind the survivor of everything good that they have done as an attempt to minimize the harm of triggering someone. Minimizing might sound like “After all that I did for you…,” or “Despite all my care and support…” This tactic of minimization is based on the belief that a person’s good actions can mitigate their hurtful ones. While some might find this to be true, a trauma survivor may see it very differently. After all, most perpetrators follow the “human contract” most of the time. A perpetrator’s good choices do not outweigh their choice to sexually assault someone. For example, the damage done from the one night Alec raped me outweighs the happiness Alec brought me in the 7 months we dated. The same is true for those who have triggered me and have minimized my suffering instead of owning the pain they caused (even unintentionally).
What can allies do?
Be people of integrity. Be predictably kind and predictably trustworthy. Don’t commit to things you can’t do; follow through on the commitments you make. Listen to what the survivor says she needs to heal. And when the survivor’s feelings of trauma and betrayal are triggered, what will distinguish you from the initial perpetrator is your willingness to be accountable for the statements or actions that hurt the survivor and to do what is necessary in order to make things right. 97% of perpetrators will never be held accountable for their actions, nor do perpetrators strive to facilitate healing for the victim. Survivors need allies who have the courage and knowledge to say, “I am so sorry for causing you pain. What can I do to make things right?”
Drawing from her work studying trauma and her personal experience surviving rape, Sarah Super invites our community to build a trauma-informed skill-set for supporting survivors of gender-based violence in their healing. Read more about Sarah and her work at: www.wholebeingsolutions.com.