(Doctor’s Note: Today’s column involves the generalized discussion of sexual assault.)
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Before I start I feel like I should have a trigger warning. That’s the polite thing to do, isn’t it? Well here it is, sexual assault, toxic people and whatnot. I should probably also clarify that this isn’t about personal love or sex or dating, I only care for this person as a platonic friend. Never the less, I’ve held this in for a time and have no people to vent to. Don’t know if my experience will be useful to anyone, or if you’ll have anything useful to say, but it’d feel good to have it out there.
Starting from the beginning I met these two people at approximately the same time, when I started university. One was a guy and future assaulter, let’s call him M, who I became very close friends with. The other was a woman, A, who I never became friends with but who was a pleasant acquaintance. We three, and a few others, became close knit and would often hang out and do stuff together.
The first year went… okay. Pleasant even. Never really got terribly close with A, not for trying however. She did always seem to busy or suspicious to want to hang out one on one together. This didn’t bother me, I was not attracted to her and though she was a good conversationalist who I would like to know better, I respected her wishes. She was also very… pleasing? Anxious? It is hard to explain… a certain air about her that was and is a result of past trauma.
Unbeknownst to me however was that during the spring, close to the end of the term, she was assaulted, (possibly raped, never asked), by M’s friend, whom I had no relation with. On top of that, during the summer break when I was away, M too did something (wouldn’t tell, didn’t ask) which have led to PTSD-adjacent symptoms in A.
The second year was very rough for me. Due to a multitude of reasons I became depressed, which caused my friends to reach out for me, which in turn made me even more depressed (M has a hard time respecting boundaries, and refused to leave me alone). All this culminated in me breaking of contact with all my friends and taking a break for six months. When I came back and reinitiated contact with everyone, A opened up to me, telling me that she had a falling out with our group (due to M) as well as everything mentioned above.
I believed her and kept in contact. Nowadays we talk about family, boundaries, love and her past, as well as perfectly casual and normal stuff. Though she is cautious and doesn’t tell me when she is uncomfortable, I have a good enough read on her that it isn’t much of a problem, and I’ve helped her set boundaries and other stuff too. This sometimes makes me feel more like her therapist than her friend, and it is draining to me.
I can’t really see M as anything other than a misinformed dude, who I’ve known had toxic ideas about sex (the dude literally can’t stop talking about his penis.) and though A still cares about our mutual friends M being around constantly drives a wedge between any relationship they may have.
I am no longer friends with M (thank goodness), but our mutual friends have no idea what happened. Any insinuation that M might not be such a good guy is met with resentment. Even though it has been six months since I came back this still eats away at the back of my mind! What can I do to adjust to my situation? What can I do to be friends with A without having to constantly keep a birds eye view over our relationship? And what can I do to support her and help her develop? Is there any other site which could help me better than a well meaning dating coach in a very awkward situation?
Thanks for listening
Confused, Concerned and Exasperated
DEAR CONFUSED, CONCERNED AND EXASPERATED: There’re a few things going on here, CCE.
First: it sounds to me like you’re the only person that A can open up to about all of this. Right now, A’s trying to stay in contact with her friends… but doing so means that she also has to be around the guy who assaulted her. Possibly both of them. To make matters worse, they’re still valued members of the social circle, which means that she may not feel like she can talk to anyone else in the group about it. If your friends push back against any indication that M might be anything less than an upstanding guy, then that leaves A feeling lost and isolated, on top of the shame that comes from having been the victim of sexual assault.
Yeah that shame may be pure, unadulterated bulls
t when they do it and it’s bulls
t – it’s the fault of M (and M’s friend), not hers – but society is incredibly awful to victims of sexual violence. We tell women over and over again that they’re at fault because boys will be boys, whatcanyado? So right now, you may be the only person who A feels safe around.
And honestly, that says a lot of good things about you.
Second: Yeah, it can be a little exhausting to be the only person someone can rely on – especially when that person is dealing with some legitimate trauma, and doubly so when you’re still recovering from trauma of your own. Very few people talk about the emotional burnout that people in care-taking roles go through, even when those forms of care-taking are long conversations about issues like boundaries and assault. That’s a heavy topic and it weighs on a body. It can be important that you take care of yourself and get a break, and that you have friends that you can decompress and relax with. It’s important for you to spend time with people who care about you, people who you can let your guard down around and not have to be in charge of their emotional state.
Third: you need to remember that you’re NOT a therapist. You’re being a good friend to A, but she needs help that you aren’t equipped to provide. What I’d strongly recommend is that you gently encourage her to talk to a counselor or therapist, especially someone who works in issues relating to sexual trauma. It sounds like you’re in college, which means that you have access to counselors; that may be a good place for A to start, if she hasn’t already. If A doesn’t already have a counselor or doesn’t feel comfortable talking to someone connected to the school, then it may help to point her towards RAINN’s National Sexual Abuse Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE or online.rainn.org. Even though the assaults happened months ago, RAINN has operators who can help A, let her know what her options are and assist her in recovering. It’s completely anonymous and if she’s uncomfortable talking with them over the phone, they have online chat options as well.
Fourth: Whether M is misinformed or not doesn’t change what he did. The fact that he’s “not good with boundaries” or “can’t stop talking about his penis” doesn’t change the fact that he assaulted your friend. Talking about how someone “didn’t understand” only ends up downplaying what he’s done and just serves to isolate and alienate A further. He doesn’t get to skate under “being awkward”. A lot of predators use “I’m just awkward” as an excuse to try to get out of trouble. It’s bulls
t when M does it. Don’t buy into that.
Fifth: Let A be the one to decide what she wants to do regarding M and M’s buddy. Right now, it doesn’t sound as though she’s told anyone else about what’s happened, and that’s understandable. As I said: there’s a lot of shame and stigma involved in being the victim of sexual assault, and being outed to the group could very well just re-traumatize her. It’s A’s story to tell and A’s decision to make and she needs to make the right decision for her. The best thing you can do is support the choice she makes.
I’m deeply sorry for what’s happened to A, and for the pain it’s causing you as well. It’s a horrible situation and you’re being the friend she needs right now, which is admirable. But it’s important to realize that you have a responsibility to yourself too. Don’t hurt yourself trying to help your friend. That doesn’t help anyone. Give the care and support that you can to A… but see if you can guide her to the help she needs, too.
t. All it means is that you’re gently prodding someone but in a way that says “I like you”.
Now, if you’re having a hard time catching when someone’s joking with you, you may want to ask. Of course, even that can be made into a joke; after all, there are hordes of “not sure if serious” memes out there that get the message across without making you sound like Johnny NoFun.
TL;DR: your biggest problem is that your messages are dull and uninteresting. Find ways to engage with people that hits some positive feelings – humor, cuteness, interesting or ‘cool’ stories – and you’ll start having far more success. Save the “getting to know you” questions until you’re in person. And even then, try to avoid coming across like you’re interviewing them.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)