Doctor’s Note: Today’s letter discusses sexual violence and contains descriptions of sexual assault
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I had been with my partner for almost 10 years. Some significant things happened in my life and I hit a really low depression. Our relationship took a toll for it. Insert a mutual somewhat friend of ours. I liked him, he was funny, interesting to talk too, and charismatic. During our friendship he made a lot of advances. Sometimes I flirted back, but overall never let on that I was interested in having sex. My relationship with my partner was getting worse and worse. He was jealous of my relationship with this other person. He asked me to end it and I wish I had. But I stayed stubborn and ignored his request.
At some point my friend got too… suggestive. I told him I was more than just a sexual body. We stopped talking for a good while. This all took place over a year or so. During this time, I had plenty of opportunities to cheat but I did not want to. It was just nice in the beginning having someone find me attractive and more than just a mom of 3 that cleaned and did school projects all the time.
Well, my friend and I were a part of a group that ran a spring event in the woods. We saw each other during the meetings, I kept things platonic. The night before the spring event kicks off, we always have a staff night. Drinking, dancing, good food, just a nice stress reliever from all the planning. My partner didn’t come with me to the event that year. I was really sad, depressed, somewhat suicidal and I drink. A lot. I’m not a huge drinker and I was chugging this stuff back. At one point, I’m just dancing and joking around. But the night gets fuzzier and fuzzier. I remember at some point, 2 other people from my group dragging me along the pathway to the cabins. Then next moment, one of them is kissing me and taking my clothes off. I remember stumbling back. Then the next memory is one of them pushing my face into their partners genitals (unclothed). I remember gagging and throwing up a bit, swallowing it down. I got up and ran. I didn’t have a shirt or bra on. It was dark and I ran into my friend, asked him for help. I didn’t have a flashlight, didn’t know where my clothes were. I don’t know if I walked or he half carried me, but I ended up at my cabin. And next thing, we’re having sex. I didn’t say no. I went with it. Afterwards, I just laid there. Completely numb.
And then I made this dumb choice, after getting home, I messaged him about the event. Like, that I enjoyed it and when we’re going to do it again. But deep down, I felt grossed out and just dead inside. My partner found out, via reading the message. We separated and it’s been hell since. I never told him the fullness of that night. I was afraid because of what it mean to our group (the event group), that my partner wouldn’t believe me, that given all the events that lead up to it, it definitely looks like I cheated. And I feel like I did. But through therapy, I guess I’ve come to conclude it’s more complicated than that. How do I talk to my ex about this situation? I love him and want him home. I want to heal and move on from this.
What Did I Do?
DEAR WHAT DID I DO: I am so, SO sorry that you’ve gone through all of this, WDID. You’ve been hurt so very deeply and you deserve NONE of it.
Here’s how you talk to your ex about this: you tell him that you were assaulted and raped.
Because that’s exactly what happened.
Here’s the thing WDID: what happened to you was rape. It doesn’t matter that you had depression. It doesn’t matter that you had a flirty relationship with your buddy. Nor does it matter that you were flattered by the attention and got a charge from being seen as desirable by someone. Or that you had been drinking at the spring event. Literally none of that matters.
What matters is that two people apparently tried to assault you while you were inebriated. And when you got away from them and went to your friend for help… he also took advantage and assaulted you. You were in no shape to know what was going on, nor to give consent, and what happened to you was not your fault. End of story. No ifs, no buts, no quibbling.
The only people who are at fault here are the people who assaulted you; your “friend” and the two other people who also attacked you.
Here’s the other thing to recognize: your behavior — during the act and after — is entirely normal. People talk about “the fight or flight” response, but it’s really “fight, flight, freeze or fawn“. The freeze and fawn responses are very common responses to crisis situations; in both cases, it’s a way people — especially women and femme-bodied people — protect themselves and survive. Freezing is often caused by a reaction to adrenaline; your body functionally locks up because you aren’t used to dealing with the sudden surge. Similarly, fawning — behaving in an ingratiating manner — is an unconscious attempt to de-escalate and defuse the situation and prevent things from getting worse.
“Letting” the assault happen (and to be clear: you didn’t let anything happen; you were non-responsive, which is very different) is very much the freeze response. Texting afterwards is, likewise, a fawn response. It’s equal parts trying to avoid angering or antagonizing the person who assaulted you and a way of your brain trying to protect you from the idea that you were assaulted. It’s not an abdication of responsibility or an admission of guilt but a way of trying to protect yourself emotionally and physically and it is incredibly common. This is a very common response from people who haven’t had a chance to process what happened, deal with their understandably complex and complicated feelings and who have legitimate reason to worry that bringing things up would make things worse.
Does it seem illogical? Absolutely. Does it make a lick of damn sense? Nope. But our brains aren’t logical. They don’t give a f--k about sense. Our brains don’t care about our happiness, our brains care about safety and getting you out of a dangerous situation is a much higher priority to them than worrying that our method of doing so may f--k up relationships or make legal issues harder.
So that’s why the very first thing you need to do is forgive yourself and quit repeating this narrative that you cheated or that you “went along” with it. You were assaulted. People tried to take advantage of your being drunk to ignore your wishes or your consent and use you for their own desires. That isn’t cheating, that’s rape.
The second thing I would strongly suggest is to talk to a counselor or therapist, especially someone who specializes or is experienced in dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault. If you don’t have a therapist already or know where to turn, then the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists has an excellent referral directory to help you find an understanding, sex-positive counselor or therapist in your area. I would also recommend calling the National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-4673 and talking to some of the trained staff. The Rape, Assault and Incest National Network can help you find support and assistance in your community, as well as help you determine next steps and provide you with some much-needed resources.
I would highly recommend talking to them — and possibly a therapist — before taking further steps, because the best thing you can do is focus on yourself and your mental and emotional health first. Coming to terms, dealing with what happened, realizing that this was not your fault, that this was done to you and you are not responsible for their actions is vital. Talking to them will help you process your reactions, understand that these are known responses and not indicators of consent and help you realize that you are not at fault here. There are a lot of s--tty people out there who will try to weaponize your responses or circumstances against you and use them to shift the blame. Armoring yourself against that now will be important, if only for your own mental well being.
Talking with the staff at RAINN and/or your own counselor will also help you figure out how best to talk to your ex, give you the vocabulary to explain things and — importantly — help get you ready to face the difficulty of talking about these events.
Now, there is the obvious question of what steps do you take with the folks who assaulted you. This, unfortunately, is where things start to range outside of my pay grade and will depend entirely on what you feel safe and capable of doing. My personal feeling is that you should absolutely bring up your assault with the organizers of the spring event. It’s a safety issue for you and for others at these events; if the two who pulled you away are regulars in the organization, alerting folks to the missing stair is important.
However: this can also be incredibly difficult and traumatic and you may well not be in a place to face this. If — and it’s a pretty damn big if — you feel like you’re able to do this and that it won’t cause you more trauma and damage, then please be sure to proceed with caution.
As for your ex-friend who raped you… well, honestly, it still comes back to your own sense of safety and emotional and mental health. Confronting him with what he did — that you weren’t consenting, that you texted afterwards out of a sense of self-protection, that he assaulted you — can be important, but it can also be incredibly difficult for you. If you don’t feel like you can confront him, even at a remove, then that’s entirely understandable. I would, however, say that you can and should utterly excise him from your life and cut off all access he may have to you. That means blocking him on all social media you use, blocking his number, filtering his texts and emails into the trash, etc. Your safety and well-being is a priority.
Again: RAINN and a trained counselor will be able to work with you and help you decide what the best course of actions are for you and how to execute them.
But more than anything else, here’s what I want you to take away from this: THIS WAS NOT YOUR FAULT. YOU WERE RAPED. This was something that was DONE TO YOU, and nothing that came before — not the flirting, the drinking, even the feeling flattered by his attraction — excuses what he did or means that you were to blame. Because, again: THIS WAS NOT YOUR FAULT.
I also want you to recognize this very important truth: you are much stronger than you know. You have come through this horrific experience and survived. You have wounds and scars, but you survived. You will heal and things will feel better. There are hardships now and likely others in your future. However, there are better days to come, and that is in no small part because of how incredibly brave and strong you are.
And I want to emphasize this one more time: THIS WAS NOT YOUR FAULT.
You’ve been through the fires of hell and you’ve got the ashes to prove it. But you’ve come through. Now it’s time to start the healing process and to take care of yourself.
You are very strong. You will heal.
Write back and let us know how you’re doing.
All will be well.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com