Sexual Assault (in comics) Awareness Month: The Morning After

This is the eighth and final installment of a series about sexual assault and comics. You can find the previous posts here:
Rape in the Gutters
Writing Sexual Violence, Part 1
Writing Sexual Violence, Part 2
The Widowmaker
Is It Too Much to Ask?
Rape Is Rape Is Rape
Same-Sex Assault
A bit over a week into May, I’m finally posting the final installment of the Sexual Assault (in comics) Awareness Month series. It’s somewhat fitting that this is going up after April has ended, because it’s going to be a brief retrospective of the month, along with some reflections on writing the preceding installments and the responses they’ve gotten. And (because you demandedactually, politely requestedit) I’m also going to talk about secondary survivors in real life, and what to do if you learn that a friend or loved one has been assaulted. If you want to skip straight to that part, click here.
First, some good news: Several people asked if I could post the text to the Conan #39 letter column. I’ve talked to the Official Types, and the answer is ‘yes’but not ‘til Conan #40 hits the stands on the 16th. If you don’t want to wait, you can always shell out the $2.99it’s a one-shot, so you won’t be paying for an issue mid-story.
Speaking of Conan #39, the Dark Horse and forums’ responses to the letter column have thus far been really positive. There’s also been a bit of spillover into the Girl-Wonder forum from, which makes me really happyI think they’re two communities that could learn a lot from each other.
In general, this series seems to have gotten a lot of press. It’s been linked a lot, and not just at When Fangirls Attack. What I’m hoping that means is that a bunch of people are learningand, more important, askinga lot about sexual assault, in and out of comics. It’s really important that we keep this dialogue open: Sexual Assault Awareness Month is over, but sexual violence continues to happen year-round. Keep talking and keep questioning.
Most of all, talk to comics publishers, creators, and editors. One of the most frequent responses I got to the Conan #39 column was ‘It’s about time someone talked about this stuff.’ Hold the industry accountable. Vote with your dollars, but also make your opinions heard. Want to see more stuff like the Conan #39 letter column? Let editors know. Pissed off that another female hero has had sexual abuse retconned into her backstory? Say so (but do it civilly, please, and bear in mind that the folks you’re writing to are people, too, with their own perspectives, experiences, and reasons. Be willing to listen to their angles, and they’ll listen to yours).
And comics pros, this is a challenge to you, too. Keep the dialogue open from your side, and take responsibility for the stories you write and publish. On that note, I want once again to thank Kurt Busiek, who wrote both Conan #39 and the story that inspired the column in it for taking the time to drop by and lend his voice to the discussion on the Girl-Wonder forum. If (probably ‘when,’ since you’re in the next town over) we eventually meet, remind me to buy you a drink.
I was going to post links to every blog, website, and publication that had mentioned SAAM in relation to comics, but I lost my partial list, and I don’t have the energy to track them all down. So, I’ll make a deal with you: post URLs on the forum, and I’ll add them to this column.
On the personal sideDamn, that was intense. This has been a really, really difficult series to put together and keep going. Researching and writing two columns a weekespecially columns as long as this month’s have beentakes more than twice the time and energy of researching and writing one, and it’s been a constant struggle to keep updating remotely on time. It’s also been incredibly draining to write 4000-plus words a week about sexual assault. When I was doing crisis advocacy, I was able to keep my rape crisis center work fairly compartmentalized so that there was relatively little bleed into my work and personal lives. That doesn’t work so well with this column: I’m writing it at home, as me, about my work. I haven’t really allowed myself the convenience of a warm-but-detached professional personathis is me, skinned knees, purple hair, and allso there’s very little to keep the material I’m writing about from getting under my skin.
That said, writing the SAAM series has also been an incredible experience. This stuff matters a lot to me, and being able to say something useful about it, start a couple discussions, and maybe encouraging a couple people think about sexual assault in comics feels like a pretty damn worthwhile way to have spent a month.
Still, it’s going to be nice to write about something else for a while. Like kittens. Or writing believable bisexual characters. Or kittens who write believable bisexual characters.
But before that, I’m going to keep my promise and take some time to talk about and to secondary survivors.
A secondary survivor is someone whose life has been affected by a sexual assault she or he wasn’t directly involve in. It’s a broad term, indicating anyone from family members and friends of survivors, to witnesses, to anyone else whose life has been impacted by a specific act of sexual violence.
Even if they haven’t been assaulted themselveswhich isn’t a given, since many secondary survivors are themselves survivors of sexual assaultsecondary survivors can find themselves dealing with a lot of the same emotions as survivorsanger, fear, sorrow, guilt, and so forthwhile trying to support someone they care about. The experience of supporting a friend, loved one, or acquaintance in the aftermath of an assault can also be very difficult and deeply draining. Many secondary survivors struggle to balance their own needs with the demands of supporting a primary survivor.
So, what do you do if someone you love is assaulted?
First and foremost, make sure theyand youare physically safe. If the assault has occurred recently, you may need to help your friend get to a safe place. If they have been injured, you should encourage them to seek medical help. Depending on the circumstances, you may be at risk as well. Your first priority should be physical safety.
Beyond that, there really isn’t a single set of rules. You have a right to experience and express your reactions and emotions, but when you are comforting a friend who has been assaulted, it’s important to remember that the conversation isn’t really about you. Don’t make it about your experiences and reactions: let your friend experience theirs.
No matter how angry you are, avoid acts of vigilante violence or revenge. If you feel that you must act in response to the assault, act constructively: do something that will actively contribute to your friend’s sense of well-being or safety without harming anyone else.
Understandand this is the hard partthat no matter what you say or do, you cannot fix what has happened; you cannot make it right. What you can do is make it easier to face.
Earlier in April, a friend of mine wrote in her blog about her own experiences as a victim of a voyeur. She wrote about the responses she’d heard to her story, and about the very simple responses she wished she’d gottenthe responses she should have gotten:
I believe you.
You did the right thing.
It wasn’t your fault.
Think about those responses, and what they mean. The phrasing doesn’t matter; it’s the ideas behind it.
I believe you.
Don’t question the veracity of your friend’s story or the validity of their experience. You are not a judge or a jury; it is not your responsibility to determine whether that story is true or false. You will not be making arrests or pressing charges.
Skepticism is often one of the first responses assault survivors get. It’s a natural response to haveno one wants to believe that one human being would do something that awful to another, let alone to someone you love. But when someone you love comes to you after being assaultedminutes, months, or yearsthey’re not coming for cross-examination, but for support. Those three wordsI believe youand the idea behind them are an awfully powerfuland awfully importantthing for an assault survivor to hear.
You did the right thing.
Anything that gets you out alive is the right thing to have done. It’s tempting to pick an assault apart, figure out what you or they could have done differently; it’s a way of grasping for control of an out-of-control situation.
But the truth of the matter? If they’re alive, they did the right thing. And that’s all that matters.
It wasn’t your fault.
It’s tempting for victims to grasp for control by trying to take responsibility for what happened to them. The same is true of secondary survivors, who often find themselves playing through scenarios that begin with ‘if only I was there…’
They weren’t raped because of anything you did or didn’t do. They weren’t raped because of anything they did or didn’t do. They were raped because a rapist was there.
But even with this stuff, there is no script. Every situation, every assault, and every person is different, and sometimes you have to rely on your own instincts for the right words.
My finaland perhaps most importantpiece of advice to secondary survivors is Take care of you, too. When someone you care about goes through an experience as traumatic as sexual assault, it’s easy to put your own feelings and needs on the back burner and give until you’re drained.
It’s important to know your limits, both practical and personal: what you can offer without resentment or excessive strain, and what of that will be genuinely useful. Remember that being a good friend or relative doesn’t have to mean being a therapist, doctor, lawyer, chauffeur, and crisis counselor. Sometimes, the best and most helpful thing you can do is help your friend find someone else to meet a need or perform a service with which you’re not able to provide or simply aren’t comfortable with. Letting yourself become your friend’s sole source of support isn’t fair to or healthy for either of you.
At the same time, make sure that you have an adequate support system in place. Supporting a survivor can be really draining, and secondary survivors often have their own sets of assault-related issues to deal with. External support is really important, especially when someone else is already leaning on you. Many rape crisis centers and women’s centers extend their services to secondary survivors as well as immediate victims; don’t be shy about taking advantage of those, or of talking to a therapist, counselor, clergyperson, or other support person while you deal with your friend’s trauma. There are also support groupsonline and in real lifefor the friends and families of assault survivors and victims of other violent crimes. Your local rape crisis center can put you in touch with resources in your area.
Although this is the last of the Sexual Assault Awareness Month series, please don’t hesitate to continue discussing the stuff that’s come upand to ask any questions you still haveon the Girl-Wonder forum. If you need a less public means of contacting me, you can PM me on Girl-Wonder or reach me via email, at rachel(at)girl-wonder(dot)org.
Next week, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming. In the meantime, you can discuss this column here.