On Responding to Sexual Assault, and Open Relationships

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.


Dear Roe, Recently I went to the Christmas staff party for the restaurant that I work in. Despite it being a great night, it didn’t end well. The male bar manager sat beside me on the bus we had booked to get home.

This guy is in his mid-50s, has kids my age (I’m 21), and is one of those people everyone knows how to be great fun. In fact he’s the ‘good cop’ manager: he’ll turn a blind eye if staff are late to work, let staff off a little early, that kind of thing. I’ve always gotten on well with him.

Anyway, back to the night of the party, it was dark on the bus and the rest of our group was drunkenly singing and shouting, so the manager went unnoticed when he started to touch me, and forced his hand under my tights and skirt. I repeatedly told him to stop, and tried to push him away. He was stronger than me, so I went along with it, hoping he’d stop if I was compliant. But he didn’t stop, even when I started to protest again.

This kind of thing angers me so much if I read or hear about it. And I am angry.

I’m angry that he felt he could (and did) get away with it, that he could make me feel so low, so weak, and used. I was angry when I found out that he tried to do the same to another girl – but stopped when she said no. I’m angry that he didn’t stop when I said no, over and over again. I’m angry that I didn’t say it louder so someone else would hear me.

I’m angry that I let myself be afraid of him now. I’m afraid that he’ll be at work when I start my shift, or that I’ll answer the phone when he calls. I’m angry that he turned my favourite skirt into something that I now feel too ashamed to wear. I’m angry that I feel this shame. I’m angry that he won, that I let him win.

I know I didn’t do anything wrong, yet I have a knot in my stomach going to work. I know that what I was wearing or how much either of us had to drink had nothing to do with it. I know all this, and regularly put these myths surrounding rape culture to bed if they come up in conversation.

So I guess my question is this: why do I feel so ashamed and guilty when I know this wasn’t my fault? And how do I stop feeling like this?

Dear Letter Writer, I don’t know your name. I don’t know where you’re from. I’ve never met you. But I see you. I see you so goddamn clearly, and I feel you so goddamn deeply – as do so many other women out there reading your question. We’ve been there. Like you, we’ve experienced sexual assault and trauma, and have struggled to cope with the swirling vortex of emotions it inspired. I’m so sorry you went through this – but please know that you’re not alone.

I say this, knowing that you’re already aware that one in four women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. You know you’re not the only one who this has happened to – hell, you literally know that your assaulter has attacked another coworker. But knowing something intellectually and knowing something in you gut, knowing it truly, knowing it so deeply that it’s no longer an idea but a truth are two completely different beasts.

You know this too. Because while you know intellectually that none of this is your fault, that your manager is a vicious and dangerous misogynist sexual assaulter who uses his power and privilege to abuse women, you don’t live in a world that knows that. In fact, you live in a world that teaches you the exact opposite. You live in a world of rape culture, that thrives on those myths you’ve been working to dismantle, and tells women that sexual assault is their fault.

You also live in world where sexual assaulters and abusers and rapists walk free, and remain unpunished. And while knowing that rape culture exists is important and helps women grapple with and understand danger intellectually, when you’ve had violence inflicted on your body and soul, intellectual arguments don’t offer much comfort. You had armed yourself with education, and knowledge, and feminism – and it didn’t protect you.

So of course you’re angry. And because anger is a rushing force that needs a path, an arrow that needs a target, and because rape culture and misogyny are too abstract to grab onto, you’ve done what women are encouraged to do – you’ve turned the anger inwards.

You’ve done what human beings do in times of injustice – you’ve looked to placed blame, but because the world has let you know that justice is rarely achieved in situations of sexual violence, you’ve turned the blame onto yourself, and every piece of misogyny and victim-blaming that you’ve fought during your life has latched onto your doubt and pain and hurt and is trying to whisper that it’s been right all along.

It’s not. It never was. Not for you, not for me, and not for all those countless women out there who have been assaulted. We didn’t do this. Our assaulters did. And so did the society that let them.

You asked me how you stop feeling like this, and I know why, but there’s a much more pressing issue at hand: you’re still working in the restaurant with your abuser. You’re still in danger.

And before anything else, before you will ever be able to even think about starting to recover, you need to get out of there. You’ll get another job. But if you keep working alongside this man, not only will your psyche never get the breathing room required to heal, but you’re at risk of being assaulted again. So you need to leave.

And because you know that this manager is abusive, that not only has he harmed you, but he has tried to harm at least one other woman who works for him, I also need you to seriously consider reporting him. I know this seems daunting and huge and like it will prolong and complicate a traumatic incident that you just want to move on from – but I need you to see it as action.

It’s taking your justified anger and directing it where it belongs: at your abuser. It’s protecting other women from him. It’s letting him and other men know that there are consequences for men who abuse women. It’s making sure that he can’t ignore your no this time.

I’m not going to order you to do this, or tell you that you have to. I can’t. I didn’t report the man who sexually assaulted me.

I understand your confusion and hurt and shame, and how pretending like you’re fine and continuing as normal seems like a quick fix to feeling normal. But it’s not. It’s merely pushing down the pain and letting it eat you from the inside.

I did that, and know how damaging it is. And I don’t want that for you.

Of course I think you should report your manager to the Gardai, but I also think you need to report him within the restaurant, so that they’re aware and can remove him immediately in order to keep you and the other employees safe – and in case any official Garda investigation doesn’t take action against him, that at least sanctions are still take against him.

You mentioned there’s another manager at the restaurant. Could you report the incident to them? And could the other woman who your assaulter tried to molest support you, either in person or anonymously via a letter/email?

What’s vital right now is that you don’t have any more engagement with him, and that others are aware of the situation so they can protect both you and themselves.

As for your emotionally recovery, unfortunately I can’t give you an easy answer. Everyone’s journey is unique, and it’s not easy. But I can tell you four things I know for sure.

1. You’re going to hear a lot of things about rape. Almost none of them are reasons, and absolutely none of them are to do with the victims. Rape happens because of rapists; by people who want to inflict harm or do wrong or who will do anything to convince themselves that what they do isn’t harmful or wrong. These are also the reasons for all types of evil.

2. Telling other people and asking for their support is going to be the hardest thing you do, and the most important. Having people who love you and understand your experience and who will give you the space and room to feel what you need to feel is going to be vital, and while may not feel like it in the moment, it’s going to act as reassurance that you are loved and you were wronged, and it will help undo or at least loosen that knot of self-blame that’s in the pit of your stomach.

And telling people about your experiences will also help you find those who want to love all of you, who want to help you through this, who are worthy of you and your truth. Tell people you trust, reach out to women who have been through the same thing – women you know, women online, both – and get yourself a therapist so you have a safe space that’s just for you and your thoughts and your healing process. Telling your story and having it heard and believed and felt is how you will begin to heal, and how you will teach others how to heal.

3. You will survive this, because you already have. A man sexually assaulted you. It was not your choice, or your fault, it was him. He made a decision to hurt you, and none of that is on you. It’s going to hurt, and be difficult, and your faith in humanity and men and yourself may well be shaken. But it will not define you. You are going to take time to heal, you are going to go on, and you are going to continue doing what you always did – using your knowledge and your passion and your empathy to dismantle the myths that tell women that sexual assault is their fault.

You are going to survive something fucking terrible and ugly and core-shaking, and you are going to emerge as even more beautiful and empathetic and compassionate than ever. You are going to get to a place where you stop turning that anger inwards and you use it as fuel to make the world better. You’re going to realise that talking is the most important thing you can do, that any woman can do, because if women keep speaking, keep sharing our experiences, keep supporting each other, keep fighting, the world will get better, inch by goddamn inch, because they can’t silence us all.

4. One day, you are going to meet a woman who has been hurt, and you are going to tell her that it wasn’t her fault, that she is amazing, that she will survive. You won’t just know this intellectually. You’ll feel it in your gut, like a pulse, like experience, like truth. Just like I know it about you.

Love to you, from the trenches.

 

***

Dear Roe, I’m a 23-year-old women, and I have a relationship with a guy but we don’t have a conventional version. We currently live together but are free to see and date other people. We agreed on this relationship and we both feel it works for us. I see it as being single together. The issue arises in where we live. We live in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Before we came we agreed to outwardly be “just friends” and be together at home if we wanted. It seems to be a good option based on the town we live in, but I wonder what impact it will have on our future relationship? Will it cause us to hide more in the future?

You letter is scant on details, which is always interesting. To be honest, when people write to advice columns, they usually err on the side of too much detail, which makes it hard not to read into absences.

But judging purely the information you’ve given me? You’re just sleeping with your housemate.

I’m fully supportive of open relationships and think that for many people, they can be a wonderful, empowering and truly fulfilling relationship model – but absolutely no one I know who is in an open relationship describes it as “being single together”.

Being in an open relationship means being committed to one another as partners, and committed to the relationship you share – but also seeing other people. Your version isn’t pitching you and this guy as any form of partners, other than in terms of real estate.

Sure, you have a relationship, in the sense that any two people who interact have a relationship, but you’re not giving me any indication that it’s a relationship with a capital “R”. I don’t get any sense that you’re a partnership, that you’re a united front, that you’re in this together.

Hell, I don’t even know if you’re “in” anything together, other than a house.

I understand that you live together, and can “be together at home if you want”. (Whatever that means. Presumably sex? Calling each other “honeybun”? Anything else?) But even that sounds very non-committal.

People in healthy relationships – open or not – don’t limit themselves to the literal and figurative confines of their house. Relationships need room to grow.

They involve shared experiences and an engagement with the outside world, as well as other people – not so they can bear witness to your relationship or validate it, but so that you two can see and feel how you operate in the world, not just the comfortable but limited bubble of your couch and your bed.

And what’s up with the “if we wanted to” part of that sentence? If you’re in a relationship, surely there’s a presumption that you want to be together. But yours seems to depend on your moment-to-moment whims, which seems more like a FWB situation.

But on the off-chance that I’m missing something, that maybe you’ve been in an open relationship for ages and are gloriously happy and have just moved to your new tiny town and are trying to navigate that, there’s still a glaring issue with your approach.

If you are in an open relationship and are dating other people, and even if you do want to avoid the gossip mill of small towns – you still have to tell the people you’re dating that you’re in an open relationship, and that you live with your partner.

The people you’re dating have a right to know that you’re already in a relationship, and if you tell them that you’re single, you’re lying to them, and not only being a potentially hurtful sneaky git, but you’re also giving people in open relationships a bad name and confirming commonly held suspicions that all people in open relationships are lying, sneaky gits.

And if you’re dating and being honest with your dates about being in an open relationship, shit’s probably going to get out, and people may talk – and then they’ll get over it. I think you’re overestimating how much a 23-year-old’s relationship is going to affect a community. This isn’t The Crucible.

As for the future of your relationship or Relationship, I have no idea how hiding out in your house together is going to affect you, other than you presumably getting a bit bored. But I think you and your guy need to have some conversations about what your relationship actually entails, why you’re in it and how you are going to healthily and happily navigate being together and being with other people.

Because right now I have no idea, and I’m not at all convinced that you do either.


Do you have a question for Roe? Submit it anonymously at dublininquirer.com/ask-roe

Author:

Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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