How to Offer Support for Loved Ones Who Have Been Sexually Harassed or Assaulted

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From SFU.ca

Sexual harassment and assault happen more often than you think. It’s just that survivors stay silent for fear of not being believed.

Whether you’re reeling from the outpouring of sexual predation accusations in Ateneo or the Brett Kavanaugh trial re-triggered awful memories for you/the people you love, I’ve put together a little primer for the friends and loved ones who would like to help and support someone who underwent such a terrible experience (sometimes more than once).

DOs

  1. Assess your own emotions and state of mind first. So you’ve heard the news that someone you care about was harassed or assaulted. Is it perhaps making you go through the stages of grief? Are you perhaps a survivor too, re-experiencing your own traumatic event after hearing about what someone you know went through? All these feelings are normal. They serve as your gauge as to whether or not you can be of any help at this moment in time. And if you can’t be? That’s perfectly all right. There’s a reason why airplane emergency procedures tell you to put your oxygen mask over yourself before helping anyone else–take care of yourself first.
  2. Always ask them what they need first. This one particularly applies to assault survivors. If you can be there for them physically and you happen to be affectionate, ask them if it’s okay for you to touch them. The assaulted often feel disempowered from make their own choices; you’ll be doing them a kindness by letting them decide your interactions. After this, ask them how you can help: do they need someone to drive them to the doctor? A listening ear? Someone to research a specialist? Someone to help them write down and file a complaint? Would they rather not do any of the above and just need the company of someone they trust? Or are they simply too drained to perform normal activities under circumstances, such as eating, drinking water, calling to pay the bills, and so on? Help them with whatever they need to the best of your abilities.
  3. If you don’t know what to say to them the first time you hear of their story, you can use any of these phrases. If you’ve decided to reach out to them, know that it is terribly easy to say the wrong thing. These phrases will not only deepen their trust in you. Some are keys to helping them release their emotions. They are: “You’re not alone.” “It’s not your fault.” “I believe you.” “I’m sorry that happened to you.” “That should never have happened to you.” “I’m here to help in any way I can.”
  4. Figure out what kind of help you’re willing and able to offer. This is especially great once you’re reassured that your loved one has people in their support network who are already helping them do the heavy lifting, but you’d still like to be of some help. Not someone who’s good at holding or listening to difficult conversations? Do you not have the time or mobility to be physically there for your friend? Pictures and videos of cute animals, as well as care packages, are always welcome. Even if it’s just a link to a funny meme, your loved one will be heartened to know that you’re thinking of them. As an example, batchmate of mine whom I’d never really spoken to in person recently reached out to me, admitting that they are not good at the above mentioned things, and yet she sent me a link to a philosophy video. And though I honestly have yet to watch it, I was really moved by her wanting to help me.
  5. Remember that your loved one will need support for the long-term and not just for the next few weeks and months. Don’t forget to check up on them from time to time. If they still don’t want to talk about what happened, spend time with them anyway. Help them around the house or arrange for a hangout or vacation somewhere new.

DON’Ts

  1. Don’t make their experience about you. This is why it’s important to check your own emotions and state of mind, first. You may feel tempted to deny that this ever happened to your loved one, because your anger and guilt at having been unable to protect them overwhelms you. You may feel a reflexive impulse to doubt their experience and defend their attacker/harasser because that person treated you very well in the past, and it is difficult for you to reconcile the attacker/harasser’s two sides–or that you may have never really known that person at all. You may even want your loved one to keep quiet because you either can’t stand the idea that you may have been complicit in a system of abuse OR you feel that their speaking up will ruin your reputation or the reputation of the group you both belong to. If you experienced something similar yourself, their own experience may even make your identity feel threatened because you brushed off your own experience the first time and don’t like thinking of yourself as a victim. You’re not to be blamed if these feelings are your first impulse–the important thing is that you do not act on them. Focus on your loved one, their experience, and the fact that you pledged to support them no matter what.
  2. Don’t assume you know what’s best for them–and order them to do it. Let’s say you’re in their corner all the way. You set a meeting with them in a cozy cafe, pay for their order, and tell them to tell you their story–or if they don’t want to talk about it, you start telling them to go see a therapist, start filing a report, and so on. Recognize that these are all what you think you would do in such a situation. Though these are all good deeds in and of themselves, you haven’t asked them how they would like to be treated and what they would like to do moving forward. As a result, you’re putting unnecessary pressure for them to move on and therefore indirectly invalidating their experience. Let them decide how, when, and where they would like to manage their own pain.
  3. Don’t put a deadline on their healing process. You don’t ask a cancer patient when they will be healed. Similarly, you don’t ask a survivor when they’re going to get over what happened to them. If you do, you’ll put unnecessary pressure on them–and they’ll start to think they’re broken or abnormal if they don’t meet the “deadline.” As mentioned above, supporting the sexually harassed/assaulted means being in it for the long haul. Understand and accept that their experience will have changed them, but you don’t have to alter your relationship with each other for the worse with this kind of reaction.

Sources:

RAINN.org

PsyCom.net

– Me, a sexual assault survivor

A funny thing happened while I was at Clarion: On Filipinoness in writing

Some Philippine mangoes. I wrote a story that made my classmates say, "I'll think of this story whenever I eat a mango." Photo from agritoursph.wordpress.com
Some Philippine mangoes. I wrote a story that made my classmates say, “I’ll think of this story whenever I eat a mango.” Photo from agritoursph.wordpress.com

 

So, one of the grandest adventures of my life ended a few days ago. I’m back home and my jet lag and letting everything soak in and reconsidering a lot of things. I may not have blogged during all my time there like I planned, but I think I’ll be posting a series of blogs processing the experience, instead.

This is one of them.

Just before I flew off to the US, I wrote a post about struggling to come to terms with a heritage I felt detached from. To sum up some parts of it, I was afraid of having to represent the Filipino people while also feeling like the Filipino people have never once represented me. This had much to do with language, familial upbringing, economic class, and what have you. I may have been just a teensy bit afraid that once I got to the workshop, others would expect me to write about being Filipino, just as local writers have expected me to do here (I need not have worried about that).

But something strange happened once I got there, and I guess everyone who leaves the motherland ends up experiencing what I did to some degree or another.

Ready? Here it is:

I never felt more Filipino than when I was living in San Diego.

I cannot count the many times I felt like a small-town girl occasionally muttering small-town phrases and wearing small-town clothes and missing small-town food–and I come from a freaking megalopolis!

And, for some reason, I could not stop writing about Filipinos. Even when I set my story in a secondary world, there was still something unmistakably Filipino about the characters and the world they lived in.

At Clarion, I wrote about two different writers calling to life their ideal mates via their writings (week 2, “The Politics of Ink: A Love Story”, 1319 words); a slave aspiring to be an epic chanter who relates how the mango came to be and ties it with her love of her brother, her hatred of her mistress, and the fall of a kingdom (week 3, “Song for My Brother”, 8062 words); two gay men dealing with the fallout of their relationship as one of them prepares to go to a distant planet to pursue a grant for the study of its creatures (week 4, “The Siren Call of the Rimefolk”, 4653 words); and a small family living in a tropical city stricken by a natural disaster (week 6, “Blushing Blue”, 3107 words).

(My week 5 story was a flash called “The Bride Who Would End the World”–the setting was mostly generic because I wanted to create a new myth tying an apocalypse to a cosmic wedding. Didn’t pan out as well as I hoped, but it’s a first draft written on a cellphone because my traitorous laptop broke down as I was writing the week 4 story).

Whether I stated it outright or not, these stories all had a Philippine base to the setting.

My one-on-one with Cat Valente really helped smooth this out. She explained to me that she herself never felt more like a California girl than when she was living as a Navy wife in Japan.

“Some writers have their own agendas and believe that you should only be writing what they themselves write–which shouldn’t be the case,” she told me. “You can choose to fight against writing about Filipinos. That’s a legitimate choice. But you should also go with whatever lights a fire beneath you.”

And I did. I don’t regret it. Will it extend toward my future work? Who knows?

Other friends of mine who understood my pre-Clarion angst have told me, “What makes your stories Filipino is that you are Filipino. You will carry that with you everywhere.” And they’re right, too.

A classmate of mine said during my final critique session for the whole workshop, “And, I’m sorry, but because you are a Filipino, I read this as an alternative Philippines.”

I should have told him, “Don’t be sorry. That’s really what it is and that’s really who I am.”

Fact vs. Fiction: On reading social issues in Disney’s ‘The Princess and the Frog’ (a response)

Poster of "The Princess and the Frog," taken from  the movie's Wikipedia entry.
Poster of “The Princess and the Frog,” taken from the movie’s Wikipedia entry.

Yesterday, I came across this blog post called The Pricess and the Frog: A Feminist Fairytale from Feministing.com. It was a trend for me because I was researching on what others had to say about Hercules (1997) and The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) (and their respective TV spin-offs), and yes, I adore The Princess and the Frog (2009). It was the first movie my boyfriend and I saw together (on his laptop in our university’s study hall).

I’ve known a long while now that Disney, even though I grew up with and loved its 90s Renaissance era films, wasn’t exactly known for its feminism, historical accuracy, and cultural representation, to name a few things. But I decided to open that can of worms, in the name of picking up a few useful somethings.

Note that I only carry these opinions because I was raised in a traditionally patriarchal Filipino setting, on a steady diet of Western cartoons and books—but somehow, I don’t buy the traditional gender roles foisted upon women by my own culture. It was not just the Disney Princess line at work on my psyche here.

Anyway, the post itself is all right, but it’s the comments that are a riot. I’m always surprised (occasionally taken aback) by the sheer number of people who misread a work of art, whether this is overreading or not reading enough. Someone in the thread said something along the lines of “It’s okay, it’s just fiction,” and it got me wondering: when is it appropriate to say that and when is it just an excuse?

I’m not saying my own interpretation of the film is 100% correct, but that is the beauty of art: there is no “correct” interpretation.

However, the work itself has a scope and limitations, just like any decent research paper, and some people like to criticize art for things that are way beyond its implied scope and limitations. I’m not saying you can’t stretch its limits, but oftentimes, people forget its scope in a critique.

Case in point. Some of the comments (before they devolved into a critique of one person’s comment about personally not finding anything wrong with wanting a family even after getting an Ivy league education and the first, vicious reaction to this comment) discuss how the film completely disregards the social and classist issues prevailing in 1930s New Orleans that really hindered the so-called “glorified individualism” part of American culture, as exhibited by Tiana’s character.

Also discussed is the “problem” of Tiana and Lottie’s friendship, which boiled down to “why is there a problem with portraying wealthy black families onscreen?”

The issue of marriage naturally came up as well, about whether it was a side plot or something necessary for the hard-working career woman to have. And the speciesism? I couldn’t even wrap my head around that one; more research on my part is needed.

Now, if I said “it’s only fiction” to these people, that would be an excuse to get away from all these arguments.

In art and in life, a delicate balance of both must be struck; you’re never going to get it completely (exhibit A: Disney’s misrepresentation of the Voodoo religion), but you’re never gonna please everybody, either. I laud Disney for really attempting the balance, though.

I don’t know squat about the race issues between blacks and whites in America beyond what I’ve seen on TV and read in books, being a Southeast Asian living in the Philippines whose people have their own race issues. But I do know that The Princess and the Frog is a G-rated Disney musical for children. I highly doubt it could have been classified as such if the problems of the Deep South in the 20s and 30s were accurately represented; liberties will and must be taken. Moreover, it was wonderful to see a Disney heroine with so single-minded a purpose as a achieving a dream that has nothing to do with Prince Charming or happily ever after—something I didn’t quite feel in its successor, Tangled (2010).

Children’s movies need a healthy mix of fantasy and reality to get the message across. Maybe for Disney, some social issues need to take a backseat in order to tackle the main one? I don’t know. They’re not known for being good at that, so I suppose this effort in that context is a big one.

As a children’s movie, I think it depicted just enough of reality (like when Tiana and her mother were taking the bus home and it was shown that their neighborhood consisted solely of financially-struggling blacks). I had no problem with Lottie and her family being rich and white because that was the way things were, back in the day. What was truly remarkable about Lottie and Tiana’s friendship was that it existed at all—and sure, it’s only fiction. Maybe that kind of family with that kind of attitude toward people was not the norm in the American South of the 20s. Lottie and her dad are the exception, and an exceptional fictional example of human decency. Her friendship with Tiana is so strong that she, in full princess-bride get up and inches away from her dream of becoming a princess and getting her prince and happily ever after, offers to kiss Naveen in order to break the spell–no marriage required. How’s that for debunking the infamous Disney Princess image?

Kids are intelligent, no denying that. But the age group to which Disney caters should be shown movies accurately depicting life’s harsh realities when their ages hit the double-digits. Let them have their happy childhoods first, or they will grow up cynical. Besides, many of the more complicated symbolisms go over their heads anyway (example: I did not realize the sexual politics behind Hercules until I was much older); for as long as they’re at the age they are, we should keep molding their foundations with positive messages. And when that’s been built, then do you let them see the darker side and the gray patches of reality.

In the end, I have yet to make up my mind as to whether or not the human race places too much emphasis in the role of media as the hands that form the clay of the human mind. I think of the Catholic Church and well-meaning parents who go to crazy lengths to censor a work for its “depravity” or “obscenity” or whatever, even if all the work does is work along the lines of “what if.” I think that’s when it’s okay to say “it’s only fiction”—when the work is challenging one’s pre-conceived notions and the “taboo” status of a subect. One must delineate between fact and fiction…but at the same time, one must be open to what it might be trying to say, as all good fiction contains a grain of truth.

The only time it’s not okay is when it outright fictionalizes and romanticizes—not merely borrows elements from—an existing culture. That’s a recipe for promoting stereotypes. Perhaps that is why Disney will always have the problem of culture, gender, and sex on its hands, as it often fails to strike a balance when depicting cultures completely foreign (look at the way Genie in Aladdin (1990) and Mushu in Mulan (1998) are so staunchly American—perhaps that is their way of keeping up audience interest).

The Princess and the Frog, however flawed it may be, is a big step in that long way to go. Let’s see how Disney does with Frozen.