(Content Warning: sexual assault, drugging)
When I survived a woman-on-woman rape, one of my first thoughts when I started to tell people was “Will I be believed?” And my second question was “Will I be taken seriously?”
Several years before, when I’d had my first consensual sexual experience with a woman, a friend of mine told me that because it was with a woman, it “didn’t count.” That I wasn’t really “losing my virginity.”
Even though I knew these were all wrapped up in the virginity myth, in sexism and a lack of women’s autonomy, I still felt hurt. I felt like my friend was taking away something important from me – the ability to name, identify, and own my experiences.
Surviving a rape was nothing like having consensual sex for the first time. I was scared, vulnerable, and dealing with the traumatic aftermath of PTSD.
But I still didn’t want the ability to name and own what happened to me taken away by someone else’s definition of what makes a “real rape” or by the dismissal that a woman can’t be sexually violent.
I didn’t want my sexual trauma to define me, but I did want the ability to define it, to take control of my own narrative and feel that I could trust my support system to back me up.
Surviving sexual violence is a difficult and complicated process, but it was made infinitely easier by the fact that most people I talked to about it were fully supportive and didn’t turn my rape into “lesser-than” based on my attacker’s gender.
If you’re supporting a loved one who experienced a woman-on-woman rape, here are some things you can do to make them feel safe and comfortable talking to you about what happened.
1. Affirm That the Impact Is Serious, Regardless of the Attacker’s Gender or Orientation
Your loved one is going through a difficult time right now. She’s most likely dealing with the trauma of what happened, but she may already be dealing with internalized victim-blaming.
After I was raped, I went through a cycle of emotions. I’d heard in media and sex education that rapists and sexual predators were men, so I had a hard time believing that a woman could be sexually violent toward me.
The best thing that my friends and family members did when I told them was assure me that what happened to me was real and serious.
They gave me permission to use the word “rape,” and told me that the sexual violence I’d survived was serious and real. They didn’t question me when I told them my attacker was a woman, and they never insisted I use the term “sexual assault” instead, or imply that what happened to me was any less serious because of my rapist’s gender.
Because my loved ones took my experience seriously and reacted the same they would have if my attacker had been a man, it helped me take my own experience seriously. It also made me trust those people, and feel I could tell them more about what happened or come to them with related issues down the line.
2. Allow Them to Describe Their Experience with the Words They’re Comfortable With
This goes hand-in-hand with taking their trauma seriously.
I was lucky in that I never had any friends or family members take away my ability to name what happened to me. I did, however, have several medical professionals assume that it was “sexual assault” and “not rape” simply because of my rapist’s gender identity – and that’s not okay.
Regardless of what the legal definition of rape may be in your state, it’s really up to the survivor to define their experiences how they want to.
Depending on the acts that were committed, the legal definition might differ. While this doesn’t have to affect how people refer to the experience – many use the words “sexual assault” even if it could be defined as rape and vice versa – it can be one way that people choose to define the trauma.
If they want to use words like “rape” and “victim,” they can. If they want to call it sexual trauma and call themselves a “survivor,” they can. You should absolutely stand by their choices and give them the freedom of identifying their experiences on their own terms.
Calling an attack by a woman “sexual assault” regardless of what physically happened or how the survivor feels can insinuate that the attack wasn’t as traumatic or physically violent because of the gender of the assailant.
I’ve had people in my life question how I was unable to get away from my attacker, and how a physically small woman was able to overpower me in order to rape me. All of these things take away from the seriousness of rape, and they ignore many realities.
In my case, I’m physically disabled, which impacts my ability to get out of physically violent situations. I was also drugged by my assailant, but many people don’t believe that a woman is capable of doing this, or have never even thought about the possibility.
All of these issues are also tied up in victim-blaming, in the idea that it’s a survivor’s responsibility to be able to physically and mentally get away from a potentially violent or coercive situation.
One of the hardest things about surviving sexual violence is that, after already being stripped of your consent once, many well-meaning people strip you of your consent again afterward.
That’s what happens when people force you to identify in a specific way or don’t allow you to make your own choices regarding what happened.
If your loved one has a specific way they’d like to talk about the experience, give them the respect of allowing them to do so.
3. Allow the Survivor to Name Their Own Gender or Orientation
Just because the survivor’s attacker was a woman doesn’t mean they identify as queer.
When I first reported my rape to campus police, one of the first questions I was asked after identifying my rapist’s gender was my own orientation. Although I do identify as queer, this was completely irrelevant to my case.
I hadn’t expressed any interest in engaging in consensual sexual activity with this person, and I was drugged by my attacker and therefore unable to mentally consent.
Being asked this question really made me question my safety with the police officer, and ultimately, led to my decision not to move forward with my case.
If you’re talking to a survivor about their experiences, there’s no real reason to ask them how they identify or how their attacker identifies. Does it matter if they or their attacker are LGBTQIA+?
It doesn’t change the very real and serious crime, or the trauma they’re dealing with. If they want to open up to you about their sexuality on their own, they may choose to do so, and you should reaffirm them every step of the way.
4. Affirm Any Concerns They Have About the Aftermath of the Trauma
When I went to see a campus medical professional about getting tested for STIs after my rape, I was brushed off and hurried along.
The professional seemed not to believe that a woman could rape someone, or that if she could, it wouldn’t lead to any potential STIs. My questions about follow-up appointments and any other necessary medical testing were answered in a rush, and I wasn’t treated with the care and seriousness I felt the situation warranted.
Many survivors have concerns about health in the aftermath of sexual violence – anything from physical concerns, such as injuries that may have occurred or STIs, to mental health issues like PTSD.
This needs repeating: Serious consequences can happen as a result of sexual violence, no matter the gender identities of the assailant and the survivor.
If your loved one is concerned about going to see a therapist to talk about nightmares, for example, or going to get a rape kit done or being tested for STIs, reassure them that this is a good idea and take their concerns seriously.
5. Let the Survivor Define Their Relationship with Their Attacker
Upon telling people who don’t know me that I was raped by a woman, a typical follow-up question is, “Was she your girlfriend?” Even when woman-on-woman rape is validated in queer communities, it’s often assumed to be related to romantic relationships.
My rapist was a former friend I hadn’t spoken to in years; I had no romantic interest in her, and she’d developed an unhealthy obsession with me, which led to our falling out and decreased contact.
It hurts whenever someone assumes that, because I survived sexual violence, my rapist was a former lover. It’s especially hard to swallow because my actual girlfriend has been nothing but supportive and careful about having my enthusiastic consent for everything.
It’s fairly common to associate sexual violence and intimate partner violence with romantic relationships. But people often forget that family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers can commit violence as well.
If I’d had more people tell me that they recognized the signs of sexual assault and abuse with my former friend earlier, I would have cut ties with her much sooner and wouldn’t have blamed myself for many years after our friendship ended.
6. Don’t Assume the Attack Wasn’t Physically Violent
As I mentioned earlier, it’s common for people to react with surprise when I explain that my rapist is a woman and that she was able to overpower me.
Even putting aside the fact that I’m physically disabled (and that disabled women are at a much higher risk of experiencing sexual violence), this kind of thinking assumes that women can’t be violent, that women aren’t capable of using physical strength, weapons, drugs, or any other means to assert physical and sexual power over someone.
It’s also important to note that an attack doesn’t have to be physically violent to be sexual violence. Coercion and manipulation are just as dangerous, and can happen regardless of the attacker’s gender.
This also feeds into victim-blaming and into the idea that the survivor could’ve escaped the violence somehow.
Instead, reaffirm anything they tell you about what happened, and reassure them that it’s serious and that you’re someone safe who they can come to. They may have other people in their life who are diminishing what happened to them, and it can be incredibly powerful to have someone who tells you that what happened to you was not okay.
Surviving sexual violence is extremely complicated, and it isn’t an identical process for everyone who goes through it.
It’s especially tough for people who are marginalized or whose experiences diverge from the “typical story” surrounding what it means to be a sexual trauma survivor.
The best thing that my friends and family did in the aftermath was create an authentically safe space for me to talk about what happened to me, my experiences, my concerns, and my identity without dismissing anything I had to say or making me second-guess or victim blame myself.
They encouraged me to take what happened to me seriously, to understand it wasn’t my fault, and to seek medical attention for physical and emotional health needs following the rape. They reaffirmed my decisions, and when I considered reporting my rape, they supported me; and when I ultimately decided not to for personal reasons, they still supported me.
They gave me the opportunity to define what happened on my own terms, and gave me the support I needed during a difficult time.
As a multiply-marginalized person dealing with the aftermath of a kind of rape that isn’t generally given much thought, it was important that my loved ones supported me so fully and didn’t further take away my agency and my voice by denying what happened.
Alaina Leary is a Bostonian currently studying for her MA in publishing at Emerson College. She’s a disabled, queer activist and is on the social media team at We Need Diverse Books. She can often be found re-reading her favorite books and covering everything in glitter. You can find her at www.alainaleary.com or on Instagram and Twitter @alainaskeys.