This is the start of a series that addresses the questions that many people have surrounding rape. Beyond the very public statements that have come out against rape, where it is highlighted that rape is, indeed, awful and the stories that have highlighted the various types of rape that people experience, there are a lot of questions that are also coming to light. Many of those questions are tough to answer, especially for myself and my peers, because those questions can be triggering or they can seem confrontational. But, in many cases, some of those questions are asked out of honest curiosity and ignorance and some are asked because our culture simply hasn’t gotten around to giving a significant answer for them. I’m going to attempt to cover as many of those as I can. Some of these articles aren’t necessarily going to be built around a specific question, but might be written about a specific concept or a myth or something like that which is wrapped up in many rape experiences. I’m going to not only answer questions that have been asked of me, but I’m also going to address things that I might see as common responses to people talking about rape. Please bear with me, as the hardest part of this project is likely going to pretty much be everything about it.
Before I get started, let me say that I’ve appreciated that so many people have come out with their own story. It is really tough to do that. It took me quite a while to finally tackle my own story to make it public and it was so tough to do, I couldn’t get back on track to write more about the subject for several weeks. It is still difficult to get into specifics about it. Knowing that, I must say that I sincerely admire and am grateful for those who share their experiences. Writing about these things can bring back extremely vivid memories that are painful to get through. The emotions that we felt before often come back to us. Some people might shut down or their brain may go into a kind of defense mode that forces them into a state of mind that causes their actions to be different from their emotions (which means a person who is stressed might laugh or smile). Each person, depending on where they are in their healing and recovery and how well they are coping as well as various other factors may have a different set of behaviors that go along with telling others about their story.
Another note or two: This article uses the word “friend” when it could also mean acquaintance, peer, or complete stranger who just seems to be in a situation. It is easier to use the word “friend” than to use any other word that I could think of. Just bear in mind that I could be talking about anyone that you’re concerned about. Your ability to help them may vary depending on what type of relationship you have with them. Also, this article assumes that you’re already aware of a potential problem. It isn’t fool-proof advice because, really, you can’t always be aware of a threat. I try to account for that problem within the advice, but that doesn’t make it perfect. I wish I could say that there were perfect solutions to be had, here, but there are not. These are still the best I can offer. I also am focusing this article on social situations in public, such as at a party or an event. This environment can have additional complications, as people who are in groups tend to not react quite as well when something bad is happening. Be prepared to act on things that are wrong, even when people around you don’t want to rock the boat.
The first question I’m going to address has to do with the response that some people have had to a few of the stories that people have come out with. I’m addressing this one because as people have told their stories, others who might have witnessed fragments of something going on, or who may have been around a possible rapist or who may have even seen the victim before it happened have been also going through a range of thoughts and emotions related to what happened. For those who saw the victim before their assault, this can cause a person to be quite disturbed and it could lead to them experiencing a kind of guilt. That leads to a range of problems for them, because beyond being emotionally hurt, they also wonder about what they could have done. How does a person intervene when they suspect a person might become a victim of rape? What does a person do? What are the signs that a friend needs help? What if the potential assailant resists your attempt to help? What about social norms?
All of those questions, plus more, are valid and important. I want to make it very clear that if a friend is raped after you saw them with the person who raped them, that doesn’t make you responsible for what happened to them. Obviously, it is the rapist’s fault for raping your friend. This article is not intended to make people feel responsible for what happens to those around them. But, it does give people something to work with if they are concerned about someone they know being in potential danger.
One big complaint, when the topic of consent comes up is that consent is a mood-breaker. This isn’t always the case, but it comes up frequently. No matter the context, from discussing rape prevention by asking consent to touch someone else to the topic we’re about to tackle, a friend voicing a concern about consent, this complaint is likely to come up. There are a lot of awful implications if one is to believe that seeking consent ruins the mood. The most disturbing aspect is that this belief prioritizes the sexual sensation that an individual is feeling over the emotions of their partner, to the point that the individual’s sexual drive trumps any possibility that their partner may not want what they want. Within the context of someone trying to get sex from someone that they’re interacting with in a public social setting, this belief also says that a person’s sexual desire is more important than not only the desire and safety of the person they’re interested in, but it also is more important than the concerns of that person’s friends, loved ones and other peers. So, the belief that consent is not sexy and can ruin the moment is certainly misguided and icky. That isn’t to say that seeking consent is always sexy (it isn’t, because it adds the risk of someone turning you down, at the very least), but seeking consent is a more ethical approach than ignoring the needs and interests of others. By extension, a person who is concerned about another person shouldn’t worry that they might ruin the mood for others if they are simply checking to make sure that someone isn’t in a bad situation. A person who’s advances are being put on hold, for just a moment so that the person they’re interested in, for the night, can be checked on should be grateful that one human being is doing something caring for another, even if it means they don’t get what they want, for the night. Checking on others’ well being should be a default behavior, not observing the social norm of ignoring that someone could be in harm’s way.
So, what are things that you can do to help if you are concerned about the well-being of someone you know who seems to be being propositioned for sex or who might be incapable of giving consent for sex?
Take the person you’re concerned about away from the possible threat. The tough part of this is that many Pick Up Artist and other dating advice books tell people to separate the one they are interested in from friends they might be hanging out with. Literally, these books give advice to enable predatory behavioral patterns (a whole other article could be written about that problem). Even without the assistance of such books, many people have learned that doing such a thing is a part of our own courting process. But, when a person is in danger, this kind of action keeps them from being able to seek help. No matter if the person who has separated another person from their peers is dangerous or not, your actions have to assume that your friend may not be able to express to them any concerns and that they may not be able to share their concerns with you if the person is nearby. So, getting the person you’re concerned about away from them is the very first step to ensuring their safety. This doesn’t mean that you’re going to stop anything from happening, this just means you are giving them the ability to voice any concerns they might have.
Many people take a “wingman” or “wingwoman” with them to help them find companionship in social settings, usually in bars or at parties. This person is usually supposed to help distract whatever peers are present that might be occupying the time of whoever their friend is interested in.* Don’t allow such a person to interfere with you trying to interact with the person you’re concerned about. Let them know that you need to talk to someone and when you get your friend away from the person that has caused concern, be sure you’re also away from the wingman/woman.
If you have trouble getting your friend away from either the person who he or she was interacting with or getting by their wingperson, don’t be afraid to let them know you’re concerned about your friend. If you assert that you feel they might be a danger, they’re likely to be defensive, but it also lets them know that someone is interested in your friend’s safety. If they deny that your friend is danger, then remind them that if that’s true, then there is no reason for them to worry about you checking on your friend. If they are still unwilling to let you get your friend away from them, then go ahead and assume they are a problem and if you need to, get help from others.
Check to see if they are drunk or how drunk they are. This is obviously a really tough thing to do without a proper blood alcohol test, but since you’re not testing for the same purposes as a driver’s test, that makes it a bit easier. You’re testing for their capacity to make decisions. The ability to make good decisions is actually one of the earlier symptoms of intoxication. In most people, it actually comes right after relaxation. Expect a person who has had alcohol to be a little bit warmer to the touch. That’s not an indicator that their judgment is impaired, but it is a good indicator to you that you might want to check for other symptoms of intoxication. If their behavior has become exaggerated and they seem to have lost control of some of their smaller muscle groups (lack of coordination in fingers, trouble directing their line of sight) and they seem to lack inhibition, then their ability to make decisions is likely to be slightly impaired. Basically, they’re functioning a bit slower than normal. This is an unfortunate hazy area, where it is uncertain if they can make a responsible decision or not. I will note that there isn’t a way to know, definitively, if they can, in this condition. If the following symptoms are present, it is likely that their judgment is impaired and they can’t reasonably consent to sex: Their muscle coordination is poor, they have slurred speech, loss of balance, trouble understanding people, delayed reactions to things happening around them, loss of self-control, memory trouble, slow thinking or vomiting. I admit, I’m of the unpopular opinion that even someone in the hazy area of this spectrum should not be allowed to remain with someone that seems like a risk or to remain in a situation that seems unsafe.
Spend some time talking to your friend and letting them process what you’re saying. Be patient with them. There are a variety of reasons why communication might be difficult, even when you’re only trying to check on someone’s safety. Things ranging from loud music to levels of intoxication to someone trying to follow social norms to shock about something that is happening might make it hard for your friend to communicate with you.
Also be aware that your gender might matter. It seems like it shouldn’t, it may even seem offensive to know that. But, sometimes the gender you present as might seem threatening to a person who is already trying to escape an assault. For example, people with violent experiences with men may be uncomfortable if a man is helping them. That doesn’t mean that any man helping them is bad and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they think all men are bad. It just means that in a stressful situation, they may be unable to trust a man. This can also happen with people who have been victims of women, affecting their ability to get help from women, or it may be true for other reasons, as well. If it seems like that may be a problem, see if someone of a different gender as you, that your friend is comfortable with, can assist you. You don’t have to leave the person you’re helping, just let someone in on the plan to help and both of you can remain to help him or her.
The first thing to remember, though, is to be extra careful about your communication. If you sound like you are shaming your friend, blaming her or him for being in a tough situation or that you’re being overly bossy, they may not be prepared to listen to the rest of whatever you have to say and/or you might accidentally make them feel bad for something that they should not feel bad for. Also be careful not to say bad or misleading things about the person they were with. That could make them feel worse or it may accidentally seem accusatory. You can say, “hey, I noticed you were with X, but I wanted to make sure you’re OK, see if you need anything and give you a chance to rest, for a moment.” This keeps your language from accidentally becoming accusatory. Let your friend know that you’re concerned about the situation and let them know you understand that they are not necessarily in control. Let them know that your goal is to see if they are in control or, if they are not, you’ll help them regain control of the situation.
When you are talking with them, be sure to listen and repeat what they’re saying to both reinforce their openness to you and also to be sure you know what they’re trying to say.
Ask them if they need anything and if you can get them that thing, do so. If something has already happened, sexual assault, even attempted sexual assault can result in a shock that might last a while. The person may not be aware of everything around them and may not comprehend all of your concerns. They also may not even have had the chance to think about the possibility of being in danger. If they need food, get them food. If they need water, get them water. Give them whatever they need to comfort them and process the situation. If you can’t help, find someone that is trustworthy that can. Sometimes, they may just need you to listen.
Be clear about your concern for their safety. If you think they can’t reasonably consent to something sexual, let them know that. Let them know if you think the person they are with wants sex and be very clear about your concern about their current limitations. Check to make sure the person doesn’t feel obligated to the pursuer. Let them know that they don’t have social obligations to be alone with someone or do something with someone if they don’t want to.
If you still have to deal with the other person, be straight-forward. You can tell the person that your friend is drunk, that they can’t reasonably consent to sex. Let them know that you’re aware that they might be interested in your friend. Don’t dismiss their interest, but be clear that your friend is not capable of setting her own safe boundaries, right then. Understand that they might see this as a confrontation. Stopping them might upset them, so do your best to not invalidate them, while still protecting your friend. If they offer a phone number, take it and say you’ll give it to your friend in the morning. If they want to talk to your friend, tell them that they can do that when your friend is sober (or when your friend is done talking to you, whichever seems more likely or reasonable). If they seem like a real risk, let them know that it is their responsibility not to cause your friend harm and remind them that you’re simply someone who has a concern.
If they become aggressive or frustrated, acknowledge their frustration, but let them know that your concern is going to have to take priority over their frustration. It isn’t personal, it is simply a matter of safety. The pursuant might deny that anything is wrong, even if the acquaintance is upset. Be prepared to let them know that if you determine that there’s nothing wrong, you’ll let your friend go with them.
Take your friend to someplace safe. If they seem to be impaired, then it is likely that they might need help finding a safe place to be. Find someone that can be trusted to help you get them to a safe place or plan on spending the evening with them where they are safe from whatever threat might be present. Try to form a plan for their safety, if you haven’t already planned something with them, earlier. If you are not familiar enough with the person to get them to safety, try to find someone who is and ask them to help you.
In case you have to leave them, let your friend know that if something does happen, you’re there for her and/or let them know where they can get help. Make sure that they have that information written down, somewhere.
Obviously, don’t let them go with a stranger or someone they don’t know well. If you’re at a hotel, don’t leave them in a room that isn’t their own. Don’t trust whoever you were concerned about to go with you to their room or to wherever you take them.
If your friend insists on remaining with the other person, know that you might not be able to stop them. While a drunken person can’t consent to sex, it is still unethical to detain an adult unlawfully. You can’t force a drunken person to not go with another person. There are a variety of reasons why a person may not want to leave a situation they are in. A person who is in a risky situation may decline help based on a variety of factors, including cultural, social, mental issues and even their level of intoxication. We have to recognize that adults are free to make their own decisions and we can’t control them. A person who is at risk often has every right to take those risks. Don’t tell them what you would do as if your own actions would be better. That’s an unrealistic way to think about the situation (you don’t know what is in their head or all of the details). Instead, let them know you’re able to help, if they need it. Again, make sure they have a way to contact you or to get help from others, just in case.
When there is a problem that is obvious, and the victim’s ability to go with you might be restricted, find a safe way to interrupt. For example, if someone is acting aggressively towards your friend and you can’t simply ask your friend to go with you, cause a distraction. Doing something like dropping your keys between the people involved in a conflict, or spilling something in a manner that interferes with whatever is happening might allow enough of a break from the violence to help you get between the individuals involved, or at least de-escalate whatever is happening. Get someone to help you, if you can. If you do choose to get between the victim and the assailant, try to do so in a manner that is non-violent. A person who is already acting violently or who has already tried to sexually assault someone may try to convince the victim to come back over to them or to get you out of the way. Often, this involves attempts at manipulation or violence. Try to get the victim to someplace safe, and if you can get security or law enforcement involved, do so. Make a lot of noise, if you have to.
Use resources that are around you. Find out who is in charge where you are, if there is anyone in charge, and alert them to any concerns. If you think someone is being raped, call the police. Erring on the side of caution is not wrong when someone’s life and well being are at risk.
There are things you can do to be prepared, in general, when you’re out with friends. Carry information about local resources, such as sexual assault response teams, advocacy networks and help lines. Be sure that you and everyone you are with knows what emergency numbers they can use for that area. If you’re in a public place, check where there are people with authority, such as a concierge, manager, bouncer, etc. Also take the time to look for the exits (people should do that, anyway, even if they aren’t worried about a violent situation or other social dangers). If you are at an event or an institution, be aware of sexual harassment and abuse policies. This could be just an awareness of local laws or the policies of the organization. Being aware of these things can help you get assistance quickly and can also let you know what should be happening when you do seek help.
It is also helpful to have an evening plan, when you’re out with friends. Have your friends pre-arrange how they are getting home and who they will be going home with. In the interest of not ruining someone’s plans for the night, if a friend plans on having sex with someone, it is OK to be open about it (I know, society frowns on this, but sexual safety is more important than society’s view of sexual safety). Be sure that people have condoms on hand. Don’t just rely on the buddy system, but have your group of friends each be responsible for checking on others. The major flaw in the buddy system is that a buddy might become unreliable. So, having people each check on two or three people reduces the risk that someone might get ignored and hurt.
This advice is certainly not all of the best advice in the world related to this topic. I’m giving the best information I can based on my own training and education. I’m open to the advice of others, or even questions about why I offer these specific instructions. Send me any related question that you would like and I’ll do my best to answer it. If I don’t know the answer, I will try to find one for you.
Remember, if something does happen it is not the victim’s fault. It is not the fault of anyone but the person who has harmed them.
*Literally, Pick Up Artist books sometimes build strategies which assume an interrupting person is a “jealous friend.” Go ahead and take your time to be disgusted about that.