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Disclosures and Silencing

I got a disclosure this weekend from a friend on the way to a party. I wasn't expecting it at all. I had made a quick off-handed joke about my work at BARCC during our walk over to the bar, and next thing I knew, I was hearing some intensely personal stories. Thankfully, BARCC has trained me well for situations like these, and I have a decent toolset for working with a survivor who chooses to disclose to me. I hope I have done well by anyone who has decided to tell me about their rape.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, but the number of disclosures I got from friends and acquaintances after I started volunteering with BARCC shocked me when I first started training. It was as if volunteering for BARCC had flipped a switch on how friends and family viewed me: now that I had made a public commitment (well, public in my case - I'm not usually that quiet about being involved with BARCC) to a rape crisis center, I was a safe listener. I got stamped with the BARCC brand-name, and that made me accessible to survivors in a way that I must not have been beforehand. Friends I'd known for years disclosed to me during my training. Co-workers disclosed to me. The difference of two months, from when I started training to when I ended it, felt to me like the world had opened up a hellmouth a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and poured sexual pain and trauma at me that I had never seen before. I went from thinking I knew basically no one who was a survivor to knowing a lot of survivors. In the years since my training, the trend has generally continued. As I add new people to my social world, I can usually guarantee that once the knowledge trickles down through the group that I volunteer with BARCC, someone will disclose to me.

The difference between thinking I didn't know any survivors, and then finding out I actually knew many survivors was a major turning point in my understanding of sexual violence as an issue. When I first got involved in BARCC, I did so mostly out of a sense that sexual violence was a big patriarchal form of oppression, and that by joining BARCC, I'd be fighting a grand and very abstract evil. Sure, I knew about some of the basic statistics; I had read that one in four women would experience sexual assault, but like a lot of folks who don't work in the world of violence prevention regularly, I almost...didn't believe it. I had almost no context for it. A quarter of my friends or family were survivors of assault? That couldn't possibly be true. I wasn't even sure a quarter of the people I knew breathed air on a regular basis - it was just way too big a number to be true. If it WAS true, if a quarter of my friends were survivors, how was the whole damn world not screaming about this? How was I not drowning in despair about this? That was the difference between being a safe ally and friend and being just a friend. I wasn't aware of how many survivors I knew. I couldn't be.

Katha Pollitt, one of my favorite writers, described this duality between how prominent sexual violence IS versus how prominent many of us THINK it is in her rebuttal to Katie Roiphe's 1994 book The Morning After: Fear, Sex, and Feminism. Roiphe's book was a critical look at rape-prevention culture in the early '90s, and was written very much from the perspective of the type of person I used to be - someone who cared about sexual violence, but thought that all the numbers and stats just had to reflect some sort of doctored data. Roiphe insisted that women must have been redefining bad sex as rape, because if they were all experiencing this trauma, she would know about it as their friend, right? Pollitt wrote:

ONE in five, one in eight- what if it's "only" one in ten or twelve? Social science isn't physics. Exact numbers are important, and elusive, but surely what is significant here is that lots of different studies, with different agendas, sample populations, and methods, tend in the same direction. Rather than grapple with these inconvenient data, Roiphe retreats to her own impressions: "If I was really standing in the middle of an epidemic, a crisis, if 25 per cent of my female friends were really being raped, wouldn't I know about it?" (emphasis mine)

I didn't know, before I started volunteering with BARCC, just how many of the important people in my life had been affected by rape. They didn't tell me. This was a wise calculation on the part of my friends. Even if I was a close friend of theirs, if they didn't have real firm proof that I was going to be a safe person to disclose to - that I would believe them, not mock them, not judge them, and listen - they wouldn't disclose. Many of them had plenty of evidence from their past of trying to trust close friends or partners with a disclosure, and not getting the support they needed. So they stopped talking about their rapes. They stopped telling anyone. Disbelief is the way culture tells us we're supposed to treat disclosures about rape; most survivors learn real fast that if they want to disclose, they need to find someone who can ignore or shrug off that social training.

And this is where I think the capital "o" Oppression comes back into the picture. Most people won't hear a lot of disclosures. They won't volunteer for a rape crisis center, and they won't find out, personally, that a quarter of their friends have experienced sexual assault. Keeping rape survivors quiet by shaming them, by disbelieving them, by making reporting incredibly difficult to do logistically serves the purpose of making it harder for most people to understand how endemic sexual violence is to our culture. Doing these things - shaming, disbelieving, throwing up roadblocks to disclosing - these aren't the actions of a shadowy group of old white men in a secret room running the Patriarchy(TM) - this is something that most of us will do at some point without meaning to. I know I have made stupid sexist jokes, or rape jokes, or used the word rape carelessly while playing Borderlands in the past, and each one of those things told the survivors in my life that I wasn't safe for a disclosure. Did these actions oppress all of womenkind, or all survivors? No, probably not, but what it did do up until I started working with BARCC and became a lot more cognizant of my behavior was keep my friends who were survivors from talking to me. I wouldn't understand the affect that rape has had on my world until I stopped acting like someone who didn't care about it.

My friend who disclosed to me this weekend wasn't looking for a lot of support; she just wanted me to know that this was an experience she had. It was another disclosure in what is becoming a depressingly long list of friends who have been affected by rape. I need more friends who can be allies to them. I've only got two ears, and I can't be everywhere in my social group. I can't be the only one in my peer group who is safe; I'm terrified I'm going to not be present when someone needs me, or I'm not going to have the emotional energy to get a disclosure, and I'm going to mess up a survivor's healing. I can't continue being the only person in a group that knows who the survivors are; I can't be the only one who tries to make environments safe for possible survivors who I maybe haven't heard from yet. And I can't fight back against the system alone that keeps silencing survivors.

While I'm glad that I have the opportunity to serve as a safe ally, and I treasure that trust and work very hard to maintain it with my peers, what I really want is for everyone to be a safe ally. I want everyone to know how epidemic sexual violence is, how it affects all of us every damn day, whether we're survivors or not. I want survivors to be able to tell their stories whenever they need to, to be able to scream it, with the full anger it deserves, at the whole world without being shamed, ignored, or unheard. I want the silence and the stigma and the fear and the shame to go away, to leave survivors forever, because the day that happens is the day I won't have to hear any more disclosures. I won't have to hear any more of my friends tell me they were raped or groped or assaulted. We'll be able to yell it at the rest of the world and make it change, because everyone will be able to see how sick and ridiculous it is that rape is so prominent and we'll all agree that the world must change for us to stay sane.

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Posted by Dave

Dave has volunteered with BARCC since 2007 and works in higher education administration. He also facilitates a men's pro-feminist group, is a STARZ member of Socializing for Justice, a Yelp Elite '10 member, and sits on the advisory council of the Boston Medical Center's domestic violence prevention board. He got involved with BARCC to further his understanding of feminism and gender justice, and also to get the chance to show his speaking skills far and wide. He lives in Allston, where the music is.


  1. Caroline - good question. I think, for sexual violence anyway, we can make ourselves stand out as safe friends and allies by watching little behavioral elements. Do I call out sexism on TV when I see it? Do I tell my OTHER friends not to make rape jokes? If I sort of make it subtly clear that I'm not OK with rape and victim-bashing, then I MIGHT make myself safe to talk to.

  2. The producer of a film about the after-effects of war made a comment that's had me wondering ever since: How DOES one let trauma-survivors KNOW that [we] are safe to disclose to? Be it rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse, child abuse, war-trauma, etc., we generally don't move through life with the list of stigmatized, 'difficult' subjects we are willing to hear about- and are respectful of those who've survived them- tattooed on our foreheads. So, for all the friends and aquaintances who have experienced such a trauma, how ELSE can we let them know it is safe to SPEAK?
    If your pals didn't know they could open up that locked, bolted, chained, uber-safeguarded vault to you prior to hearing about your involvement at BARCC, how might other friends & aquaintances let their community know it is safe to speak to them without joining an organization, first?

  3. To add to what Dave said, if people want to be "safe listeners," it might be useful to consider what was helpful (or not helpful) to you when you might have been going through a crisis (perhaps death of a loved one, divorce, etc) (please note of course I am in no way equating any of these experiences). Many of the things you wanted at that time someone disclosing may also be seeking. That could include really listening to them, telling them it's ok they feel whatever way they do, and giving them some resources and never telling them what they "should" do, but trusting they know what's best for themselves.

    And of course, you can always refer people to BARCC's hotline, which is open 24/7.

    Mark, I really commend you for wanting to educate yourself on how to be a support system for the people around you.

  4. It honestly doesn't take THAT much training: BARCC has a good workshop on how to support survivors that we do in about an hour. The basics are simple: don't victim-blame, don't judge, and validate.

    The trickier part, for me, wasn't learning how to support a survivor when he or she already wanted to disclose to me and was telling me about their experience; the trickier part was BEING the type of friend who they might feel comfortable disclosing to in the first place. That meant not treating rape like a joke, moderating my language a lot more than I used to, and at least trying to understand the impact that rape might have on people. That work is still on-going, and I don't really have a time-frame for it.

  5. How much training does it take to become a "safe listener"? I strongly suspect that I don't have the stomach to be a volunteer, but if any of my friends need someone to disclose to, I want to react correctly.

    Here's an imperfect analogy: barbers are not doctors (anymore), but they've been trained to spot the symptoms of several diseases and they know who to recommend their customers to. I'd like to know at least that much.

    I'd also like to comfort without causing any further pain (or just sticking my foot in my mouth).

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