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Over the last month I’ve written about seeking support (several posts, in fact:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).  Finding family, friends, even professionals, who would be supportive should you need help.  Finding safer spaces.  While that help can be material, mostly in our self-defense classes we talk about emotional support.  This post follows Part 3, where at the end I talk about not just finding support but your role in creating a supportive community.

Here is a book that addresses those same concerns:  Making Spaces Safer, by Shawna Potter.  The subtitle says it all.  “A guide to giving harassment the boot wherever you work, play, and gather.”  Because whether you are out to make a living, have fun, or change the world, contending with the extra obstacles of harassment is an unwanted detraction.   It diverts your energy from what you want.

Making Spaces Safer

Making Spaces Safer, by Shawna Potter

The ideas Potter puts forward are based in her work with Hollaback! in Baltimore, as well as with her workshops as she toured with her band.  They are simple in concept, but as with most simple ideas they can be hard to implement.  There are folks for whom the status quo is just fine and see no need to change, or who are advantaged by ignoring harassment, or who just hate change and what it may represent.

Let’s get back, though, to the simple.  Really, it’s like all the stuff you should have learned in kindergarten.  About asking first and sharing and saying please and thank you.  Let’s get to some specifics.

  • Prioritize the needs and testimony of the person who experienced harassment.  That individual’s sense of security and self-determination just took a big hit.  While that sounds straightforward, many agencies don’t do this.
  • That individual should have some control over the process.  What are their choices?  Can they freely make choices?
    • If you are the person hearing the account, what is your role?  Do you manage the space where the harassment happened?  Can you find a place for that person to be more comfortable so they can tell you what happened, and the remedy they’d like?
      • For example, if you manage a club, you can offer to keep an eye on the harasser, take the harasser aside for a conversation, or remove them from the premises.  Who makes that decision?  Most of the time it is the manager, and Potter is saying it should be the person who experienced the harassment.
  • Validate that person’s experience!  I’ve used that concept for a while, in the area of self-care.  Find a trusted, supportive ally, someone who believes you and reminds you that the harassment was not your fault.

About now you may be shaking your head and thinking about how this is all well and good, but just not practical.  Well, it is.

Homeroom is a restaurant in Oakland, California.  They serve mac & cheese.  Some sides, but their raison d’etre is mac & cheese.  Comfort food.  Erin Wade, chef and owner, wants everyone to feel comfortable.  So she was appalled when she found out that some customers had been harassing the servers, and that managers were doing little about it.  They had a meeting, and she heard a lot more that had not been reported.  Not OK with Wade (did I mention that before starting this restaurant she was a lawyer?).  They instituted new procedures, and shifted control.  Really simple, too, based on color coding.  Incidents were graded yellow, orange, or red.  A yellow meant that a server reported an uncomfortable vibe or look to a manager, and the manager would take over that table if the server chooses.  An orange is inappropriate comments, and the manager does take over that table.  A red is overt sexual comments or physical touching, and the customer is ejected from the restaurant.  Please read these two articles for more details:

Note the critical change is that it is the servers who decide what level each incident warrants, and the manager has their roles already prescribed.  No need to wonder if the customer really intended that, or if the staff was just too sensitive that day.  The power is in the hands of the (mostly female) server staff, rather than the (mostly male) manager.  (BTW, Wade also then recognized the gendered job levels and was seeking to change that also.)   And this system works because it has become the company culture.  Because Wade sought to shift the balance of power, support that shift, and deliberately make her restaurant a safer space.

These last 2 weeks I’ve been outlining finding support after assault.  Self-care is a critical aspect of anyone’s overall safety plan, and the central pillar of self-care is knowing who among your family and friends could support you after any assault, regardless of outcome.  Two weeks ago I began outlining traits of those individuals, with my thumbnail sketch of what a supportive human does.

  • They listen.
  • They believe you.
  • They remind you it wasn’t your fault.

Two weeks ago I described what listening looks and sounds like.  Last week I described what believing you and reminding you it wasn’t your fault looks and and sound like.  Today I have a few more words on blame and fault-finding, and then move on to creating community.

First, some words about those who habitually blame victims for their own assaults. This is chronic in domestic violence, where the abuser is manipulating the target’s perception.  Very often also manipulating the perception of those around, cutting off ways of getting support.  This is often described as “gaslighting.”  It is a long-term strategy for you to relinquish control and hand over decision-making.

Getting support? Not from them!

Getting support? Not from them!

A major process in our culture is an adversarial approach — our justice system and political system are set up to pit two sides against each other, there are defined rules and referees, they duke it out like a boxing or martial arts sparring match, and a winner is picked. So it’s not really a surprise that some of us expand that view, that life is a brutal competition.  It bleeds into other parts of our lives, where there are no explicit rules, no referee, and it’s not a good fit.  And it’s all about power.

There does not need to be a long-term relationship for blame-shifting to occur.  People who harm others often try to shift attention away from themselves and their actions to what the victim did “wrong.”  The stereotypical ones include “what was she wearing,” “how much did she drink,” and “she was flirting.”  Others in our communities, like ourselves, want to stay safe and part of their process, though, is to find out details about what happened to others and resolve to not make the same “mistakes.” Except there’s a big problem with this approach.  The person targeted may have done something different, and it may have made a difference, or maybe not.  There are people who do “wrong” stuff all the time — they smile at strangers, they drink a lot, maybe even pass out on a friend’s couch.  And didn’t get assaulted.  Because there was no assailant present.  The common elements of all assault isn’t clothing choices or alcohol consumption or flirting, it’s the person(s) who made the bad choice to take what they wanted, regardless of consent.

Do you want to wait until after an assault to figure out who your supportive friends are?  Probably not.  Rather, you can be cultivating those relationships now.

My colleague Yehudit Sidikman of ESD Global suggested in a recent blog post that you practice talking about “what-if” scenarios with those important people in your life.  One of her examples is, “mom, if something like this [kind of assault] ever happened to me, how would you react if I told you?”  Or begin a conversation with a good friend like, “ I’ve never had this happen to me, but I am wondering how you would react if I came to you and told you that [add story].”  Maybe there was a recent assault in the news, you could use that as your example.  Or a particular #MeToo story.  Their responses can give you some information about what they think about assault and blame.  We do all know that there’s often a gap between what a person says and what they will do, so please temper this with what you already know about them.   But, perhaps more importantly, it will also give them food for thought. And this does not have to be a “one-off” discussion, and should not be a one-off.  You transition that “what-if” into a conversation on what it means to be supportive, to be a friend, do you want to be supportive, when do you feel it important to be supportive.  When these conversations happen with a few people in your circle, and it becomes less awkward, you get a better sense of where people are at.  You find those who share your values, and you maybe even move others to really think about what support means.

Building these relationships takes a while.  And it is critical.  And that’s how communities begin, one relationship at a time.

Why don’t you begin with the very next conversation you have with someone close?  Today is not too soon.

Today, November 11, is Veterans Day.  The one day where we as a nation formally thank those who served our country with their military service. Parades, taking out old photos and uniforms, visits to memorials.  We recognize all those who served.  At the same time, as a nation we are less caring about veterans’ getting support they need.

For about 12 years (between 2003 and 2014) I worked with Dr. Wendy David, Dr. Ann Cotton, and the VA Medical Center in Seattle on the Taking Charge project.  This 12-week self-defense program was for women veterans who were suffering from long-term, chronic PTSD as a result of sexual assault while in military service.  (Unfortunately, the program ended when Dr. David retired.)  If you are familiar with PTSD, you know it’s not pretty.  Watch this short video for more on the effects and possible causes.

While this blog post not an exposition on PTSD, I have to note there’s a significant correlation between social support and the likelihood of an assault survivor developing PTSD.  One commonality all the participants in Taking Charge had was a lack of support from those around them after their assaults.  Our culture does come with a large victim-blaming component, and sorting out those who can be supportive from those who won’t is likely to be critical to your long-term health and happiness.

Last week I began outlining how to find those individuals who would be supportive, with my thumbnail sketch of what a supportive human would do.

  • They listen.
  • They believe you.
  • They remind you it wasn’t your fault.

Last week’s post was on the first bullet point, listening.  Today I’m moving on to the other two.

They believe you.  Most women are assaulted by someone known to them, particularly in cases of sexual assault.  They may be a friend, a co-worker, a classmate, a colleague, a family member.  Because of that, others you know will also know that assailant.  When you confide in someone in that same circle, it can get complicated.  That person may be struggling to wrap their brains around what you are telling them, which may be totally counter to their own experiences with the assailant.  They’re trying to figure out how someone they know as a kind and generous soul could have done something so wrong.  We humans do not do well with that sort of cognitive dissonance.  That can come out as questioning your account of what happened, which comes across as non-supportive.  One option is to confide in someone from another social circle.  Another is to cultivate relationships of support, which is the topic of next week’s blog post.

Finally, a supportive person will remind you that the assault was not your fault.  Period.  End of sentence.  It is so common for the person assaulted (or targeted) to go over details again and again and again in their heads, trying to figure out if they could have, should have, done something different.  Maybe there is something they could have done differently.  It may or may not have made a difference.  It’s overlooking the fact that someone else made that choice to harm someone.  That’s right, the assailant is not like a fast-moving river into which you slip and fall.  Rivers don’t make choices to injure or drown people.  But people do.  The assailant is the person who is responsible for their actions.  If you are the listener, please make it a point to remind your friend/family member of that.

And, in a nutshell, that’s how you know someone is supportive.  But, do you really want to wait until you are in need to find those trusted, supportive folks?  No.  Next week we’ll look at building supportive communities.

I’ve been teaching self-defense for over 25 years.  And for most of those years I’ve been teaching that self-care is an essential part of everyone’s safety and self-defense planning. Self-care covers a wide range of actions, like exercise or meditation or listening to music or watching funny cat videos on YouTube or a glass of wine or seeking medical care or . . . pick your top three ways to calm yourself when upset or anxious.  My personal favorite is playing music — drumming along to some of my all-time favorite songs, or muddling through a guitar chord progression with overdrive and reverb.

But, if I had to pick just ONE self-care practice as most critical, it has to be getting support from other people. We humans are social creatures. Any assault, or attempted assault, regardless of outcome, often feels isolating and like a loss of control over important aspects of life. Connecting with another human helps offset that, but only when that other human is supportive. We do live in a highly victim-blaming culture, and have to recognize that not every one of our acquaintances (or even family or closer friends) will be open to supporting you.

Over the years I’ve heard from several students that, when confiding in those who they assumed would be supportive, were met with statements such as “what did you expect,” or “you sure won’t make that mistake again,” or “I hope you learned something from that experience,” or “how could you let that happen to you.”  As humans, we will often look to safety, or at least to mitigate and manage risks.  Some people’s interest in hearing about others’ misfortunes is to “inform” themselves so they won’t make the same “mistakes.”  And sometimes they will think they are helping by informing you of their conclusions.  It may not mean they are a bad person, but it does mean they don’t have (or are not willing to make available) emotional bandwidth for you.

But let’s get back to getting support. How would we recognize that supportive human? Is there a covert signal or secret handshake?

By what they do. Here’s my thumbnail sketch of what a supportive human would do.

  • They listen.
  • They believe you.
  • They remind you it wasn’t your fault.

    One woman is getting support from another.

    Getting support from a trusted friend or family member is an important component in healing from assault.

I’m going to go over each of these three items.  In this blog post, it’s listening.  Next couple of weeks will cover believing and not blaming you.  And then we’ll tie it up with steps for the future.

First, though, I strongly suggest that you give a potential listener a heads-up that you’d like to share something uncomfortable.  Give them a chance to assess their readiness to offer support.  Or, if necessary, set their own boundaries.  Even the best supporters are not available 24/7 to everyone (self-care, remember?).  An important part of getting support is that the support has to be voluntarily given!

Someone who is listening is really LISTENING, rather than trying to figure out their snappy reply.  Listening is NOT letting you talk for 10, 20, or 60 seconds, then interrupting with “hey did you try THIS?  You coulda done THAT, you shoulda done THAT, I woulda done . . . ”  Thank that person for their time, and move on.  They don’t have bandwidth for you.

Rather, listening involves taking in what that other person is offering.  A really good listener will treat what you’re saying as a gift, and if they have the emotional space they will be paying attention to what you are saying and the event’s impact on you.  You may hear something more like, “That sounds horrible, I’m so sorry you had that experience!  I am here for you.”  And now is where listening is super important.  The listener could assess if you need to just talk, or if they are looking for advice, or if they have their next steps and want your help.  And, dear listener, it’s OK to ask.  Do keep in mind that part of the trauma of assault is the feeling that control over ones life has been torn away; one goal of the listener is to help empower those hurt by making sure their choices are really theirs.

Next week, we look at the other two items on my list, believing and reminding that assault is not your fault.