Updated: Aug 30, 2022
TW// rape, sexual assault, substance use, therapy, victim blaming
Note: the themes I discuss in this piece are not overarching – they cannot be applied to all things. Rather, to use as questions and added context for scenarios that feel relevant for you.
What makes us vulnerable to harm?
I recently listened to a snippet of an interview with the creator of I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel, who plays Arabella in the series. The show is based on Michaela’s real story and follows Arabella as she experiences, processes and navigates sexual assault – major trigger warning, btw. In the interview, Michaela talks about responsibility and power. Namely, that shifting from a victim-blaming perspective to a self-reflection perspective, can help survivors feel less powerless and move away from, what she calls, a two-dimensional view (criminal or victim). She uses the example of moving from “you should have watched your drink” to saying to yourself, “had I watched my drink, this wouldn’t have happened.”
This interview left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, particularly after feeling so invested in and relating so heavily to the themes in I May Destroy You. I understand why this interview was so offensive – discussions about harm, particularly abuse and rape, can be so triggering and painful. Particularly, knowing that the majority of these conversations are being had and led by survivors – not harm-doers, abusers and rapists. That beyond these conversations, harm-doers and abusers typically never take accountability. They face no consequences. They feel no remorse. It’s hard to focus on any other variables or contexts when we can’t get harm-doers to right their wrongs. The rest just seems irrelevant.
As a therapist, I sit across from people divulging and processing their deepest hurts, including sexual trauma. We sit with it. Name it. Breathe through it. I watch as my clients move through different pieces of their process, sometimes getting stuck on one particular part, other times plowing right through in hopes to feel better. Or feel anything. A difficult part of therapy is gauging where clients are and what they need – you don’t always know what will be helpful or worse, harmful.
As a survivor, a few years ago, I had a revelation while processing a recent sexual assault. I thought of all the variables that contributed to my assault – where was I mentally, what identities did I occupy, what identities did my rapist occupy, what was going on in my life at the time... In hindsight, I was asking myself the question Arabella asked her support group. “How can I not get raped again?” I recognized there is no way to avoid rape AND there were various things that increased my vulnerability.
The night I was assaulted I went to a job interview at a club in south beach. It ended up being less of an “interview” and more of a networking environment where the managers and already hired bottle girls walked around and casually spoke to each of the interviewees. One of the managers approached me and, immediately, something about him threw me off. I needed the job so, I chatted with him a while. He invited me to a different bar where folks were headed after the interviews and I said yes, hoping to get in good with the him and get hired. I had taken an uber there and he offered to give me a ride, I said yes. In the car he got a call that the bar was closed or dead (I don’t remember which) but now, there I was, in the car with a man I had just met with nowhere to go. The bad feeling nudged at me again but, what was I supposed to do at that point? Ask him to drop me back off? We were already in the car. I felt awkward and still, wanted to leave a good impression so I could get the job.
He asked if I still wanted to drink and I said sure. He told me about a rooftop pool we could go to and when I told him I didn’t have a bathing suit, he said no worries, “I’ll buy you one.” At this point, I figured he was a trick and I shifted into that mindset – the rest of the night would be work. I was still hopeful about the job but, if nothing else, I would walk away that night with money in my pocket. He got a bathing suit, stopped to get a bottle and we made our way to the rooftop pool.
When we pulled up to the spot, a hotel, he hopped out and said he’d be right back. As I waited in the car, two women walked by. We held eyes on some slow-mo movie shit as they crossed in front of me. In my gut, I longed for them to walk over. I was wishing they would pretend they knew me so I could have an excuse to leave. But they couldn’t read my mind and perhaps that moment wasn’t as intense for them as it was for me. After all, I was just a random girl sitting in a car. And so, the moment passed, and he came out of the hotel with a room key and a smile.
When I replay that situation now, I see, clear as day, so many things that made me more vulnerable. Like a checklist, almost. None of those things are nor will ever be an excuse or justification for rape. They do provide important context for me. For starters, I needed a job. Moving from survival made me more vulnerable because it prompted me to make decisions I otherwise wouldn’t have. If I didn’t need the job, I wouldn’t have felt obligated to speak with him or make a good impression, that was fueled by my desire to get hired. Survival made me accept the ride because I hoped this nigga would drive me home so I wouldn’t have to pay another $15 for an Uber. Survival made me push my intuition to the side not one, not two, but three times.
The larger picture here is isms/phobias and the power dynamics and culpability that align with them that create and increase the existence of harm. Someone with no concept of classism, for example, might not understand how houselessness or food insecurity makes folks more vulnerable. Or they do and don’t care because they’re leaning hard into said classism – all the more reason folks are vulnerable. Lack of empathy.
To reduce conversations about rape to “what could you have done to avoid this?” misses the mark. A better angle, if you decide to go this route (i.e. adding more context to, “the only thing that causes rape is rapists) is: - What are the systems that uphold rape culture? - What are the ways rape culture informs impunity? - In any given scenario, what are the systems of oppression that create risk for you? By way of your marginalized identities and others’ privileged identities
As a therapist, I direct conversations to recognize these pieces if and when clients are ready. Clients usually make meaning on their own about traumatic events. This is an opportunity to explore those questions. Not as a preventative measure, simply as an insight raising activity. An ethical therapist would never ask, without context, “what could you have done differently?” An ethical therapist will help you understand the contexts in which harm exists. In my scenario, we can add Sex Worker to that list – patriarchy, misogyny, whorephobia and rape culture create and maintain violence that makes those navigating Sex Work vulnerable.
Another conversation Michaela was alluding to was decision making. While she reduced it to "responsibility," the reality is we make our choices within the context of being women, Sex Workers, houseless, whatever – those things cannot be separated. And, we can do some introspection to begin understanding how patterns we carry make us more vulnerable. In I May Destroy You we watch Arabella, in the midst of processing her assault, impulsively go visit a man who victim blamed her for her rape. We saw her support team attempt to provide guidance against this decision and, instinctively, she recognized it wasn’t in her best interest but, did it anyway. I knew it wasn’t in my best interest to drink, alone, with this person (because he was a man; a stranger; a potential boss; the list goes on). I did it anyway because I’m an alcoholic skijsijsksijsj Another item on my list of things that make me vulnerable. (And there’s a whole other conversation here around how substances are engaged in the first place to ease the struggle re: trauma of navigating isms/phobias, but I digress).
An ethical therapist will help you understand how trauma informs your decision making and, sometimes, makes you more vulnerable. How it violates your intuition and ability to discern what safety feels like in your body, leaving you unsure about what’s safe and what isn’t. How the symptoms of harm make you question your own boundaries or fail to have any at all, affecting your ability to advocate for yourself, to say “no,” or to leave no matter how awkward it might be. How we chase things we know are no good for us – when we know something is bad but it feels too good to let go of. Sometimes, conversations around our riskiest patterns are necessary albeit difficult. During session, I couch these conversations in disclosure. I say, “I used to love possessive, jealous ass niggas.” “I used to feel safe with men I saw be violent in the name of protecting me.” “I used to love toxic niggas too.” Because it’s true, I did. Sometimes this kind of shit is seductive. Whether that’s because it’s all you know and there’s safety in familiarity or because there are certain needs you are in fact getting met, even alongside the harm. Or because you’re trauma bonded with that person. Or want to distract yourself. Or take risks to feel alive. This is not a place to pass judgment, it’s an opportunity to look at your history. It’s an opportunity to become aware. And to also ask, “what are the systems that inform some of these attitudes and experiences?” Hegemonic masculinity frames itself as safety under the guise of heavy-handed protection. It suggests jealousy is an implication of love. And we know trauma bonds create the toxic highs of make-up sex – perhaps the only time you feel seen and held by your lover.
Sometimes we do make decisions that make us more vulnerable. That’s okay. That’s real. Gaining insight on those decisions can be helpful. And they are never a justification for rape.
Ultimately, the world is a hard fucking place to navigate. And we’re all just winging it. Sometimes, insight and awareness are helpful to alleviate the ridiculousness of it all. Other times, it’s just “kill your rapist” for coping. And that’s fine too. I affirm how all survivors navigate the world, Michaela included.