Somebody else had it worse

[cn: Non-explicit discussion of sexual violence.]

Last month, I mentioned my past experience with sexual assault and rape. And I said I was fortunate to have never suffered from PTSD, unlike many other victims who have suffered from PTSD. This is my way of saying that other people had it worse than me.

If you’ve heard any number of accounts of victims of sexual harassment or sexual violence, you know that “somebody else had it worse” is a common trope. Saying, “I don’t want to take up space from other people with more extreme stories.” Or, “I don’t want anyone to think I’m making a huge deal over something so little.” Or, “I’m not sure this even belongs in the category of sexual assault.”

In the other extreme, some people argue that we shouldn’t ever compare different experiences of sexual violence at all. We’re told that there is only one kind of rape, all sexual violence is bad, end of story.

I have issues with both of these sides, and wish to find a happy medium.

My issue with the “somebody else had it worse” trope is that it feels gracious to a fault.  It’s like an unwarranted apology. It’s like walking funny in order to avoid stepping on my toes, when you’re ten feet away. If we were all talking about any other type of personal experience–say, the experience of reading a book–I wouldn’t go out of my way to mention all the people who hated the book even more than I did. And I wouldn’t apologize for how much space my review is taking up. I mean, we’re more careful when talking about sexual violence than when talking about books, because of the greater potential to hurt people. But if someone talks about a less intense experience than my own, that doesn’t hurt me in any way.  In fact I’m glad for people to find a voice to talk about such things.

Although, the comparison to an unwarranted apology raises a lot of questions. According to many op-eds, women are socialized to apologize more often than men. According to other writers, telling women to apologize less is unhelpful because it just polices their language and puts them in a double bind.

So now I’m wondering, is this more common among women than men? Is it helpful to tell victims to avoid the “somebody else had it worse” trope? Or does that just put people in a double bind, where they get punished no matter what they say? I don’t know the answers! Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Now we discuss the other extreme, the insistence that different experiences of sexual harassment and sexual violence cannot or should not be compared. I understand where this is coming from. It’s a way to counter certain anti-feminist tropes.  And if I heard two people’s stories of sexual assault, it would be extremely gauche to say one was worse than the other.  And even if we wanted to compare experiences of sexual violence, comparisons of experiences are really difficult in general.

On the other hand, it seems like there are plenty of legitimate reasons to want to compare experiences of sexual assault, and say that one is worse than another. For example, I’ve had multiple experiences with sexual assault and I don’t think I could really talk about them without expressing my view that one of them was a lot worse than the other two.

And if we don’t talk about all the variations in experiences, that can lead to all sorts of false assumptions. I have had people tell me that my experiences with sexual assault were in fact worse than I claim that they are. They said that I was suppressing my true feelings, or that I was numb from trauma. It feels like people are calling me confused or a liar.  And this is supposed to be supportive?

That’s why I always try to emphasize the different experiences people have in relation to PTSD. Some people who experience sexual violence have PTSD in relation to it. Some people do not. Some people have PTSD and then stop having it. Other people have it indefinitely. Some people don’t have PTSD at first but develop it later. Some people have PTSD in relation to what appear to be minor incidents, and some people who experience major incidents never have PTSD.  These are facts of life.

All other things being equal, having PTSD is worse than not having it, which means that other people have had it worse than me. But I want to make it clear–this is a statement of factual significance.  It is not a statement of emotional significance.  I know other people have had it worse than me because I know PTSD is a thing, but I am not trying to minimize what I experienced. My feelings about it mattered, and continue to matter. If you experienced something similar, your feelings matter too. They don’t stop mattering just because other people had it worse.


  1. says

    Here I am complaining about punches and kicks and what business do I have doing that when others are literally dying at the hands of their abusers?

    Is this what they call survivor’s guilt?

    I wish rape and abuse weren’t, like, things.

  2. chigau (違う) says

    I don’t understand why someone else having more pain is supposed to make my pain less painful.

  3. jazzlet says

    chigau that is exactly how I feel. I have a chronic pain problem that is somewhat controlled, but sometimes breaks out badly, usually following sod’s law just after I have taken a weaker painkiller so I can’t take a stonger one for several hours. I know quite a lot about pain and what it is like to experience it, but that in no way invalidates other peoples’ pain. When you are asked by medical staff to rate your pain you can only do so in relation to what you have experienced, not only is it difficult to really imagine pain more severe than you have actully had, it’s difficult to really remember what it was like even if you have had it very badly. This may seem like it is at a tangent, but it is not entirely, doctors do have to compare peoples’ pain to work out what sort of pain relief they need, and support services for people who have been raped need to work out what support each individual is likely to need. Just because what one person needs is stronger/more extensive than another person doesn’t mean that other person doesn’t need the help. And just as with pain some people may manage their experience of rape at home with the resources they can call on there. As siggy says these are facts not moral or emotional judgements.

    Sorry if that doesn’t make sense, I am on the heavy stuf at the moment.

  4. lanir says

    I have nothing to say about sexual assault because it’s outside my experience. I have dealt with prolonged abusive behavior at the hands of someone suffering from long term undiagnosed PTSD, and I know that warped and altered who I am. Some of the things I learned dealing with that may apply.

    I think the relative nature of experiences is more difficult to grasp because we’re missing an important piece when we talk about objectivity and the objective truths of the events we’ve been through. Namely that there was no objective person who went through them. For an example, let’s look at something that seems to pop up in small claims court a lot: Person A borrows money from Person B. Later on, Person A feels betrayed or otherwise unhappy with Person B and resolves not to pay them. Subjectively Person A thinks they are owed something and does not want to repay Person B because their feelings are worth something. Person B may or may not feel this is justified, but wants to settle money and emotional matters separately (they may well plan to ignore the emotional matters entirely but want to get paid). The court sides with Person B because laws do not address feelings. The court also doesn’t address Person B’s behavior, no matter how kind or egregious it is, unless a law is specifically violated. This may seem objective but it’s not; it just ignores everything but the logic of finance. There is no objective person experiencing this court case. The closest we get is someone accurately and evenly applying particular brands of self-contained logic such as financial laws, while ignoring everything else.

    On comparing your experiences afterward with other people’s… I put up with years of abusive nonsense that was triggered by other people’s issues solely because it did not match any definition of abuse I had at the time (although it felt very obviously wrong, it rarely involved physical beatings). And I had spectators who knew something was wrong but did not see it as abuse, I assume for much the same reasons. I wish someone had told me at the time that if it felt wrong it was, and I should only compare my problems to those of other people when the comparison helps me get through my troubles. There are so many other problems in life that I already understood this about. If I had a problem with a math class I wouldn’t just copy someone else’s work. I would try to understand the ideas holding me up and deal with them instead.

    I’m not sure I would have been able to respond well if anyone had told me this stuff earlier in life though. Sometimes I was ready to move on. Other times I was stuck in a rut and it was easier to stay there.

  5. Cracticus says

    One complication I’ve found when trying to decide if someone else is worse off, is it can be very easy to misjudge how bad off you are, especially when you’re in a situation where there’s a lot of gaslighting involved.

  6. says


    I completely agree and now I wish I had mentioned that.

    I do sometimes get the impression that people understate how bad an experience they went through, because they still believe some of the perpetrator’s justifications, or just because they’ve internalized some myths about how sexual assault/harassment typically occurs. I definitely don’t want to tell people that they should be more traumatized then they say they are. But sometimes people are worried that they’re overreacting to what they see as a minor incident, and then when the incident is described it sounds so severe.

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