Dos & Don’ts: Responding To Domestic/Sexual Violence Involving A Complete Stranger

A post by Jamie

In Canada this past week, two Earth-shattering events of domestic and sexual violence against women were aired in the news. Trigger warning: if you are a survivor of domestic and/or sexual violence, as I am, and you are already having a bad day, this is not going to be a post you’ll want to read today.

One of those events revolves around Senator Patrick Brazeau — the Algonquin (First Nation) man appointed by Stephen Harper to be the alleged “sober second thought” of the Conservative Party of Canada until 2049; who has since been arrested, charged, thrown out of the Conservative Party, and placed on a mandatory leave of absence from his duties as Senator (while other politicians demand the Senate be abolished once and for all). Senator Brazeau is also being investigated for tax fraud, has repeatedly skipped out on child support payments while pulling in a six-figure income, and just recently had made the news for badgering Chief Theresa Spence during her hunger strike and offering his persistent dissent against Idle No More. Brazeau also actually seems self-congratulatory about voting in favour of Bill C-45 (which made changes to the Indian Act without the consent of First Nations, and therefore is a violation of Crown Treaties; if it wasn’t enough that it also made changes to the protection of millions of waterways and bodies of water across the country, such that they are no longer protected at all). Here’s just one recent national news story that mentions everything apart from issues related to indigenous resistance (do the work yourself for this Piece Of Work’s take on Idle No More and/or Chief Spence: it should be easy, considering he received national attention for it).

The second of the Earth-shattering events of violence against women that I am referring to here actually occurred over two years ago, at a rave called “Another night in Bangkok”, in the city of Pitt Meadows. A young woman (16 years old at the time) was drugged with GHB, gang-raped, and videos of her assault repeatedly posted to Facebook and YouTube for several consecutive days (even after police pleaded with the public for it to stop). One of the individuals who is being held criminally responsible for re-posting this horrific event of what amounts to child pornography was in court this past week, and faced the young woman as she and her mother gave their victim impact statements, stating that his actions have ruined her life and that she is still suffering. Here’s an article in a national news source about how charges have been dropped against one of her assailants while the only other two individuals facing charges are being considered for sentences that won’t even result in jail time. Go, go, gadget Justice System?

Major criticisms are surfacing in relation to both of these cases, but especially in relation to Senator Brazeau, as it seems more people are aware of his transgressions than what happened to the young woman. The actions following the Pitt Meadows incident actually prompted a police press conference in which an officer explicitly stated the young woman had been drugged and gang-raped. Then the officer pleaded with the public to stop re-posting videos and photos of it, stating that it is child pornography. But due entirely to Brazeau’s socioeconomic standing and political responsibilities, he’s simply taking up more space in the news. As the person he victimized has neither been named, nor his/her relationship to Brazeau defined, many are taking this as an indicator that the media is more interested in shaming him for his actions than establishing the relative safety and/or security of the victim of his actions. While this may be partially true, perhaps it’s also time for a little skepticism about this relatively superficial criticism. This post concerns what to do—and what not to do—when you learn about a complete stranger, such as Brazeau’s unnamed victim or the young woman at the centre of the Pitt Meadows incident, being involved in an event of domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

DO respond emotionally to these events, as these behaviours are horrendous and dehumanizing. Violence against women in particular is significantly worse in magnitude, if not also in scale, than lateral violence among men in analogous relationships or with the genders reversed, and it certainly is something to get angry about. At least one statistical analysis I know of* that is actually even used by “men’s rights activists” to demonstrate that women perpetrate lateral violence in domestic abuse conflicts—allegedly, as evidence that discrimination against men is utterly pervasive, baseless, and unfair—revealed that while women are likely to accost men (e.g., a slap across the face) during the throes of a domestic violence incident, men are equally as likely to brutally rape women (e.g., at gunpoint). It is completely reasonable to get angry about domestic violence and sexual assault.

DO NOT let your anger funnel down so personally that it is selective to the single known perpetrator that comes to your attention at any given time. Shaming this person, whether it is Senator Brazeau or the only two named individuals involved in the Pitt Meadows incident, is not going to magically undo what they’ve done. But more importantly, you may horribly trigger someone with non-consenting eyes/ears in the process. You don’t know who’s listening or observing, and you don’t know what they’ve been through or at what point they are in their healing (i.e., whether they are just as angry, or have begun to identify with their perpetrator(s), or have found closure but need to avoid being dragged into confronting these incidents for their own well-being).

Even if you do know some of it, as in my most recent case, you can’t expect that you are going to gain Awesome Ally Points© with the recent victim of a horrific event of domestic violence by perpetrating a form of lateral violence against The Perpetrator You Know About This Time. Especially when the victim is a complete fucking stranger whose identity (and history and needs) is yet unknown to anyone but that particular perpetrator and the authorities who were dispatched to the incident. While I can only speak for myself when it comes to how it feels watching men get angrier and… shame-y-er… than female survivors of violence at the hands of men, I can tell you that it makes me directly angry at the men doing it. I mean it sincerely when I ask this: what in the actual fuck do they think this is going to accomplish? Committing lateral violence against individual men as a way to win the favour of female survivors of male violence?

DO express your concerns for the victim’s safety and security, even if you don’t know what else to say. Again, you don’t know who’s listening or observing, what they’ve been through, or at what point in their healing they have reached. Sharing your concern with others for the safety and security of the complete stranger who you’ve just learned has been the victim of domestic or sexual violence lets them know that they aren’t as alone as they may have already felt — like how I was feeling immediately after being strangled on December 12th, when all but a small handful of people were completely silent.

DON’T let this concern funnel into demands for the victim’s status, such as one extremely misguided man on Twitter who demanded to know what injuries had been sustained by Brazeau’s victim and even whether or not (presumably) she had been hospitalized. That he is literally demanding confidential medical information about a complete stranger aside, the fact that the perpetrator in this case is being publicly exposed for his actions does not mean that the victim in this case has no right to privacy or a legitimate claim thereof. Whatever happened was horrific enough to result in an arrest and immediate charges — it’s hardly the case that the right thing to do now is to invade what little there is left of the victim’s privacy too.

When the authorities came to my door to question me about my 9-1-1 call on December 12th, they took the equivalent of about five verbal statements from me (through at least four different officers) before they finally recorded one. They pried for every detail I could recount, and even asked me which hand Grabby had used when he reached out and started to strangle me (even though they could still see his handprint on my throat). When they were taking pictures of my neck from all angles around me, they asked me why my chest was bright red (a phenomenon that may be a symptom of Reynaud’s syndrome, if it isn’t some sort of borderline dermatographia). When they finally finished taking my recorded statement, they asked me for anything else I could add, so I told them honestly that this event is a nearly exact repeat of what happened in my natal home when I was 11, between my father and my oldest sister. I told them (though they would have known from looking at my file) that this and similar events have repeatedly happened to me throughout my adult life, but this particular one hit closest to that particular childhood trauma (what happened when I was 11 is really just one snowflake on the tip of the iceberg, but it was a breaking point in our “family” too).

I’m telling you this in my writing here because I am comfortable disclosing this information about myself, as a non-fiction writer whose politics involve a brazen commitment to transparency about my life. Almost no one is this comfortable sharing this much information about their own life, and I can tell you with certainty that this doesn’t change when the only audience at the time is a half dozen police officers dispatched to the scene of domestic and sexual violence. Think about those photos they took of me for as long as you need to, to understand what an invasion of privacy it already was for Brazeau’s victim to stand up for his/her rights — then spend some time thinking about the young woman at the centre of the Pitt Meadows incident, when people started asking her if she’s the one in the videos and photos being plastered all over the internet.

DO express your personal solidarity with all survivors of domestic/sexual violence — known to you personally or otherwise. It’s important to survivors to know that they aren’t emotionally or socially isolated, and every person who speaks up (in a good way) makes a difference for someone else.

DO NOT assume you know how every survivor needs to approach or begin his/her/their healing (or even that they are ready for that stage, by virtue of becoming known to you in some capacity), simply because you have observed the way visible survivors (such as myself) have gone about it.

As much as I vocalize about my own experiences, there is a lot going on that no one sees except my psychiatrist or other individual people who help me nurture a new relationship with myself and my history. The same goes for everyone else, whose needs are as individual and variable as their own histories and experiences. Many survivors deal with their trauma in common ways, and some of these ways seem alarming and strange to observers who do not share this history. Some of those approaches include phenomena such as personally identifying with the perpetrator/abuser, or blaming oneself for what the perpetrator/abuser has done. Some survivors live in this seemingly strange space for years or even decades after the trauma, while others move rapidly through multiple successive stages of grief and loss before arriving at a place of acceptance and moving forward.

Many survivors experience various points of regression to a previous feeling when they are triggered, such as when they become an unwilling audience to lateral violence from someone trying too hard to be an ally. I personally still have all manner of flashbacks (day and night) and nightmares, even though if I mentally prepare myself on a day when I feel strong enough, I can engage with this extremely difficult subject matter.

DO listen empathetically to the needs and feelings shared by visible survivors. Share this information as widely as possible, where possible. You may never know how many people you are helping with this kind of information—some are likely to be survivors themselves while others are likely to be those who, just like you, are trying to be better allies to people who have been victimized by acts of violence.

DO NOT listen selectively to the needs and feelings shared by visible survivors. As all survivors are as unique as any other population, some will share fairly commonly held insights while others will share less commonly held insights that may make some people uncomfortable. That does not mean that some survivors are more right while others are somehow more wrong, in the information they have to share with those who want to be better allies.

The man who had demanded confidential medical information about Brazeau’s victim’s status literally tried to “correct” my insights by ‘splaining to me that the media needs to publicize her side of it in order to help the victim in this case heal. Another man on Twitter tried to convince me that her coming forward to shame Brazeau in the national spotlight is a necessary part of her recovery. I mean (in all sincerity again)… what in the actual fuck is this accomplishing? For anyone either directly involved or merely observing?

The young woman involved in the Pitt Meadows incident is still really struggling, and it’s been over two years already. She could just as easily be any woman. I personally know at least one woman who shares her experience in almost literally every detail, and who very nearly died when her assailants were finally through with her the night of her equally horrific experience. And though it’s been decades, she only reached a similar emotional place fairly recently. If you’re interested in reading it, I’ve recently written this open letter to express my solidarity and support for the young woman presently struggling through the Canadian (in)justice system concerning the Pitt Meadows incident.

Whether or not Brazeau’s victim ever comes forward remains to be seen. She could just as easily be any woman herself, and that is assuming Brazeau’s victim is a woman in this case. She doesn’t need to be pressured by demands for the private details of what happened and how it has impacted her physically and emotionally. She needs to know that she has support, even from complete strangers.

* That particular statistical analysis focuses on a 2009 Stats Canada report on reported incidents of domestic/sexual violence/abuse among adults. There are links to two separate charts in this blog post (note: not written by me), concerning how a (failed) “men’s rights activism” postering campaign local to Vancouver, BC was using these stats to manipulate dialogue about domestic/sexual violence and abuse among adults. I put emphasis on the word “reported” because it is a well known fact that a significant majority of domestic/sexual violence and abuse goes on unreported.
Remember the iceberg I referred to when discussing the domestic violence I faced for the second time very recently, that reminded me of what it was like growing up in an extremely hostile and abusive environment? What was going on unreported behind closed doors in my natal home (and still was, even long after my sisters and I all left) most certainly would have sunk the bloody Titanic, and yet, my only friend through the earliest years of the abuse had no idea until I started to tell her. I don’t know if it is still continuing, because I simply cannot bear the burden of communicating to any of my blood relations any more—many are in denial of how serious the abuse was, and continue to perpetuate abusive dynamics that I need to separate myself from in order to give myself a chance at healing (it’s been about a year and a half now).

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  1. jesse says

    I’m a little confused by part of this: why is shaming people who have engaged in domestic violence a bad idea? Or did I misread this? I mean, saying that what they did was shameful seems like a normal thing to do. And shaming was part of the whole strategy of the campaign against sexually assaulting women who are too drunk to give consent, no? I’m one of those people who does feel that is we’re going to name people who murder we’ve got to name people who do other stuff. (The issue of how to deal with the victim is a whole other discussion).

    Or I am misreading badly what you are about there and missed the boat, I’ll cop to that. My women’s-studies-fu is weak sometimes.

    The rest of it I think I follow you, and can’t find anything that doesn’t sound like ordinary politeness and respect for other people.

  2. says

    Well, for one thing, again, shaming one particular individual doesn’t undo what they did. Nor does it prevent other individuals from doing things like, ohh, what keeps happening to me at nearly predictable intervals.

    Secondly, it’s about who you don’t know is watching at any given time. What is the purpose of this shaming an individual person for what they have done that you know about this time? What does it accomplish? Who could it hurt, other than the target, and is that a risk worth taking?

    There’s an incredible difference between stating “this person has been arrested and charged with X” and “this person is a pig and [insert preferred shaming tactic here]”.

    There’s also an incredible push-back from people who identify with men like Brazeau, simply because they are the male in this case — people whose lives centre entirely around the principle of antagonizing as many people as possible (i.e., men’s rights activists and other hate groups). Is that a risk worth taking? Even if you think you can handle it (most people who try do), do you think that it might be hurting other survivors who really don’t want to have to face that on an already bad day (and what tends to happen is you find after some time that this exercise is simply demoralizing and not productive in any way)?

    Is shaming the perpetrator we know about this time going to stop all the perpetrators we don’t know about? Is it going to show the survivors of domestic or sexual violence that we’re super-win allies, because we didn’t perpetrate lateral violence against them but against those who we think (this time) had it coming?

    Maybe it’s time to re-think when and where it’s appropriate to vent that side of the conversation, for the sake of other survivors. Or maybe it’s time to re-think the tactic entirely, because all it’s doing is airing hatred and fuelling further violence. Maybe we should just try to be bigger people and think about more productive ways of steering support and solidarity with survivors.

    Or maybe I’m really, really, really tired right now and not making any sense at all. I guess I’m just asking for some deeper thought into this totally standard “shame the perp” knee-jerk reflex, since we can see how well that has absolutely not worked to “save” sex workers and other groups of people (predominantly women) who are particularly vulnerable to becoming targeted or victimized by domestic and sexual violence.

  3. says

    You’ve shown great courage and strength in sharing details this personal and painful. You have affected me, and I hope to be a little more empathic and thoughtful as a result. Thank you. Your courage breaks through the wall of silence and, I hope, will help many others as well, including other victims. I hope that you are recovering from your injuries and injustices. If I could, through some magical instrument, undo your painful experiences, I would gladly offer you that remedy. As it is, I can only say that you are not alone. Thank you for sharing. In honesty and hope, — Nick

  4. Brian Lynchehaun says

    For whatever it’s worth (if anything), I’m in complete accord with this post, and especially HaifischGeweint’s comment #2.

  5. fmcp says

    I’m not much of a blog commenter, but this post has me thinking (again) about something that I struggle with regularly. I’m a Drama teacher, and every year one of my classes creates a piece of theatre designed to get the school talking about violent relationships (which often start in high school). Every year it has a positive effect; kids ask teachers for help, they start talking for the first time, they publicly state their own disgust with this particular form of violence. At the same time, every year a handful of the actors/writers struggle emotionally with the content and their own experiences. Despite all the thought we put in to protecting the audience, and despite all the discussion we have about protecting ourselves, the simple fact is that we’re immersed in a really tough headspace for a month of creation.

    Anyway, I’d really appreicate someone else’s perspective on this. I have lots of experience with helping people deal with their feelings, but I’ve never experienced or witnessed any violence myself. Do you have any thoughts on balancing their genuine desire to do outreach work with the incredible difficulty that is caused by such work?

    Thanks for any input.

  6. fmcp says

    Oops – I hit submit instead of preview (like I said, not much of a commenter). I wanted to add that we do this on December 6th, so it’s part of the school’s overall commemoration of the victims of the Montreal Massacre. There’s a heightened awareness going on at that time anyway, and other groups in the school do some pretty amazing work to get the kids (and staff) talking.

  7. says

    fmcp: I’m a bit at a loss for further suggestions. You’re already doing much, much more than what I witnessed (I.e., nothing at all) in my own high school (which, for the record, was a former bomb shelter with no windows — not exactly an uplifting environment).

    As far as how to help those individuals who are more prone to feeling triggered by that work, it’s perhaps an unfortunate problem that is hard to work around due to the nature of what you’re doing, but if they understand that what is happening is taking place in a safe space (something that takes the cooperation of everyone involved to ensure), then despite how uncomfortable the experience can be, it may actually be helping. We all deal differently, so I’m not sure what more to suggest.

    However, one thing that stands out to me in my memories of high school were then teachers who took the time to stop and listen to me, even though they weren’t school counselors. I didn’t ask them for advice, I just talked, and they didn’t give advice, but just listened. There were a total of like, two, from grade six to grade twelve.

    If students know they can talk to you, you’re already making an enormous difference for some who are at risk of suicidal ideation or otherwise vulnerable to violence.

  8. says

    MatthewLaboratory: if you are unfamiliar with the term trigger warning, I suggest you think about looking into the matter further. It’s a term that applies to people dealing with post-traumatic stress, which is primarily just a courtesy everyone can extend to warn them that what they are about to be reading has the potential to trigger those traumatic experiences.

    It really has no specific or ironic relationship to what I’ve stated about the nature of lateral and domestic violence towards women — where I suppose I am to assume you stopped reading, so that you could jump straight down to the comments.

  9. fmcp says

    Thanks for the feedback – yeah, I guess it’s a bit of a Gordian knot, and I was hoping (naively) that there was a sword out there that I didn’t know about.

    For the record, your school experience pisses me off. I don’t know how long ago it was, so I don’t know how typical it was for staff to ignore larger social issues. The idea of no one listening, though, is ridiculous. Teachers who listened have been around for ever. On the bright side, an understanding of a need for windows etc. is gaining steam at the moment. Took a while, but it’s a big focus of planning for new buildings (in my jurisdiction, at least).

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