making him accountable for abuse - advice for a reader

Making Him Accountable For Abuse

Advice to a reader on how to go about making his abuser accountable. There are no details of abuse or assault, but take care reading this anyway. (Edit – wrote this before the Epstein news came out)

Hi there. I’ve recently graduated from uni and basically that means I’m never going to see a particular guy again who I think abused me. I say ‘I think’ because honestly I don’t feel sure about what to call it and I go back in forth in my head around thinking was it abuse, was it assault, does the label matter, etc.

Obviously this should be a good thing that I’ll probably never see him again, but I feel weird about it because I never really got any confirmation that he acknowledged how he hurt me, even in a small indirect way? Like, we were on the same course and the stuff between us happened right at the beginning of first year, and ever since then I’ve been struggling with it but he’s never really acknowledged it and kind of dismissed things when I’ve tried to talk to him about any of it. I feel gaslighted, I don’t really have a right to feel the way I feel, that my perception is wrong, that I’m being dramatic and should be able to let it go. 

I did sort of confront him about it more explicitly at the end of uni, but it was when I was drunk and I just kind of angrily accused him of sexually assaulting people and obviously he got defensive and left the room (it was at a party), so it definitely wasn’t a good way to bring it up. His friends confronted me and accused me of making it up, and I had to talk to them about it and tell them my side of things just to de-escalate it.

How can I heal from it when I’ll never be able to see him acknowledge things, and I feel so unsure about what even happened? How do I heal from it if it just feels like there’s no justice I guess?

Hi

The first thing is thanks for being brave and for talking about your experiences. A lot of other people will have been through a similar situation (1 in 10 women and 1 in 71 men have had sex against their will according to the Natsal 3 study). So it will be a great relief to a lot of people to hear that others are struggling with some of the same thoughts and feelings that come with experiencing assault and/or abuse. 

Whatever you want to call it, abuse and/or assault, it happened to you. I am listening to you and I believe you. It doesn’t matter whether you had feelings for him or not. It doesn’t matter that some of the sex was okay and some of it was abuse/assault (I’ve edited your email down a little bit). You have been through an assault and/or abuse and so you could consider yourself a victim of these things, and/or you could also call yourself a survivor. It’s up to you what term you might want to use, but the important thing is that it happened. It happened whether the guy admits it or not. 

Because this happened to you, it’s okay for you to have these feelings of hurt and anger. It’s also okay for you to have the other conflicted feelings of what happened because you are also going through another stage and another form of abuse – gaslighting. 

Read more about what Gaslighting is and where it comes from

You say you felt gaslighted from this guy, that’s because he gaslighted you. It was another thing that he was doing to you without your consent. Another form of abuse. By dismissing you and not acknowledging what he did, he is trying to make you think that you are imagining things. By assualting and/or abusing you he is saying that you are not entitled to have boundaries during sex. By gaslighting you he is saying that you are not entitled to feel hurt by a thing he did, and he is saying you are not entitled to any accountability from him. 

The absolute ideal way for him to have responded to what you said would be “okay, that’s big. I’m really really sorry for what happened. Thank you for bringing this up because I need to learn to do better. Would you like to have a conversation about how I might make myself accountable, or show that I have learned to do better about boundaries?” He hasn’t even done the first bit. 

Of course being challenged over this can be very hard for us to hear (although not as difficult as it is to say) and a gut reaction from many of us is to deny a part of us that might have hurt someone. This happens all the time, about things that are not just about sex, on a daily basis from early childhood where our first instinct is to say ‘no I didn’t’ or to blame the other person for our own mistakes. So it might not be that this guy is deliberately setting out to gaslight you, maybe he just doesn’t want to face what he did, but he is still gaslighting you. 

You did also manage to call him out in front of other people (after having tried several times to ‘call him in’). And you know he heard what you said because he got defensive and left the room. He also saw your anger. His friends also heard what you said and also heard your anger. Good for you. Maybe you have regrets about how you did it, but you told him directly, and you told his friends directly. His friends listened to you and heard you out. He just left, so you didn’t get the feeling of being listened to, or believed. However, he definitely heard you, even if he didn’t listen. 

Maybe it took a lot of alcohol, but it also took a lot of strength and bravery to be able to call him out in the way that you did. You weren’t there for the aftermath, but perhaps it did have an effect on him (and also on his friends, who might challenge him to do better). Although you didn’t get what you wanted from him when you called him in/out, could you think of it as giving yourself something? You were saying

‘Look at me. You treated me badly. I deserve to be treated better than this. My boundaries are important. My feelings are valid and real.’

That’s a pretty powerful thing to do for yourself and it might help you start the process of healing. 

I don’t think that you are going to get the accountability from him that you want, but perhaps you can start to heal by doing other things. It’s a great start to be brave enough to be able to write to me about it, so that I can share the response on BISH for people to see and read. Perhaps there will be some people reading this who might feel that they should behave differently when they get called in/out. Or perhaps some people might want to reach out to others to make themselves accountable. Maybe there is a bit of cosmic accountability going on with people you don’t know.

This is what #MeToo is about for so many people. People putting their hands up and saying that sexual violence happened to them and they didn’t get to hold anyone accountable. The movement is all about solidarity, people standing side by side and being with each other in their shared pain and hurt. 

Read more about what men can do to respond to #MeToo

You can talk to other people who have been in the same situation as you. Perhaps there might be some local support groups you could join. Or online support groups. In the first instance you could check out https://www.survivorsuk.org/ (which is for men, which you told me you are) or other support groups around rape and assault. There’s a good list here at ITV (randomly) https://www.itv.com/thismorning/rape-helplines). 

Talking to close ones might be a good thing to do too. So long as you are able to have the kinds of conversations with them about what kind of response you want from them and what kind of support you would find useful. Sometimes people just want to fix you when you might just want to be heard, or held, or be bought a pint and a packet of crisps (cheese and onion for me please).

Read more about how to support someone

How you deal with what happened is up to you but I think that you have the courage to find ways to help you heal. In the meantime please try to do plenty of self-care and lashings of self kindness. Also try to be present to joy when it happens. As well as feeling hurt, sad, angry, abused, you’re also allowed to sometimes feel light, joyful, and free. Just feel the feelings as they come and try not to make yourself have the feelings you feel like you should have. My mate Meg-John wrote a really great zine about this https://www.rewriting-the-rules.com/self/new-zine-staying-with-feelings/ 

Hope that helps

Justin

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I’ve been a sex and relationships educator since 1999 (with a background in youth and community work). In that time I’ve taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. I’ve worked with many charities, local governments, schools and youth organisations facilitating training and workshops. My two books, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and If You Want To) and Can We Talk About Consent? are widely available around the world. I’ve been on the telly and the radio and have written articles for newspapers and magazines. I’m also a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Read more about me and BISH here. Find out about my other work here Justin Hancock

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