One of my friends from high school dated a really-not-nice guy. Let’s call my friend Mary. That’s how Mary describes that two-year period of her life: “I dated a really-not-nice guy.” And he was an objectively really-not-nice guy — he rarely tipped over 10 percent, he used to pull his dog by the leash to hurry up the walk and, as you’ve probably guessed, did some really-not-nice things to my friend.
Over break, Mary, myself and another friend (let’s call her Jill) ate lunch. And at the very same time, in the very same restaurant, so did the ex-boyfriend and his mother. This type of thing tends to happen in Manhattan, secretly one of the smallest towns in America. Mary warmly hugged his mother, smiled at him, laughed at a joke. He inquired about her major, she inquired about his dog and then she hugged his mother goodbye. And after they left, she sat back down and kept eating her hamburger.
“Are you okay?” Jill asked.
“Yeah,” Mary said. “Fine.”
“But he like, abused you,” said Jill. “For like, a year.”
Mary kept eating. “What’s past is past,” she said, a little wobbly. And then, “Pass the ketchup?” Conversation over.
As I later found out, this was the most difficult part of the whole encounter for Mary. Not seeing him, not actually talking to him — not even his ensuing texts (also really-not-nice). It was Jill assigning the word “abuse” to Mary’s experience, a word pregnant with violence and trauma. For Mary, her ex is a not-nice guy who did some really-not-nice things. That’s what she says in her diary, to her friends, to herself. That’s her language for this. And that’s that.
Luckily, people like Mary have friends like Jill — who notice, remember and support. The Jills of this campus chalked messages of earnest support on Wednesday, acted as allies by posting comments on Overheard at Yale debate threads and have pledged that they “stand with women” online. These moments of active (and public!) solidarity are an important first step. Jills of this campus: Your energy and your demonstrations of love mean a lot to many, especially those who might be struggling alone.
But as we check-in, chalk-out, cheer-up and otherwise try to support our friends, we need to remember — they do not all identify as “survivors” or “victims,” nor do they all call their experiences “abuse,” or “rape.”
Language is volatile, and lands in unexpected ways. For people who have had bad experiences, especially bad sexual experiences, hasty labels can be really damaging. While active solidarity involves public support, active solidarity requires consideration of the words you use in support. Words like “victim,” “survivor” and “rape,” if not already used by people to describe their experience, can easily be their own form of control. We all need to listen closely, letting people show us the vocabulary they would want us to use. We cannot assume the words for them.
That’s the key to active solidarity, really. Listening. Not assuming you know.
This non-assumption must extend beyond the membrane of our vocabularies and into the interpersonal conversations we have about sexual assault. These discussions are essential — if you feel like you want to talk, or you feel like your friends might want to talk, do so. Tell them how you feel, what you might worry about, what you do not understand — whatever is on your mind. In these conversations, with these friends, the sentiments we may have chalked Wednesday will have the greatest impact. Standing with our friends and the survivors in our lives must also mean listening, talking, laughing — whatever verb that feels appropriate at the time.
Yet another caution: We also may not know how sexual assault affects friends, suitemates or peers in our dining halls or on our Facebook walls. They might love survivors. They might be survivors. They might also love someone who committed someone else’s really-not-nice experience. But no matter what, unless they choose to tell us, we cannot know the proximity of our friends to this issue.
To pull a metaphor from my ever-wise grandmother, we need to remember to “double-check the rearview mirror” in these conversations. Maybe being a good ally is a little like parallel parking — we need to line-up, put on our blinkers and move slowly as we proceed. Sometimes we have to pull back — whether in our vocabulary, in our friendships or in our dining halls. Only then can we realign and drive ourselves forward again, however we think best. That’s a manual, lifelong process that we undertake together — and on our own.
Amelia Jane Nierenberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .