ring theory

Ring Theory: How To Be An Effective Ally to Sexual Assault Survivors

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Kate Earley

Killjoy, PR lover, politico, and I run on caffeine.

“I just don’t know how you could do this to me,” I remember her saying. “You made me get the phone call no parent should have to get.”

I remember already having a blistering headache when my mother uttered that sentence to me over the phone, but those words were the final straw. I hung up. I asked my sister to pull the car over. I got out of the car in the parking lot she looped into, ran over to the bushes, crouched down, threw up, and began to cry.

Like many people who are assaulted, my world was burning to the ground around me. I was seventeen, a precocious student, just a few weeks away from getting my Bachelor’s Degree. I had lived on my own for a few years already, and this pre-graduation incident was not the first time I had been raped, but it was the time that I had been completely unable to cover up or hide. It’s hard to keep things quiet when you’re a minor and the police get involved. My right to privacy had already been taken away from me – a punch in the gut after the horrific trauma of an assault.

My family reacted badly. I knew that they would. There was a reason that I had decided against coming forward with the first rape – I was confident that doing so would lead to what little autonomy and control I still had over my body and my life to be stripped. My instincts were correct. My mother, in particular, decided that the best course of action would be to insist I not stay with friends or go to my finals in person, that she should be able to harass me and my friends at any time of the day, and that she would “handle” it for me – all the while making comments suggesting she was the real victim. A day before my 18th birthday, just a few days away from my graduation, a friend bought me a one way plane ticket across the country. I took it.

Unfortunately, the experience of friends and family making a traumatic assault even worse for the victim is not a unique one. It’s the fear of people’s reactions that keeps many victims compelled to stay silent – particularly victims who come from strict, conservative, or religious families, and especially if the victims are underage or otherwise dependent on their parents.

Sometimes, the comments and tactics that families and friends deploy may be well-intentioned. Sometimes, they aren’t. No matter their intention, these incidents have real, dramatic consequences on victims of assault. Not only does it discourage people from coming forward in the first place, but to people who have been recently assaulted are already in a traumatized state, the interactions you have following your assault can have dire implications for how you will be able to cope and heal.

Since these interactions are so critical, learning how to be an effective, supportive resource for your loved one or friend who goes through an assault is a necessary skill to gain.

Before An Assault/Preparing For The Worst

Being an effective resource for the people around you starts before the assault. We should never accept assault as inevitable, but we should acknowledge that particularly for women, people of color, and LGBT+ individuals (especially trans* friends), assault is disturbingly common.

Because of that, part one of being a good resource is helping to prevent assault.

This means fighting, vocally, against rape culture in your everyday life. There are dozens of examples about how to do this, but lifting up the narratives of survivors, condemning rape jokes and misogynistic or transphobic comments, and demanding better avenues for justice are good places to start.

Another part of this is demonstrating how you would act if something were to happen.

Family members should remind their loved ones that if an assault or otherwise traumatic event were to occur, they could be trusted to confide in. Tell them that you know how important it is for them to make their own decisions about their body and their autonomy, and that you would never try and force them into something they don’t want to do or isn’t a good option.

Comments such as “if I ever hear about somebody touching you, I’ll kill them” or anything that suggests you would intervene on their behalf may seem helpful, but in reality, they make people wonder if they can trust you to let them speak freely, make their own decisions, or keep a secret if the time comes.  If you don’t carry yourself like a person who can be trusted to be survivor-centric on topics of trauma and assault, you actively discourage people from coming forward.

When The Unthinkable Happens

Hearing that a loved one has been assaulted is a shocking and terrifying experience. You may have immediate concerns for their safety and wellbeing, especially if you received this information indirectly or they reached out in the immediate aftermath.

You should assess the answers to your concerns calmly, and in a way that reminds them that they are the one in charge.

“I’m so sorry that happened to you – are you safe now? What can I do to support you?”

After that initial interaction, be there. Check in on them if you don’t hear from them, but don’t be pushy. Offer resources if you can or if they want.

These are all general guidelines, but there’s one important principle that guides them: Ring Theory.

Ring Theory is a system designed by a woman who had breast cancer and faced her fair share of insensitive comments. This technique is designed to help people remember to center the survivor of the incident or ongoing trauma, while still respecting the fact that it can be painful and stressful to be involved with somebody going through something so hard. It does this without compromising the survivor-centric principle.

Essentially, this theory posits that at the center of the trauma, there’s a circle, with the survivor inside. In a larger circle around them, there’s the survivor’s close friends and family, then, a circle with acquaintances, so on, so forth, depending on the situation. The person at the innermost circle – the survivor – gets to complain and whine to anybody in any of the other circles. But for those in the more outer circles, you can only complain outwards, not to the inner circles. This prevents you from making the survivor feel burdened, or, as the title of the above-linked article puts it, “saying the wrong thing to the wrong person.”

By obeying the system of this “circle of grief,” you can immediately adopt hard-and-fast rules about when it is or is not appropriate to vent about the situation or give your opinions (if they aren’t asked for) – while still respecting the basic truth that it is stressful, and at times heartbreaking, to see our loved ones go through assault.

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There are, sometimes, people who won’t care to change their ways or obey survivor-centered guidelines (these are people you should, if at all possible, distance yourself from). But the majority of people who make these missteps when dealing with the assault of a loved one do want to learn, and legitimately want to be there for you. We are all constantly learning new ways, like the ones discussed above, to be there effectively and compassionately for our loved ones – it’s up to us to continue that education and practice what we preach.