[moderate trigger warning: prescriptivism, possible ableism, sexual abuse, suicide]
A couple of months ago a friend of mine (let’s call them Sky), who runs a relatively visible blog on their experience with sexual abuse, posted about how they were feeling suicidal. Shortly after this, Sky’s post was picked up by someone on tumblr and it was reblogged several dozen times. They ended up getting a ton of messages, mostly anonymous, from strangers telling them why they should not kill themselves. Most people would think that this is a good thing to do. After all, what’s wrong with wanting to get some support for someone who needs it?
The problem is that Sky never asked for any help. And some well-intentioned but arrogant stranger decided that they knew Sky’s better situation that they did, and they decided to call the police on them.
The problem is that Sky lives in an abusive situation. They have a chronic illness that makes it very difficult to escape, and they see their abuser(s) on a regular basis.
When the police came to the door, they told Sky’s mother (who is one of their abusers) that someone had said Sky has PTSD, to which their mother replied: “from what?”
Yes, Sky is in a situation that is that fucked up and dangerous. Around people who regularly believe that the abuse did not happen, or, if it did, it was their fault. Sky has been surviving in this situation for years now.
Yet someone who has never met Sky or even talked to them over the internet or read what they write decided that they knew better. And many other people who have never had a chronic, debilitating illness or lived in a pervasive, abusive situation barged into their life and acted as if they all knew better. For the past few years, Sky has been gradually working at getting better and finding sources of strength for themselves. But this sudden intrusion forced them back into hiding. They had to abandon their tumblr page, which helped them find other, supportive people, and move into another page with less public attention. In the process, they dropped a lot of random acquaintances and other people who may have at least been decent.
The problem with this kind of “help” is that it is not asked for. It removes the ability for people to consent. Not all suicidal people have survived sexual abuse, but for those of us who have, being able to ASK and say yes or no is incredibly important. To take away consent not once, but multiple times by making a “HEY EVERYONE GO HERE AND MAKE ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT SOMEONE’S LIFE” type of post is incredibly hurtful. If you’re a very close friend and you know the person, sure, you might be able make that decision. But if they have said no, then you don’t do it. And if you’re a random stranger who barely knows them, you definitely shouldn’t do it.
Other times, people came from backgrounds where they just did not in any way understand. Sky received messages from total strangers who knew nothing about their situation— people who made annoying and obvious prescriptivist “solutions” or “suggestions” that they had heard time and time again. It wasn’t helpful in any way, just very tiring and yet another reminder of how marginalized they are.
In some ways, these responses were an insulting and subtle method of victim-blaming. There were lots of “I’ve been there! You can do it!” posts when no, they really did not know Sky’s situation in the least. These posts were basically saying, in a round-about way, “I made it through this! Why haven’t you?” Unfortunately, not everyone who wants to “help” in these situations actually wants to help. Sometimes they do it because they are insecure in some way, or because it helps them feel better, not the other person.
So although this started out well-intentioned, it ended up hurting Sky quite a lot. Sky’s story was picked up and their ability to consent to its mass examination was removed without even a second thought. That is not okay. Sky was incredibly lucky that their abuser was simply dismissive as usual— in another situation it could have ended very badly, maybe even in physical danger or death. This is not something you can mess around with.
Sometimes people need to hear a lot of messages of support. Other times, people need to hide away and speak only to a close, trusted friend. This is sexual abuse and other similar types of trauma, not, “my pet goldfish died”. I can broadcast a status about how cute the neighborhood cat is on Facebook, but I would never post a message about feeling suicidal in such a large, public space. It’s two totally different things. I suspect a lot of people (not all, but certainly enough to ask first) are like this too.
Today, someone pointed out to me that a site I used to link to on here participates in this kind of behavior— pointing out random people’s personal pages where they’ve expressed emotional pain and condoning random messages of “support” to “help” them. I apologize a million times over for that— I visited that page awhile ago when they were first starting up, and they didn’t do that kind of thing back then. I’ve changed the link in the top header to another site which does similar work, but which also connects to many other websites with specific resources.
Consent is important. People in these situations already feel powerless and like the world is not listening to them. To remove the ability to consent yet again is just demeaning and hurtful. In some cases, this kind of prescriptivism could be extremely dangerous.
You need to ask us first. If you can’t ask, then don’t “help”.