5 steps you can take if you've abused and want to help repair some damage
Updated: Aug 17
Trigger warning: SA
If you're a survivor and have been asked to work with an abuser, you might want to check out my sister article here.
Whatever brought you here, I'd like to start by saying thank you. I am going to write this with every ounce of kindness and understanding I can find in my heart. But please bear in mind that I'm personally a survivor of sexual assault and I'm taking my own unpaid time to do this out of the goodness of said heart. So all I'm asking is that you meet me somewhere in the middle.
Unfortunately, I have been very hurt by people who did not do the work on themselves they needed to before they met me. I think lots of us have had that experience, maybe you have too. I am writing this because myself and others have been considering what we want to see from those people that hurt us. What is a strong enough counter-action to undo years of damage? We're asking ourselves that question all the time. Are you?
I'd like to preface this by saying the word "abuse" can be off-putting. Believe me, our instinct as survivors is also to downplay it as something lesser at every cost. Usually because statistically 90% of sexual assaults are committed by someone you know. And if we know someone, the chances are they're in our life because we like them. Abusers are usually really really nice. And very often, they're not aware of how their actions have affected people. You might still be thinking, "noted. but this article still isn't aimed at me." and that's ok. I'd encourage you to keep reading anyway. Maybe you've got a pal who could use it...
noun: abuse /əˈbjuːs/ 1. the improper use of something.
The dictionary has many definitions for this icky word. This is one of them. It's possible your previous actions have been just as simple as that. You might have used something... or someone improperly. Right now, we're all coming to new revelations about what proper looks like. You can be your own judge on this one. That's the benefit of your actions not being brought before an actual judge.*
It seems to me that there are likely three camps of people here: those that have processed their past behaviour and recognised it as problematic but aren't looking to fix it, those that have recognised it and are actively looking for ways to help, and those who don't think they've done anything wrong. The latter is way too big a fish for me to fry. I'm writing this for free so I'm not about to try and change your mind. I'm just gonna go on the blind faith that deep down, you know. Even if no one else does.
Support for survivors is incredibly under resourced and underfunded. But it's also very clear how few structures exist for past abusers to help repair what they've done. So I thought I'd share some ideas. I'm personally part of a creative industry but this advice should blend beyond that.
1 ) Get therapy
If society hasn't already fucked them financially, it's extremely likely those you've done this to have (at the very least) skipped coffees, gym memberships, and maybe even childcare, to talk about you to a £70 an hour therapist. £70 a week, is £280 a month, is £3360 a year. I have friends that have genuinely spent that trying to fix the damage. At this point we probably have a better understanding of the nuances that led to your actions than you do. And surely that's fundamentally a bit fucked isn't it?
I'm not a therapist and I'm not a doctor but if you've taken advantage of another person physically in any way, shape, or form, I'd like to hazard a guess that you're not ok. What you've done is in fact transfer any issues you had with yourself and lay them all on the person you did it to. It's not just to get off. That's what consensual sex is for. This is something else.
It should be noted that even if you've not physically managed to force anyone into full sex or sexual activity, that doesn't mean this doesn't apply to you. If an axe-wielding murderer doesn't manage to aim right, he's not innocent, he's just a really bad murderer. The problem we have here is that no one "wants" to get murdered. But it's very natural for the people you're doing these things to, to at some point in their life "want" sex. It's up to you to be able to tell the difference. And if you can't. You need therapy. Because what we're talking about here is every lil itty bitty action from banter that perpetuates the culture, not noticing if your partner's enjoying it, trying too hard to turn a no into a yes, all the way to violent assault and everything in between.
So please at the very least explore those nuances with a professional. If you're part of the UK screen/stage industry like me, Equity & BAPAM offer 6 free hour-long therapy sessions to their members. And that includes you. Please take it.
There are other charitable support services on offer and I'm sure their door is open to abusers too but please bear in mind that they are under-resourced as it is and I'm sure we'd both wish for their time to be taken up helping survivors rather than the ones responsible. So yes, long story short: it's probably best you pay for it. We all are.
And remember that everything you say to a therapist is confidential. They've heard the worst parts of people already, so be honest.
2) Educate yourself
The biggest key to fixing this is understanding the nuances of the culture that led us here. Here are some recommendations on what to read, listen to, and watch that might help. If you're finding it hard to stick with something, try setting goals for yourself to finish it. If you're feeling particularly academic, take notes. Genuinely. This is the stuff school didn't teach us.
A little bit of a note for the books: good god don't show them off in public. You're doing this work for you because you did a bad thing. I personally don't want the girl opposite you on the tube falling in love with you because she's unaware you're retrospectively trying to understand your own abusive tendencies. I think you'd agree the irony would be too much to bear.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Men Who Hate Women by Laura Bates
Unfuck your Intimacy by Faith G. Harper
Sex Power Money by Sarah Pascoe
Unbroken by Madeleine Black
This Cosmopolitan article by Catriona Innes
Bicycle Health's guide to SA
Ear Hustle's podcast titled "Dirty Water". It covers a woman going into prison to interview her abuser.
Scene on Radio: Himpathy podcast.
The Immaculate Deception podcast.
This Tedtalk with a survivor and her abuser on navigating their reconciliation.
I May Destroy You on BBC iPlayer which covers both male and female sexual assault.
Promising Young Woman on Amazon.
Adult Material on 4oD.
3) Regulate yourself
So you're invited into a space your past victim is going to be in. Or perhaps even your victim’s friends who more likely than not, also know what you did. If you haven't already reached out to them and successfully made amends, you have one option. Leave it. You might be doing the work on yourself to undo what you did but if you haven't publicly owned that or better yet, proved it, they won't know, and your presence may still have the ability to trigger them. So just try your best not to be in it. This goes for literally all occasions possible. Social, accidental, and above all, professional. It means being the bigger man. The biggest big manly man you ever did see. If you don’t want to risk being outed as an abuser to employers or your friends, take yourself out of that space and nobody needs to know. Say you're cast with someone you know you did this to in the past. Say they're sitting at home trying to choose between their own sanity and their basic need to exchange money for sustenance. Say they're seriously considering not taking the job because of what they know it'll do to them being in a room with you for months on end. There's only one thing that can make this easier on them. You bow out. Say you’re taking a retreat to rescue baby dolphins in Torquay that week. Whatever. Just don’t hold their desire for employment hostage.
Although in all honesty, the absolute ideal scenario is that you publicly own up to what you did so the people you did it to don't continue to be disbelieved. Hopefully, perhaps years down the line, you'll have done the work necessary for you both to coexist in the same room.
And if you're invited somewhere under circumstances you know your behaviour could be problematic, don't go. Leave those spaces for those that do have their shit together. If you know you have a tendency to impede on other people's boundaries when you're drunk, don't drink. Unless you want to "blackout" and end up accidentally charged with something you can "barely remember", set some rules for yourself and ask a mate to make sure you stick to them on a night out.
You're far from alone. Talk to your friends about it. All people of all genders are taking stock of their own complicity in the system we've built. Myself included. One of the biggest issues, especially around toxic masculinity, is the inability to communicate. Somehow, somewhere, someone royally fucked us on that one. I swear it's the actual key to everything. Better relationships, better sex, better careers, better friendships, better everything.
And if you find a good therapist, recommend them to your mates. Because If you think your friends aren't having their own conversations about this in their little heads too, you're most likely wrong. And chances are they've been dying for someone to bring it up. You might know you've built a bit of a dodgy name for yourself in that regard and would rather not be confronted by what they've got to say. I'd suggest you bridge that gap, and quickly, under constructive terms and while you still can. Link them to this article if you think it'll help. Even if it sits alongside a "look at this slut thinking she can tell us what to do", as long as it starts a conversation. Maybe they'll reply "hahaha aye fuckin whor- actually no she makes some good points."
Many survivors are looking for an apology. I've personally had men reach out to me years later to do just that. For me, it was appreciated and gave me a sense of peace. Again, it's not for everyone and it might genuinely be that the damage is too far gone for it to really mean much. But talk with your therapist about trying. If you want to explore that option do it gently, carefully and with a sober mind.
Do not corner your ex in a bar on a night out and spit sorrys into their ear over the thumping base of David Guetta.
Instead, do it with the help of professionals who can give you the best advice. Paying a therapist or trained trauma response mediator to sit down with you both is probably the best course of action. They might even be able to get in touch with the person on your behalf so you can avoid the potential trigger of your name popping into their DMs on a Wednesday afternoon.
Here are some charities you can donate £100 of your savings to right now before you even finish this article. And I dare you not to tell anyone you're doing it.
The idea has been floated that you should also pay for your victims' therapy. I personally would welcome this. But this offer is not for everyone. Ask your therapist about the best ways to go around doing this.
And if you're a genuine convert, maybe set up a support group? It sounds very 80's and twee but it might not be a bad shout. I genuinely don't think there are any...
Above all, don't do any of the above if it's to solely help you move on. If that's what you find yourself doing, buy another round of therapy and talk about that. You should be doing this to help current survivors and make sure there aren't any more. It won't absolve you of what you've done - that power is solely with those you did it to and you don't get to say when it's been reconciled. Make sure you keep the focus on survivors and not on you. It's on all of us to be better. So set aside scheduled hours in your week to do this work. We've been doing it for years and we've saved you a seat at the table. Join us.
* If you haven't come before an actual judge yet, I'd invite you to ask yourself why. Is it because you didn't do it? Or could it be because the person you did it to is/was so overflowing with empathy that they recognised the unexplored hurt in you as to why you might have done it and didn't want to harm you more? Or did they perhaps look at the judicial statistics stacked against them and decide they didn't want the next 4 years of their life to be hell with little chance of justice at the end of it all?
PS - I don't have a monopoly on this advice nor will I get it all right. But I wanted to try. I'm open to your feedback while I work to say it better.
The Recovery Village in Columbus, Ohio and the BOCA Recovery Centre have also since reached out with these helpful resources: Exploring the Connection between Domestic Violence and Addiction, Domestic Violence Resources, Guide for Victims of SA & Addiction.
display image by Sandra Seitamaa on Upsplash