My Sexual Assault Taught Me What Makes a Good Friend—and a Bad One
"I was a different person. And despite—or maybe because of—all of this, my closest friends refused to give me the benefit of the doubt"
Warning: This story contains descriptions of and references to sexual assault and may be triggering, especially for people who have experienced assault and/or harassment.
What makes a good friend?
I never had to give it much thought as a kid. We were either friends, or we weren’t.
When I went through my first breakup at 16—five days short of our one-year anniversary—one of my oldest friends came over with Us Weekly, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and a special crystal on a necklace that was meant to bring peace. The gratitude I felt for her was enormous. Was this what it meant to have a true friend?
Over the years, my definition of friendship varied from person to person. We could talk as much as or as little as made sense, spend as much time together as we wanted, discuss serious issues, frivolous gossip, anything, but it was how we turned up for one another in our happiest and saddest moments that mattered to me.
At pivotal points in our lives we learn what’s important to us, and what we look for in relationships with the people we invite into our world. So after I went through the most trying time of my life—the period after I was raped—I learned a whole lot about what I want, and deserve, in a friend.
My assault was impossible to grapple with
When I moved to Toronto from Montreal in the summer of 2016, the friends I’d made during my time at McGill University were some of the only people I knew in my new city; they’d grown up in Ontario, and moved home after school. We were attached at the hip. We’d talk about guys together, go to movies together, complain about life together—everything was together. There were four of us—me and three other girls—and they were pretty much my lifelines.
I also met my attacker at McGill, in first-year residence. He became part of our extended friend group: We were close enough to be invited to each other’s house parties but not close enough to make plans alone. He came to Toronto with a group of four male friends one weekend after we’d all moved, to celebrate Halloween.
Around midnight on the Saturday a few of us convened at a friend’s condo, and he latched onto my side, telling me he wanted me alone, telling me he needed to come over to my place. Neither of us had been drinking, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be alone with him, but he called us a cab and we ended up back at my house.
The assault felt like someone else’s nightmare. Feeling like I was watching myself from outside of my body, I saw myself crying, telling him to stop, trying to shove him off. I could feel myself hoping beyond hope that my roommates, who were sleeping soundly, would hear and come to help.
The next day was a blur. I know I made my way to a pharmacy to buy Plan B. I know I washed my sheets three times. I know I told no one, afraid that if I said it out loud it would seem more real. I felt nothing until the end of the day when I lost control in the bathroom, staring at my face, sobbing and screaming. Looking back on it, I think that was the first moment that I truly understood what had happened to me.
In the aftermath of my assault, there were a few reasons I didn’t report: I showered after he left my house, so I knew all physical evidence would be gone; I felt no one would believe me. The sole witnesses of his behaviour that night would have been mutual friends who, earlier in the weekend, had only seen us having fun together. I didn’t have any family in the country, and I didn’t want to have to figure out the legal system and fees and process on my own. A part of me didn’t want to ruin the rest of his life. More than anything, I wanted to be able to put it behind me and move on (a sad, naive perspective to look back on now, but I didn’t know what a profound effect the event would continue to have on my life).
But my friends’ reactions to my assault were also tough to deal with
But another huge reason I didn’t report? The reactions from those closest to me, the same girlfriends I’d gossiped with about guys and stayed in baking with on Friday nights. I was made to feel, by the first few people I told, that what had happened that night wasn’t a big deal, that “these things happen.”
I had one friend refuse to accept that the assault had happened at all. “That just doesn’t match up with who he is,” she said defensively. I had one state conversationally to me about how she was fully aware that he’d had anger management issues in the past, but that she would remain friends with him regardless. I had one friend disappear for two weeks after I told her, before reappearing to let me know that the fact that I had been to an event earlier that Halloween weekend that she hadn’t been invited to was incredibly hurtful to her. She needed me to apologize. I did. She then told me that she thought what he’d done to me was a “one-time mistake.”
In the aftermath of my assault, my mindset shifted, my priorities were reorganized and my heart hardened. I was full of pain. My family shelled out thousands for medication and therapy. I lost job after job. I was a different person. And despite—or maybe because of—all of this, my closest friends refused to give me the benefit of the doubt. Instead they became impatient with how trauma had changed me.
I struggled with being a new adult in a new city with a new trauma in a society that teaches exactly nobody how to handle trauma, which is likely the reason I gave my friends so much slack. I needed them, I thought. I had no one else. So I let them defend my attacker and intimidate, shame and gaslight me. I let them ignore my cries for help and pretended it was fine by me if they remained friends with both of us, as though nothing had changed.
I let these things happen and I forced myself to be OK with it all. My friends didn’t know any better, right?
It took me a long time to learn what I deserved
It took me a while, too long, probably, to realize that not knowing better wasn’t enough of an excuse—or an excuse at all—for how my friends were treating me.
One friend told me she wanted to “stay neutral” because she didn’t like involving herself in situations between friends. A few weeks later she went on a rant to me about a situation in her other friends’ lives. She was red in the face, spitting with anger, telling me she’d never been so angry at a man, that he was absolute garbage, he disgusted her, she wanted to go rip his throat apart. Apparently this man was a coworker of hers, who was cheating on his girlfriend. Her friend was the other woman. She wanted to write him a letter about how inappropriate he was, continuing to call up her friend when he was in a relationship. I told her later it was upsetting to me to see her react so vehemently to that situation when she had told me she would withhold judgment in mine.
She said derisively: “I thought you might say that, but it’s not the same thing at all.”
She was right about that.
I wrote and wrote about the assault, primarily on feminist blogs, furiously detailing what had happened and its effect on me. When people would ask me what I needed from them, or express frustration that they didn’t know how to help, I would direct them to those pieces, because it was too exhausting to keep talking about it all out loud. I described in raw detail how I was feeling, and how I had changed. In several pieces I included actual lists: “Here is what I need right now from the people in my life.” It was achingly clear to me who had read and cared about my needs, and who hadn’t, or didn’t care at all.
Yet, I still wasn’t sure if I was expecting too much.
Tough love made me realize I had to leave certain friends behind
Seven months after my assault, I told a male ally of mine about a film I’d recently seen called Primas. The film was about two cousins who had been raped by their uncle; the filmmaker was the victims’ aunt, the sister of the accused. They’d grown up very close, and upon learning what her brother had done—she cut him from her life entirely. Why, I asked, couldn’t my friends do the same for me?
“Alannah*,” this friend said to me gently, “they can’t be making excuses for his behaviour.”
“If you went up and stabbed my mom ten times in the back, it wouldn’t matter that I know you well, or that you’d been my friend,” he continued. “You still stabbed my fucking mom and now she’ll be paralyzed and traumatized, and I would not be friends with you anymore, full stop.”
He meant to illustrate that even if you are close to a person, they may be capable of terrible things—like rape or another violent attack—and that if they do a terrible thing, it doesn’t matter if that thing was just a “mistake” (as several of my friends classified my rape). He insisted that it was not too much for me to ask that my friends not continue to validate someone who had harmed me.
It was that tough love that finally got through to me. I had made so many excuses for everyone who couldn’t be bothered to put any effort into treating me like someone they loved or like a survivor, and certainly not like both.
Ultimately, I had to make the choice to cut them out. It was a choice, but it also wasn’t. Feeling like my reality didn’t matter to the people I’d, for years, trusted to be my support system had exhausted me. I couldn’t both respect myself and continue to be friends with them. In the end, cutting these ties was a kindness I offered to myself.
Initially, though, it felt like a punishment. But now it feels like a blessing, because after they had helped convince me that I was absolutely unlovable, I had space to let in a whole lot of new people to my life who worked very hard to prove me wrong.
As I spent time learning how to take care of myself through yoga and therapy (among many other things), a friend I had lost touch with from university made an effort to reconnect with me, and we got close. My ex-boyfriend was a lifeline, sheltering me with his love and letting me force him to watch Grey’s Anatomy with me. It took me time to get stronger—I was a bit harder now and more cynical, but as soon as I felt ready to let new people in, they appeared in front of me. I met them at work, at theatre productions I took part in, at bars and at friends’ parties; and they have helped me find my softness again.
Through their willingness to just sit and keep me company, they have reminded me that support is not support if it’s conditional; through their generous gentleness, taught me that when you care about someone, you believe in them and in their truths; through their refusal to allow me to say that I need “fixing,” they’ve instilled in me that I am whole just as I am. They let me cry and buy me coffee and write me love notes. They also tease me and push me to construct boundaries and get angry with me. But they are always here.
I never imagined I could be loved in this many ways.
Different people occupy different periods of our lives. My friends from school were the perfect friends for university me—they weren’t the perfect friends for early-20s me, traumatized me, and they are not the perfect friends for mid-20s me, always-healing me.
Now, friendship means accepting someone’s past and understanding that trauma is an inevitable part of life. It means showing up for someone in pain and leading—always—with empathy. It means open communication, it means raw honesty, it means active listening and it means humility.
*Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, names have been changed.