I have a friend at university who is notorious for being a “man-stealer”. She is very manipulative and inappropriately flirtatious and most of the women I know dislike her because of this. I am patient with her because I am aware of her history. As a teenager, she was raped by several men at a party, and obviously this has had a profound effect. When she makes a beeline for someone I have said I am interested in, I know this is her way of feeling powerful and in control, something she must have lost when she was assaulted.
While I understand the reasons for her power play, I can tolerate it for only so long. I have adopted strategies to avoid getting hurt, such as not telling her when I am interested in a person, or not inviting her to events where that person might be, but this makes me uncomfortable. I know it is not a proper solution and if she realises I am being secretive it will only increase her insecurity and worsen her behaviour.
She has angered a lot of people and is in danger of isolating herself. I feel I need to talk to her about it, but she is incredibly guarded and makes it very difficult to approach her. I want to be sympathetic, but also want her to understand that she is hurting people. Her most recent attempt to seduce someone I like has left me wounded. Despite everything, I care about her and want to stay friends. How do I talk to her about it without offending her and making the situation worse?
You are right that some survivors of sexual violence can try to exert control over others as a long-term pattern of behaviour due to an earlier trauma, or exhibit increased sexual behaviour. As consultant psychiatrist Dr Carine Minne (bpc.org.uk) says, “One way of trying to manage living with such a trauma might be by attempting to take charge of men and women when in certain poignant situations.” Minne says this behaviour may give the survivor “a temporary sense of triumph”, but that they can “very quickly dip and feel very bad – it can become a distressing repetitive pattern.”
We have no idea if that’s why your friend is like this, and it is important not to assume so, when you approach her, as that may be construed as disempowering to a rape survivor.
An adviser from Rape Crisis (rapecrisis.org.uk) says, “The impact of sexual violence can be very different for different people. Sexualised behaviour might be connected to her experiences of sexual violence and issues around power and control. Survivors can sometimes talk about their sexualised behaviour in terms of ‘not caring enough about themselves’ or what happens to them any more. However, it’s impossible for anyone but the individual survivor to fully understand the unique experience and the effects it’s had. And, importantly, this woman’s behaviour could be nothing to do with her experiences as a sexual violence survivor.”
In terms of how to handle the situation, both specialists advised speaking to your friend. Minne suggested: “By avoiding letting her know how hurt you feel as her friend, you’re not actually helping her in the long term, just as in any situation of conflict with a friend.”
The adviser from Rape Crisis suggested saying something like: “I really value you as a friend and don’t want to lose our friendship so I feel I need to be honest with you and tell you about the impact your behaviour has had on me. When you did x, y and z, it really hurt me and made me a, b and c. I’ve noticed that this isn’t the first time you have acted like this either – it feels like a bit of a pattern of behaviour – and I’m worried that it’s destructive of our friendship. I wonder what’s going on with you that makes you behave this way to me and I hope we can talk about it.”
Pick a calm moment where you are both in a safe place. Talk for yourself and your own experiences of your friend; not for anyone else, or she might feel ganged up on. Resist telling her how she feels or why, leave gaps to listen. Don’t be afraid of silence in the conversation while your friend takes stuff in, and don’t fill it in a panic with lists of her destructive behaviour. Also, be prepared for your friend not wanting to talk – at that moment, or ever. But she may need to digest what you say and come back to you.
You don’t mention if she has ever had support or counselling to deal with her attack or whether it would be relevant to mention that there is help out there (but remember not to bring it into the reason for why you are discussing this subject). You might find this article helpful: rapecrisis.org.uk/supportingasurvivor.php.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 31 July 2015.