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Supporting the Trans Survivor: A Review of Disrupting the Bystander: When #MeToo Happens Among Friends

Trauma, unfortunately, is widespread in the trans/non-binary community. Most of us have experienced serious harm – sexual assault, intimate partner violence, dating violence – as well as discrimination and harassment. Chances are good that you will encounter a trans or non-binary peer who has just recently experienced such a devastating event and is in desperate need of support. Will you know how to help?
You will if you read A.V. Flox’s groundbreaking book, Disrupting the Bystander: When #MeToo Happens Among Friends (2019, Thorntree Press). Flox clearly has supported many victims of sexual and other types of violence and offers much practical advice, such as how to apologize when you misstep:

“The apology doesn’t have to be elaborate – something like, ‘That’s not helpful, I’m sorry,’ works fine. The cost of waiting to achieve perfection is too high – survivors can’t wait in isolation until we become black belts in nurturance.”

Flox also provides some scaffolding for understanding what you as a supporter are trying to do. Most importantly, supporters should not aim to fix the victim. Instead, supporters should first focus on helping the victim “reach a greater calm,” also called “regulate.”

“Helping someone regulate doesn’t require that we solve their problems – it only requires that we meet them in their distress calmly and openly.”

This first phase Flox calls Shift – helping someone in distress reach a greater calm. Victims are typically feeling very fearful. The supporter’s role is to help them regain a sense of safety, something Flox says is easier to do than you might think: “The most important cue [of safety] you can give is your attention.” This listening helps heal: ““The safer we make it for a survivor to feel their feelings, the easier it is for them to begin integrating their experience.” Supporters in the Shift phase should also “gently counter feelings that could lead to isolation or otherwise prevent connection, such as guilt, shame, and self-blame.” Flox recommends checking out YouTube under “tension release exercises” for ideas on physical activities that can help a victim calm down.

The second phase is Shelter, which involves “rallying others to reintegrate a survivor [into their community].” Violence, Flox argues, impacts not only its direct victims, but the whole community:

“Because of how harm causes activation and isolation, this not only impacts those who are harmed, but ripples across the entire social fabric of the group. Without regulation, the activation in a survivor’s body can become chronic, making it difficult for them to connect with others, regulate themselves, and help others regulate. As the pattern of harm continues to impact community members, locking more people into chronic activation, the group’s overall resiliency goes down and ties begin to fray.”

Now might be a good time to note that Flox argues strongly that supporters should not try to do this work alone. Ideally, Flox recommends that a “pod” of at least six supporters be created, both to spread the work and to diversify the set of skills and connections supporters can offer the victim. Multiple supporters also helps mitigate the trauma: “Study after study shows that having a good support network constitutes the single most powerful protection against being traumatized.”

The third and last stage Flox names as Shape: “Shape… is about transformation. Shape has planning at its center. It asks the question, ‘what can make things better?’” Another definition of Shape is “letting the survivor determine what form their future may take.”

“In Shape, those providing support will help a survivor define their goals, go over their options, take stock of the risks, and help get things in motion.”

One of the unique features of Disrupting the Bystander is that it also addresses supporting what Flox names “the person who harmed.” This is a deeply compassionate approach to harm, built partly on the understanding that none of us are black or white, all good or all bad. In fact, Flox sets the stage for this section by admitting, “The first time someone told me how my actions had harmed them, I vomited.” Flox also normalizes harmful mistakes by calling them “goslings that follow me around”:

“In turning mistakes into goslings, I alchemized a terrifying thing into a sweet creature worthy of tending. And it is in this tending that we do our learning.”

Disrupting the Bystander is also notable for how smooth and delightful a read it is for gender-sensitive people. Excepting references to specific individuals and two mentions of the hashtag #Ibelieveher, gender never shows up in the book. Every discussion of survivors and those who do harm are genderless, allowing readers the welcome (and rare) freedom to apply those terms to anyone of any gender. This gender consciousness is so pervasive that we don’t even learn the author’s gender identity until the last page.

No, I’m not sharing!