Dear Imprudence: Sexual Assault By Any Other Name

The 24 April edition of Dear Abby led with this letter:

Dear Abby: I am an average 17-year-old girl with a big problem. A few days ago, my cousin’s boyfriend touched me inappropriately. It took a few seconds for me to realize what was happening and stop him. I got up and left the room.

I don’t want to tell my mom because she shares what we talk about with other people. I don’t want to tell my cousin because she loves her boyfriend, and if I ruin this for her, she’ll never speak to me again. I have seen her do it with other people.

My cousin visits my house every day with her boyfriend. I have been leaving for hours so I won’t have to see him. Please help me. What other option do I have besides telling somebody? — Staying Silent in Guam

Dear Staying Silent: You have two options. You can remain silent and let your cousin marry a man who has so little self-control that he would not only hit on another woman, but one who is a close relative of hers. Or you can tell your parents what happened so your cousin can be warned, and possibly save her from a world of heartache later on. Please be brave and do the right thing.

What I find fascinating about Abby’s response here is that she doesn’t name, identify, or discuss what happened to Staying Silent. The response is framed as ‘you wouldn’t want your cousin to marry a guy who would cheat on her, right?’

As opposed to ‘you wouldn’t want your cousin to marry someone who commits sexual assault, would you?’

Hrm, I wonder why that might be. Here we have a girl who describes being ‘touched inappropriately’ and says that she is afraid to talk to someone about it. I feel like a supportive and helpful response would name what happened—sexual assault—and provide the reader with resources such as referrals to sexual assault crisis centers or organizations like RAINN. Staying Silent did have another option; talking with a counselor instead of a family member about what happened, and maybe talking with the counselor about a way to bring this event up with her family.

Instead, Dear Abby didn’t address the actual event which occurred and informed Staying Silent that she should ‘be brave’ and ‘do the right thing’ by telling her parents. Refusing to name sexual assault is one of the reasons it is so hard to address. Calling sexual assault ‘hitting on’ someone makes it that much harder for a victim to identify it in the future; when Staying Silent is groped on a bus, is that being ‘hit on’? How about when she’s pressured into unwanted sexual contact by a partner?

How monumentally unhelpful.

Staying Silent, if you’re out there and you happen to be reading this: What happened to you was sexual assault. It was not ok. Some resources you might find helpful are the Guam Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence and the Healing Hearts Crisis Centre, both of which offer counseling services.


  1. Thank you, s.e., because I was having a really hard time figuring out what was causing me so much trouble with this when we talked about it briefly (or did I read about this in my daily S&S and now I have made up a memory?). It really really bothered me and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

  2. I agree that Abby’s reply was woefully inadequate, but I wonder if perhaps the lawyers for the publication would only agree to that?

  3. OMG, this is so inadeuqate, and is so likely to cause Staying silent mor eshame than she probably already has.

  4. I went ahead and wrote to Abby and pointed out how wrong she got this one. I truly hope that the girl has found someone trustworthy who can point her in the right direction despite this awful “advice” from Abby.

  5. Nikolas Coukouma

    I was also troubled by Abby’s recap describing it as “a man who has so little self-control.” The assault wouldn’t be okay even once and the cousin’s boyfriend presumably had control of his limbs at the time. You generally wouldn’t say that a thief “has so little self-control that they’d steal from anyone, even a close relative of hers.”

  6. I doubt Dear Abby was advised to not call what was done to Staying Silent as sexual assault by legal staff. Other US-nationally syndicated advice columnists (Carolyn Hax, who is generally pretty good, and Dan Savage, who is um not) have called rape and sexual assault what they were in response to similar letters. This is most likely a failure on Dear Abby’s part to correctly identify what was done to Staying Silent.

    As advice goes it’s worse than useless: It tells Staying Silent she is responsible for making her assailant stop. If she doesn’t feel safe talking with her parents she’ll have plenty of support for castigating herself for not being brave enough strong enough. Dear Abby already said what the brave strong thing to do was.

  7. Not to mention, the whole pushing-someone-to-tell when/if they just aren’t ready to. The option should *always* be given that someone who has been assaulted doesn’t have to tell anybody they don’t want to tell, whether that means family members or a counselor or the police.

    Also, I absolutely agree that Dear Abby got this wrong and should have named this sexual assault. But – and this is a big but for me – I believe it should be framed in the context of “what happened to you could be considered to be sexual assault and it’s important for you to be able to name it if that’s how you feel about it.” Again, no one should be forced to call what’s happened to them something just because other people believe that’s what it was. One person experiencing that exact same situation might feel uncomfortable calling it assault for reasons of their own while someone else might strongly feel that yes, it was assault. And space should be given to both of these people to name their experiences accordingly.

  8. lots of good stuff in this thread – but it’s always funny for me to skim the comments page and see everyone mad at this “Abby” person! 🙂

  9. In addition to what has already been said — it’s yet another example of how women are told that their actions and choices should be made for someone else’s sake or benefit. Never mind what is best for the woman’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Other people matter more. In this case, it doesn’t matter that the letter writer was sexually assaulted; it’s more important that her sister might be marrying someone who is unfaithful (completely ignoring the sexual assault and non-consent here… which, calling it “cheating” in this case implies that the letter writer was complicit in this!).