Updated: Apr 14, 2022
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. As survivors this month can be a particularly sensitive time. Awareness campaigns are posted everywhere to stop assault or prevent it. For those who have already experienced it, language matters.
Every 68 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. I am a part of that statistic. Navigating the world post-assault can be complicated, especially you're coming out story. There are so many times I wish I could press rewind and not disclose what happened to me. But there is healing and hope in my story. There are also lessons to be learned. If I can help young adults to not feel so alone, then the discomfort of sharing my story and the hurt that comes from those who do not understand is worth it.
There are so many reasons why someone won't go on to disclose a sexual assault that ripple far beyond the event itself. If someone trusts you enough to confide in you or to be vulnerable with you, believe them. Don't respond with frustration for not telling you sooner. Don't give unsolicited advice. Don't critique their recollection. Just listen and hold space. For all you know, you could be the first person they are telling.
As you read below, consider your perspective. If you can't imagine what it's like... that's okay. Think about how you would want someone to talk to your friend, your daughter, your wife or your mother. If you've made mistakes or didn't know any of this below, that's okay too! You have the opportunity to learn now and help someone in the future.
Please remember all of the obstacles this person may have faced before finding the courage to speak about anything pertaining to assault subject matter. Any personal experiences surrounding that topic can be extremely triggering. Especially in a negative environment.
I didn't speak up about the assault when it originally happened because of shame and fear. It took me a long time to disclose this trauma to my husband and even longer to come out with it publicly. Coming out with it publicly was painful. But if I survived the assault, I can survive anything else. And so can you.
Each time I retell the story or express feelings surrounding the subject matter, there is a wave of vulnerability that washes over me. It opens me up and leaves me raw, exposed for judgement and the world to see. Every time I tell my story, I tell it for my teenage self. To spread awareness. For all the teenagers struggling in Empowered. And for all survivors out there who shouldn't ever have to go through what they've been through.
To be doubted is painful. In fact it is the #1 reason women report delayed disclosure or a lack of reporting. Can we prove with evidence that we didn't want it? Did I have evidence to prove I didn't invite this man's advances with my behaviors or dress? Being on the stand and interrogated by men in suits, hired to prove their client innocent is one of the most painful and traumatic experiences a victim will will have in the pursuit of justice.
My mouth goes dry and I get a lump in my throat just thinking about it. To be questioned and cross-examined in court was awful. These lawyers were paid to get their client out of trouble. Telling my story publicly to be critiqued was hard, especially with a room full of men back then. Every time I tell it, it's still hard.
Trust is not something that comes easy to me. You can understand why. So if someone trusts you with their story, or even to be able to speak their opinion on anything for that matter surrounding the subject, hold it in your hands, protect it and realize how much you may mean to that person. To be able to speak your truth is powerful. To be given a safe space to do so even more.
I can probably count the number of people on one hand I truly trust. If you are one of them, do not take that lightly. I refuse to be a victim. I overcame a lot, and when it comes to this subject matter I will continue to talk about it in hopes that the world will be a better place someday.
For those who are trusted enough to be disclosed to, here are some tips to help you make that person feel safe.
Shame: There is guilt and there is shame. Guilt makes us feel bad for something we did. Shame makes us feel like we are inherently bad. Rape is one of those events that plants a seed of shame in the basement of your brain. The people who you disclose to can either help you or they can water the seed of shame.
2. Fear: Nightmares, flashbacks..they can be triggered out of nowhere. Luckily I am in a good place and am able to get my sleep and feel pretty calm most of the time. I still feel unsafe walking in dark spaces or in isolated areas with men. Or when I walk down my street. Or go for a run. In fact last week I was cat called outside of Dunkin Donuts. This doesn't mean immediate danger all the time, but it certainly makes the world a bit more complicated to navigate for most women. Remember fear. The fear they must have felt sharing their experiences. The fear of judgement and not being heard or seen. To be denied is traumatic.
We have to take the FEAR and face everything and rise. If we don't speak our truth or share experiences on what it is like to be a woman in a world often biased towards men, nothing will ever change.
3. Lack of communication or response: Many women don't disclose because they are afraid they won't be believed or that their experience will be mitigated. If someone trusts you to even speak about their experiences, respond in a way that is validating. Even if you don't understand. These conversations are tough. They are milestones in that persons recovery. To deny these milestones is to water the seed of shame.
4. Questioning or assuming: Don't give unsolicited advice, don't justify others actions. Don't accuse someone of lying or being untruthful. Listen, hear and respond. Don't react. Take a minute. Pause. Say you don't know what to say. But don't say nothing. And certainly don't invalidate. Say you are confused or want clarification, but be gentle. You may be triggering past traumas of a victim being doubted in their past. This damage is cumulative.
5. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it. Let them know you are open to learning.
I sincerely appreciate everyone who has been a part of my journey and please know that your support has been life changing. It's okay to be awkward, to make mistakes, to get emotional. This subject matter is emotional. But be aware of the impact and ripple effect it could have. Imagine how you would want someone to talk to your daughter, your wife, your mother or another human being for that matter.