Sexual assault is a life-altering event. Many survivors are affected by the trauma for the rest of their lives. They may suffer from depression, low self-esteem, flashbacks, fear, and difficulty with intimacy. Unfortunately, many of these symptoms are compounded by silence and secrecy. Often, most survivors of sexual assault do not speak out about their experiences because they are ashamed, feel guilty, or blame themselves. While some others keep silent out of a sense of duty to family or fear of being ostracized for what happened to them.
Speaking out publicly is not right for everyone. No one should be pressured to tell their story. Survivors are heroes whether they speak out or not. Speaking out can mean many things – it can mean putting your story on paper for yourself in a journal entry or sharing publicly on a blog, telling one trusted person, speaking at a conference of advocates, or testifying in court. Whether you are considering disclosing to a trusted individual or sharing your experience publicly, speaking out can be transformative. There is no right way to speak out, no right time, and no right decision whether to break your silence. There are many different levels of speaking out. Speaking with a counselor, a friend, a family member, sharing publicly, speaking out in writing… will all feel different. You may speak with detachment, anger, sadness, or occasionally, even humor.
Perhaps, during your victimization, you may have learned not to express your feelings. To express them may have increased your risk of being harmed. You may also have learned that saying “no” did not work to protect you. In such circumstances, silence may have been the only choice that made sense. As a way of regaining power from an incident that robbed you of control, you’ll find that speaking out about the assault is an essential part of the recovery process. Speaking out for the first time takes a lot of courage. It can be a form of asking for help, either in making an abuse stop or in working through the after-effects of the sexual assault. It can also be a way of taking care of yourself.
Disclosing to counselors, friends, or family.
Once you decide to talk about what happened to you, it is important to have a supportive network of friends and family. When building this network, it takes careful consideration to choose who and how you are going to tell. Below are some questions to ask yourself when preparing to disclose. Remember, you cannot be responsible for the reactions of others, but you can take control of your actions and be prepared for the outcome if you decide to share your experience with others.
- Choose the person you decide to tell wisely. Would you like to tell a counselor, friend, or family member? Does the counselor have experience in sexual trauma? If you choose to tell a friend or family member, has this person been supportive of you in the past? What is this person’s relationship (if any) with the perpetrator? Will the relationship be a problem in her/his acceptance of your experience? Will this person honor your privacy and confidentiality if asked?
- Talking face to face is not the only option you have. Some people choose to write about their experience through letters, stories, or poems.
- Choose your setting. Where and when will you feel most comfortable talking about the sexual assault? Sometimes wearing comfort clothes or carrying a meaningful object helps. It may also be helpful to inform the person to whom you are disclosing that you have something to tell her/him. This sets the tone for the meeting.
- Prior to telling the person, make it clear how you would like her/him to react. To avoid horrified expressions or thoughtless/insensitive comments, you may want to tell the person that you have something difficult to talk about and that it will help you if she/he contains her/his reaction. Offer some suggestions of what the person could say at the end.
- Make your expectations clear. If you do not want to be asked intrusive questions, tell the person. If you do not mind answering questions, make that clear.
- Evaluate how your experience went. How did it feel to you? What went right? What went wrong? What would you do differently the next time? What would you do the same? What about her/his reaction was helpful or unhelpful?
Make a list of the people you would like to tell. Think about each person and ask yourself how it would help you if s/he knew about the sexual assault. If you tell your best friend, will s/he be more understanding of your mood swings? If you tell your brother, will he stop hanging around the person who victimized you? If you tell your parents, will they stop your abuse or the abuse of someone else in the family? If you tell a counselor, what do you hope to gain from the sessions? Think about what you need from each of these people, and ask yourself whether telling them about your victimization will help you get it. Also consider how much you are willing to share with this person. You should not feel obligated or pressured to go into the details of your victimization if you are uncomfortable doing so. You may find it helpful to use the form below to assist you in preparing to disclose to a trusted, supportive person.
I want to tell _____________________________________. I want her/him to know ________________________ ________________________ because I need her/him to _____________________________. I am not going to tell her/him ________________________________________. If I’m asked questions I am not comfortable answering, I will say: _______________________ _________________________________.