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Talking about being sexually assaulted may open the door to healing, but it can also add to your pain. Some women feel pressured to share their stories. Do you owe this to the world? I, for one, don't think so.

When I told my editor I'd be writing about disclosing sexual assault, I thought it'd be easy. I'd just described how the Kavanaugh news cycle scratched my wounds open, but also offered hope, and my anger and pain did all the work for me — words practically vomiting themselves onto the screen, while I was little more than a passive bystander. I was wrong. This is hard, and I've deleted what I've written at least three times — because the decision of talking about sexual assault or not is a deeply personal one, and there are no right or wrong answers. 

Humans talk about stuff including, often, their own experiences, with other humans. The need or desire to form connections, to be understood, seen, and heard, and to help others, are among the many reasons they do so. When that experience includes something you really didn't want to have happened to you, like sexual assault, that talking can become hard — not only because the thing you're talking about is inherently hard to talk about and hard to think about, but also because the people you're talking to may react in ways that actively hurt you. 

 

One study reveals, for example, that rape victims who talk about what they went through are often met with well-intentioned but wholly unhelpful responses from their "informal support networks" — that's family and friends — and that "blaming, ineffective, insensitive, and inappropriate responses" weren't uncommon responses from "formal support networks". That's folks like the police, therapists, medical staff, and religious leaders. 

 

The paper, Being Silenced: The Impact of Negative Social Reactions on the Disclosure of Rape [1], includes a series of case studies tackling the kinds of reactions women get when they talk about being raped. 

  • "I remember one of the police officers laughed," one victim shares.
  • Another described how her sister reacted when she disclosed that she was raped: "Her comment was … you should never have sex with anybody you don't want to. I’m like, duh. Like I had a choice, you know?"
  • "Forget it, it's over, it was your fault, leave it alone" was the reaction yet another victim got from both her mother and friends. 
  • A fourth, a drug addict, was told that being raped was essential par for the course if you live a life like she does.
  • A church prayer line told another victim that she must have wanted it on some level: "Well, they told me that…that situation could not have occurred unless I’d attracted it by thinking about it … they said, probably, it must be in your subconscious."

That kind of thing is called secondary wounding or secondary victimization, and it can do an awful lot of damage [2]. When, after talking about your experiences with sexual assault, you are met with questions about what you were wearing, messages to leave the past in the past, people who do not believe you are telling the truth, or people who are quite sure you actually "wanted it", it can be almost as damaging as the assault itself. This is especially true when such reactions come from people you love and trust, like your mother or your best friend, or people who are meant to protect you or help you heal, like the police or your therapist. 

 

When you risk talking about sexual assault that happened to you, you ultimately open a door to the unknown. Healing and solidarity may be on the other side, but so may pain.

 

I've personally experienced both. Initially, there was my family, who believed my rapist over me. Then there was the editor of my college newspaper who "non-judgmentally" declared that it's "pretty common for young women to have fantasies about relationships with their step-fathers", adding that he was cool with me using him as a conversational partner to live out my fantasy (!?!). There was my ex, who believed me and tried his best to support me, though he didn't always understand. There was the friend with helpful tips about what kind of therapy to choose, and the ex-friend who made a vile joke about the way in which I "lost my virginity" during a drinking game. There was the fellow-survivor-online-buddy who is always there, just like I'm there for her, and the therapist who insisted that forgiving my rapist was necessary as well as the one who did nothing but listen, which was actually pretty useful. Then there was my boss, who lets me write what I need to about this subject and never made me feel like damaged goods in the process. 

Talking about what happened to me has, ultimately, contributed to my healing process, lifted my memories out of the dark cave of my mind and assisted me as I made sense of them. Overall, I've encountered more people who were helpful than hurtful, maybe partially because some of the people I talked to were fellow sexual assault survivors. Most importantly of all, talking about it has been my choice. In the era of #MeToo, which exploded in October 2017 and is still going strong, and in the era of Trump and Kavanaugh, however, I've heard from some victims and survivors of sexual assault who feel pressured to share their stories with the world.

Time To Change, a UK campaign to end mental health discrimination — another stigmatized topic that also happens to coincide with the realities of sexual assault victims, who develop PTSD at, well, pretty much expected rates [3] — has something to say on the topic of talking about things that may illicit uncomfortable responses [4]. "Speaking out in your everyday life is one of the best ways to change the way people around you think and act", they say. They add that you, the one sharing, also have to be comfortable with the situation in which you're speaking up. To that end, the campaign encourages people to consider what, why, and where they are sharing, and with whom.

During a time in which a sitting president can actually apologize to someone accused of attempted rape for the suffering he went through because the victim spoke up —  a time during which "innocent until proven guilty" apparently means that a woman bravely coming forward is presumed guilty of participating in a smear campaign while the accused party is assumed to be innocent — you may just feel immense pressure to share, to add your voice to countless others in the hope that it will help change society. 

 

As a victim, do you owe that to the world? I, for one, don't believe that. You've been through quite enough. You have the right to do what you need to do to keep yourself as safe and sane as possible, whether that means talking about what happened to you or keeping it to yourself. Speaking out may or may not be one of the best ways to effect change, to stand in solidarity with others, and to help them, but you matter too. Knowing that speaking out may open the door to solidarity and healing, but also to pain, the choice is yours to make. You have been through enough, and you do not owe the world your story.  

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