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Opinion | For Sexual Assault Survivors, There’s Power In Speaking Up. Then What?

Over the past two weeks, so many survivors of sexual violence have bared our pain ― on social media or to a hotline or to lovers, friends and relatives ― for the first time or the 10th time or the 100th.

It’s never easy to reveal you’ve been assaulted. It’s never easy to explain why the news is so numbing. Why the pale lines of Christine Blasey Ford’s careful hairdo feel etched on your skin, why you see yourself reflected in her large spectacles, why the testimony about a bad tangle of limbs on a bed thrums through you, recalling, as it does, your own bad tangles.

When the president mocked Ford on Tuesday ― so callously, so gleefully, with all the hallmarks of joy, with his white teeth in his little puckered mouth and the crowd roaring ― it felt like a beast was crouched on my chest, heavy, heavy. For so many of us, asserting our humanity has involved telling our own secrets, holding our pain up to the light, and begging the ones we love not to look away.

I have written about being raped and sexually assaulted, including in this very publication, and the decision to write it out and to hit publish, even for an ostensibly friendly audience, is one that’s full of trepidation. It’s obviously a disclosure that requires profound vulnerability, a laying-open of oneself in an awful moment. Your skin turns thin as a stretched scallion, as vellum, as puff pastry; you’ve reopened the wound and plunged your hand inside in making the decision to tell. To write this column, I put out a call for other survivors who have disclosed their experiences recently. Within an hour, my inbox filled with missives of raw pain. (All are identified here by pseudonyms or abbreviations to protect their identities.)

To write this column, I put out a call for other survivors who have disclosed their experiences recently. Within an hour, my inbox filled with missives of raw pain.

My sexual assault was very similar to Dr. Ford’s,” wrote Maggie, 43. “It was high school, we had been drinking, the guy was a little older. He was physically violent and for a moment during the assault I really thought I was going to die.” Maggie called the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network on Friday night, the day after Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing at which Ford shared her experience.

“I didn’t share all the details, just enough to feel like I had gotten rid of some of it,” she wrote. “I realized that all of the things that you hear, that I had heard about how people feel about these experiences ― blaming themselves, incredible shame ― that I felt all that and that I had been feeling that for a long time.”

Joseph, 36, wrote to me about the particular pain he feels as a male survivor of sexual assault; the experiences he described to me repeatedly featured authority figures telling him that men could not be assaulted at all.

Several male survivors told me they feel a double burden of retraumatization, and an unwillingness to speak out in a moment that feels profoundly gendered and divisive. In choosing to include their experiences, I hope to subvert the notion that sexual abuse is always something men do to women. The forces that disbelieve women are the same ones that keep men shamed and silent in the name of “manhood.” The Republican attacks on sexual assault survivors are a burden male and female survivors feel in tandem, and, all too often, in isolation from one another. Another male survivor told me about being raped 37 years ago; last week, after the hearings, he told his 16-year-old daughter about it.

The forces that disbelieve women are the same ones that keep men shamed and silent in the name of ‘manhood.’

Telling friends and relatives is harder than telling strangers in a column, or on Twitter. It’s the difference between getting onstage where the Klieg lights obscure the dark faces of the audience, versus intimate drawing-room dinner theater where the main course is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.

I have tried talking to my parents,” Joseph told me, “but I can tell it makes them very uncomfortable and they do not know how to respond.”

When you tell someone you know, there are all the meta-feelings that accompany making any sort of disclosure that has emotional power, a concern that one is being too obvious, too vocal, making people uncomfortable, burdening others with your pain, drawing too much attention. It’s hard to speak your pain and stay demure. I told the entire readership of The Village Voice that I was raped before I told my mother.

Isabella, 28, told her story ― she went home with a man who raped her while she was passed out ― hoping it would change her boyfriend’s mind. He had expressed confusion about how Kavanaugh, who reminded him “of his dad,” could have done what Ford alleges.

“I was embarrassed to disclose to my new boyfriend in particular. I felt weak and emotional, like a ‘victim’ or a ‘problematic’ person,” she told me. “While he handled it incredibly supportively, I was struck by, well, how much a surprise it was for him that normal ‘good’ people do things like this.”

I told the entire readership of The Village Voice that I was raped before I told my mother.

If last week had the hot thrum of solidarity, this week is different. After the act of disclosure, there is a certain chasm: solidarity in public, on social media, at protests, dissolves into its component parts. In our beds in the dark, we are men and women who have been hurt in a violent and private way. Despite dragging it out into the light, the pain still sits where it always did: in the churning gut, in the venous throb of blood in our ears. We lift it up to show you what was done to us, drawing you an anatomy lesson of what this pain feels like, but disclosure doesn’t lessen the hurt. At the end of the march, when the signs come down, the pain is block-lettered on each of our skins, bold and painful as a new tattoo.

On cable news and on the Senate Judiciary Committee and on the radio and on the internet, the crudest skepticism, the baldest, cruelest lies, have emerged to scald us further.

I think initially there was some mild cathartic experience,” Laura, 35, told me of her decision to disclose her assault, “but that was crushed under the re-emergence of panic, intrusive memories, anxiety, and feeling generally bruised [and] battered at every turn of the news cycle.”  

Evidence of Kavanaugh’s lies piles up and seems to matter little. His well-manicured hands may well have once covered a mouth on a bed, but there are, apparently, millions to whom this is irrelevant. That knowledge sits like a stone in my mouth, stopping it.

Activists participate in the "Believe Survivors. STOP Kavanaugh." rally hosted by Time's Up & Partners at Los Angeles Cit


Chelsea Guglielmino via Getty Images

Activists participate in the “Believe Survivors. STOP Kavanaugh.” rally hosted by Time’s Up & Partners at Los Angeles City Hall on Sept. 28.

I have been frozen in a state [of] suspended animation since Thursday,” wrote Kim, 48. “My heart and chest is on fire. My mind stops and I have flashbacks or just zone out. I’m scared and having a really hard time functioning.” Kim’s post-traumatic stress disorder has “officially been triggered, which has been hard on me as well as my family. I’m very depressed, crying a lot, highly anxious. Mostly, I’m truly afraid of what is going to happen to women next in our country.”

Those who wield raw power have heard our pain. We set up such a clamor they heard it ― we know they heard it. But being heard doesn’t mean you can’t be dismissed. The president mocked Christine Blasey Ford, and the crowd chanted “Lock Her Up!” ― a chant so far abstracted from Hillary Clinton that it feels, now, like a warning to any unruly woman, every unruly woman, that anything but meekness will be met with force. And the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh marches on, with a final vote on his nomination possible this weekend.

Every second of the GOP response is every reason I never reported, never told anyone, didn’t let myself think about it for years,” Laura told me.

In the raw, seeking quiet after disclosing an assault, a cruel word drops like metal from a great height. And the whole world now feels like a hot brass rain on all that we exposed, a barrage trying to hurt us back into silence.

The president mocked Ford, and the crowd chanted ‘Lock Her Up!’ — a chant so far abstracted from Hillary Clinton that it feels, now, like a warning to any unruly woman.

There is no guideline, no well-established routine, for living after you’ve told what you had to tell. There is no diagram for rearranging yourself around it, not even one with instructions in Swedish and baffling, tiny screws; otherwise, I’d buy it. If last week was a torrent of revelation, this week we sit in brackish, solitary waters, while cruelty and indignity accrue like muck up to our necks.

But what I know is that so many men and women are sitting in the water too. And having told what we never thought we’d tell, to those we never thought we’d tell it to, perhaps we can find another kind of strength: the strength to find each other in the dark, to buoy each other up, to fight through the muck toward one another. And to rise.

I do feel different. I feel empowered. I feel like my wingspan grew three feet,” Mary told me. “I no longer feel like I have to carry the burden of my abusers’ secrets.”

Talia Lavin is a writer and researcher based in Brooklyn, New York.

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