Recently, through social media, we’ve been flooded with reports of sexual violence (assault, rape, abuse, harassment). We’ve also seen the incredible strength and courage demonstrated by those who share their story. These individuals, men and women, have uncovered their private lives to give us an idea of what they experienced or are currently experiencing, and many ask the question, “why now?” The answer to this question is quite personal and based on individual experiences that may be difficult for others to understand.
The decision to share an experience of sexual violence can leave the individual feeling extremely vulnerable and exposed. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), after an individual experiences sexual violence, they may feel confused and unsure about how to react. The individual may be physically and emotionally hurt and recovery looks different for each person. There are several factors to consider:
- Does the person have a good support system?
- How old was the person when the incident happened?
- What resources are available to the person?
- Where did the incident happen?
- What were the circumstances around the incident?
- Who assaulted the person? Was it one person or more?
- Has the person experienced any form of sexual violence prior to this incident?
Going back to the question of “why now?” I want to discuss this from three perspectives: survivor, others, therapists.
Each survivor’s story is unique. Each survivor’s experience and decision to share may be influenced by the questions posited earlier in this article. One important thing to remember is that the survivor shares when she/he believe it is safe to do so. Survivors experience shame, guilt, confusion, distress, physical consequences, and possibly isolation after sexual violence. Therefore, this sense of safety is not easily quantified and is determined by a variety of factors.
Maybe the survivor finally found that one person who is willing to listen and offer non-judgmental support. It is possible that the survivor finally found the courage to speak out because they want their story to help empower someone else. The survivor may have finally come to love and accept themselves and feel strong enough to talk about it.
When you ask, “why now?” consider what that really means to the survivor who hears the question. This question can have both helpful and unhelpful consequences. It is helpful if you are compassionate, genuine, non-judgmental, and empathetic. Your curiosity may be better received by saying “tell me what encouraged you to share your story?” In other words, it matters what you say and how you say it when you enquire about the survivor’s decision. It is never helpful to make comparisons or to make comments such as, “that happened so long ago and you only now decide to share?” or “you must have liked it that’s why you didn’t talk before,” or “do you expect to get money out of this?”
The environment that you set when asking clients about their experience plays a significant role in how they respond. It is important to create a safe space and not force the individual to share their story — this is not your role. Your role is to be supportive, non-judgmental, open, empathetic, and fair to your client. It is momentous when your client decides to open up about their experience. While you may be curious about why they decided to share their story (especially if the incident happened several years or months ago), it is crucial that you support and empower the client in the moment. You also want to engage in developmentally appropriate therapeutic interventions to help your client further heal.
Individuals who brave the storm to share their story, whether they do so a few hours/days/weeks/months/or years after the incident, should be honored for their strength, courage, and vulnerability. For survivors: continue to engage in emotional self-care even as you share your story. Here are some ideas for emotional self-care that you can do on your own, or a therapist, friend, family, or loved one may suggest:
- Journaling: writing your thoughts and feelings down can help to release the emotional burden and may bring feelings of relief or peace. You journal can be done as a narrative, pictures, drawings, a collage, or poetry.
- Meditation/Prayer: connecting with your higher power or meditating can help to regulate breathing, keep you grounded, encourage feelings of peace, reduce anxiety, and improve self-image. The important thing is that you do what works for you.
- Yoga: many individuals find yoga to be calming and can also be a way to regulate breathing and emotions.
- Leisure activities: continue to engage in the activities that you enjoy; walking, being outdoors, crafting, reading, hanging out with friends, or community classes.
- Support groups: stay connected with groups that help to support and encourage you. These groups can be in your community or place of worship. This can also be group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (for those who are concerned about substance use).