When I finally tell someone about my sexual assault experience, I feel the need to qualify it with “the story.” Rather than simply claiming my status as a survivor, I have to preface it with an explanation. The first time I told my partner about my experience, he later observed, “You didn’t once use the word rape.”
I still have a hard time saying, “I was raped” or “I was assaulted” without explaining. I continue to resist my own experience.
Sometimes I hear stories that are very similar to mine, yet the person doesn’t name it as rape. I don’t want to label their experience, yet I also read that experience as traumatic, violent, and unjust. And then I also wonder, is this friend like me? Struggling with how to name their experience but wishing that it were validated and understood?
The internal process of coming out as a survivor is complicated.
And even though I’ve shared my story with others, I continue to have a lot of difficulty “coming out” to myself as a survivor for several reasons.
If you’re like me, and you too are struggling, I want to validate that. Here are six difficult things that we might navigate during the journey of coming out to ourselves as survivors of sexual violence.
1. Disconnection from the Experience
People respond and cope with trauma in multiple ways.
For me, I separate the experience from myself: It’s something that happened to me, but not part of me. While I experience everyday triggers, I mostly feel emotionally flat about my experience.
By insulating myself, I pushed forward afterwards with as little external disruption as possible. Yet, somehow this also felt disingenuous to my feminist identity and to my social justice work.
Am I betraying other survivors by not coming out with my story more often? I’ve found myself more and more drawn to working on addressing sexual assault issues through transformative justice, but why am I still disassociated from a survivor identity? How can I advocate for a community I should also identify with?
It takes time to negotiate my strategy for survival with participating in a larger strategy for change.
I’m still navigating my survivor identity, and sometimes I repeat my story to myself to better understand who I am and where I’m going. Beyond self-reflection, some helpful ways to negotiate this process might be connecting online or offline with other survivors to build a larger web of support.
While it was initially difficult to do because of the triggers, spending time to read educational resources about sexual violence helped me begin articulating and contextualizing my complex emotions. I also found several transformative justice organizations that offered lower risk pathways to political and active participation.
2. Internalized Myths from Rape Culture
I initially felt guilty about claiming my survivor status and told myself things like “What happened wasn’t that bad! You’re fine.” It’s like a toxic voice inside of me echoing external skepticism.
It’s not that I’m victim-blaming myself or don’t understand my experience. I also know that most survivors know their offender, unlike what’s depicted in the news or on TV. Most sexual acts of violence are not caused by strangers in dark alleyways or masked assailants breaking into homes.
However, the Law & Order: SVU sensationalized rape narrative has insidiously crept its way into my subconscious and created a false archetype about rape, trauma, and violence.
Some experiences end up feeling low on the imaginary hierarchy in terms of what evokes empathy.
But listen: Your experience matters.
Seek affirming spaces that support you and your experience. If possible, begin to build a close network of friends and allies that you trust — because undoing rape culture is a collective process.
If there isn’t anyone close to you that you feel comfortable doing this with, consider looking for a counselor or therapist that is equipped to discuss sexual assault issues and can support your needs.
Rape crisis centers offer local resources and guides to finding professional support. It also helps unplug from dominant discourse. Aside from Everyday Feminism, check out independent blogs that work hard to deconstruct these internalized myths.
3. Fear of Invalidation
While these stories are deeply empathetic, painful, and worth listening to, society has normalized sexual assault in a way that perfect victim narratives and perceived extreme cases have become the only ones that seem important.
Activists have used the perfect victim narrative to move issues around sexual assault forward, but that’s also silenced many other stories.
Social and cultural norms have created false ideas around who deserves compassion or who deserves survivor status.
As we come out to ourselves and to others, we can begin to show the plurality of survivor experiences. The “coming out” breaks the silence and begins to document other experiences and establish a collective memory.
In sharing my survivor identity with others, I have become more painfully aware that there are several other people in my life that identify similarly.
4. Struggle to Undo the ‘Real Rape’ Myth
The myth of “real rape” is so deeply embedded in my own subconscious.
For so long, I was unwilling to admit my experience of assault to myself even after I shared it with others. The toxic voice in my head whispers things like “You were drunk. Maybe it didn’t even happen” and “Move on. Stop making a big deal.”
If a friend comes out to me about sexual assault, I don’t place them under the same scrutiny that I place myself.
Yet, if I don’t hear their story and all I hear is “I’ve been assaulted,” the internalized messaging creeps forward and suddenly I’ve imagined that SVU scenario in my head for that person.
We don’t have a culturally accepted comprehensive definition of sexual assault yet. As Jessica Valenti points out, “The reason we have qualifiers — legitimate, forcible, date, gray — is because at the end of the day it’s not enough to say ‘rape.”
5. Dealing with Friends
When most sexual assault happens within a social circle, and if a survivor doesn’t want to take the long, arduous journey through the criminal justice system, how do we begin to make reparations and hold each other accountable?
I wonder if my rapist knows that he’s a rapist.
The nice guy myth is so intertwined with modern rape culture. In the same vein that people are so afraid of being called racist, sexist, homophobic, there’s a lot of resistance to being labeled a rapist. But what happens when someone speaks up to say that what happened isn’t okay?
While I’ve stepped away from the social circle related to my experience, that isn’t necessarily a possibility for some survivors and a temporary solution at best.
Even though I’ve started acknowledging my survivor identity, “coming out” to those more directly connected with my rapist is still an obstacle. I don’t want to be perceived as causing unnecessary drama. Yet, the more time that has passed that I haven’t spoken up, I keep letting him get away with it and maybe keep repeating these same acts of violence against other women. The overall ignorance of rape culture makes it difficult for my rapist and for our friends to acknowledge or recognize his behavior as rape.
However, in “coming out” to myself, I’m becoming more empowered to talk about sexual assault, consent, and rape culture with people in my life.
While my survivor identity is not my only identity, it’s a non-negotiable one. Naming the violence has helped me begin to break the cycle.
6. Lack of Institutional, Societal, and Cultural Support
The burden is on the victim to educate in a society where the systems of support, affirmation, and validation aren’t firmly in place.
Survivors are stripped of their voices. We live in a society where media institutions, politicians, and courts blame victims and diminish their experience, where only 3% of rapists will spend even one day in prison, and where rape is a part of pop culture. This is a society that questions survivors’ credibility and disbelieves stories of trauma.
It’s frustrating that even sexual assault legalese labels victims as “complainants” and perpetrators as “respondents.”
The lack of support makes the coming out process for a survivor incredibly exhausting and isolating.
For so long, I’ve wanted more people to come out with similar stories like mine, but being too afraid to myself. I have had friends tell me that this happens to everyone. Everyone has an experience like this. And that horrifies me. Because this shouldn’t happen to anyone, much less everyone.
All survivor stories matter, and telling our stories challenge our own isolation. However, we may not always need to hear someone’s story or tell our own just to validate our survivor identities.
In reclaiming the power of my own narrative, I’m learning that people don’t always need to know the actual story. But if I share that it happened to me, I can be a better advocate for myself and for others.