Healing from sexual assault is a process, and recovery is different for everyone. When working with clients who have been sexually assaulted, I attempt to provide some general guidelines that may prove useful in their individual journeys.
The healing process is multifaceted. It involves:
1. Asserting boundaries related to disclosure.
2. Assigning accountability to the perpetrator.
3. Managing self-blame.
4. Realizing that many people lack education or experience related to dealing with survivors.
Empowerment deals with increasing an individual’s or groups’ abilities to make purposeful choices, then transform those choices into constructive actions and outcomes. Some general guidelines for building empowerment include the following:
- Selective disclosure. You are the gatekeeper of your own story and information. Many survivors feel that they must tell family members, friends, or intimate partners about the sexual assault. They feel as if they are lying if they do not disclose the information. There is no obligation to share your story. Only you can choose with whom to share it, how much to share, and when and where you share.
- Editing the details is not about shame. Owning the right to your own story and experience is not about shame. It is about strength and empowerment. People may have questions that make you uncomfortable. Asserting boundaries by informing them that you do not want to share details is a form of good self-care. Since empowerment involves considering options and choices, managing disclosure is an excellent place to start.
- Sexual assault is never your fault. Many survivors have shared with me that they feel in some way responsible for their assault: that they were drinking, “should have known better” than to go to someone’s room or apartment, or should have been able to get away or defend themselves. This is an entirely normal reaction, but one that needs to be challenged when it arises. Sexual assault is a crime, the perpetrator is a criminal, and nothing that you did or didn’t do, said, wore, or ingested contributed to that fact. Empowerment includes holding the perpetrator accountable for the crime.
- People may react in unexpected ways. Many people lack a template to deal with painful issues. You may not accurately predict how someone will respond. Incidents of “foot in mouth” may abound. For example, people often feel at a loss when dealing with death. If you have ever been at the receiving end of thoughtless comments at a loved one’s funeral, you are familiar with this principle. “He is in a better place” usually is not comforting for the grieving parties. Sexual assault is one of those hot-button issues that bring up all kinds of responses, some of them less than helpful. This has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.
- Allow yourself to be human. Having reactions to events is part of being human. Traumatic events are in a class of their own. It is normal to feel that “I should be over this by now, it happened a long time ago,” or to feel somehow weak or deficient for continuing to feel effects from sexual assault. This is like punishing yourself for having normal human thoughts, feelings, and reactions.Trauma specialist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk has stated that “What most people do not realize is that trauma is not the story of something awful that happened in the past, but the residue of imprints left behind in people’s sensory and hormonal systems.”
- You are not alone. It may be helpful to reach out to a community sexual assault agency or skilled therapist to obtain information, ask questions, and receive guidance in your healing process. Information is power and interdependence is an optimal state for humans. For more information, contact the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) at www.rainn.org, or call The National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
Internal Yoga Magazine. (2014). Yoga and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: An Interview with Bessel van der Kolk MD. [online] Available at: traumacenter.org [Accessed: 8 Jul 2014].
Koenen, K. (2012). A Survivor’s Advice on Disclosing Your Incident to Family, Friends, and Others. [online] Available at: firstresponseaction.org [Accessed: 8 Jul 2014].
Narayan-Parker, D. (Ed.). (2002). Empowerment and poverty reduction: a sourcebook. World Bank Publications.