A Survivor’s Journey: Recovering from Sexual Assault

sajourney

And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you. Thank you.

– Stanford Victim

The stories we tell about sexual assault

The quote above is an excerpt from the statement made by the Stanford Victim, a young woman who was sexually assaulted on campus in 2015 by fellow student Brock Turner. Turner has since been found guilty of 3 counts of sexual assault and sentenced to a mere 6 months in county jail and probation.

The story was highly publicized and yet another disturbing case of sexual assault on a college campus in the US. Following the release of the victim’s statement, Vice President Joe Biden issued a powerful and empathic response – you can read it here.

Sexual assault is a crime that is devastating to all involved. It is also one where we immediately question who is accountable for the crime in the first place. The Stanford case serves as an excruciating reminder of how victims are shamed and blamed for inciting their own assault: Turner was framed as an ‘aspiring Olympian’, a young man whose ‘moment of misjudgment’ could cost him his entire personal and professional career. On the contrary, his victim was framed as a young woman who likely made poor decisions that put her at risk for violence. Like many victims, her behaviors came under deep scrutiny – from her sexual history to how much she drank to her attire on the evening of her assault.

rapeofmrsmithA counter story: Authorities interrogate a victim of a robbery using the same line of questioning they would use against a victim of sexual assault. Illustration inspired by The Rape of Mr. Smith

Unfortunately, this is a common narrative when it comes to sexual assault. While it is important to thoroughly investigate any criminal act, all too often there is gross discrimination against victims in these cases.

Sexual assault places the victim/survivor’s character, judgment and behaviors (before, during and after the assault) into question: Victims must work extra hard to prove that they were in fact victimized. In turn, it is no surprise that victims and survivors internalize a tremendous amount of self-doubt, isolation, shame and blame. It’s an unsettling reminder of how we automatically seek to discredit victims and devalue sexual violence.

As someone who has the privilege of working with victims, survivors and their allies, my job is to provide support, largely by listening to their stories. Sometimes the most important thing I can offer is validation:

“I believe you”

“It’s not your fault”

“You are not alone”

These words echo those of the Stanford victim. The simplicity of these messages always makes me think twice and what strikes me is the fact that we even need to say this to victims in the first place.

 

A Journey of recovery

Sexual assault can ignite a range of emotional, mental, and physical responses. And, the experience is unique to every victim/survivor – there is no single or “normal” way to experience or recover from it. Some people may be highly expressive with their emotions, others may not cry at all. During the assault, some people may try to fight the perpetrator, others may freeze out of fear. All of these responses are completely valid. What unites these experiences is lack of consent.

Because sexual assault is so deeply misunderstood and misconstrued, I wanted to bring some level of clarity to such a complex experience.

I created a journey of the sexual assault recovery experience using the Rape Trauma Syndrome as an underlying framework. I reviewed recovery/healing and RTS frameworks from sexual health organizations across the US and Canada. After making sense of the content, I landed on 5 stages for the journey: Life (before the assault), Sexual Assault, Disruption, Resurfacing, and Acceptance.

Key points about this journey:

A spectrum of experiences
The journey describes a range of possible thoughts, feelings and behaviors a survivor/victim may experience during recovery, as well as the potential supports that they may access along the way. Not all content will be relevant to any one person.

The journey of recovery is not linear
Although presented in a linear format, this is not meant to suggest that the journey of recovery is a linear or staged process. In fact, recovery is often iterative and highly complex with no definitive pace or timeline.

What people are “doing” is complex
What survivors are “doing” throughout the journey may be considered passive or active responses/experiences of trauma. For instance, “relives past trauma” (during sexual assault) describes more of an innate mental/emotional response rather than something that the victim actively chooses to do.

Supports throughout the journey
The journey aims to highlight where certain supports show up most prominently during recovery. Depending on one’s journey, some supports may be continuous across stages while others may not show up at all.

Statistics
I’ve included a stats section using data from RAINN.org – this is to offer a greater, national context around assault. Notably absent are stats for the “Acceptance” stage – if someone can point me to data I could use here, I’d appreciate it!

I’ve shared this journey with colleagues working in sexual assault and hope that it can serve as a useful tool for advocacy and empathy building. I welcome your thoughts/feedback in the comments below.