(Trigger Warning: This article contains discussion of sexual violence.)
There’s no right or wrong way to respond to a sexual assault.
The way you respond is influenced by a number of social and individual forces, all of which are reasonable and appropriate.
But sometimes when someone experiences a sexual assault, it’s hard to decide what to do next. It can be difficult to know which move is the right one for you, which step feels like the right step to take.
Sometimes people feel disorganized or confused, making it hard to prioritize a list of needs and steps forward.
So, in order to help in that regard, here are five things to keep in mind as you navigate the future after a sexual assault.
Safety is key.
Healing cannot take place – and the trauma that you experienced cannot truly end – without feeling a sense of physical safety.
If you have been sexually assaulted recently, one of the most important initial considerations is your own physical safety.
Are you in a position where an assault is likely occur again? Of course, it’s not up to you to prevent your own assault – that is only the responsibility of the perpetrator. The relieving and critical peace of mind that comes along with a diminished risk is within your power, though!
For example, if the person who hurt you is a live-in partner, is there a friend or family member who would let you crash with them for a bit? Or if the perpetrator has a key to your apartment, is there a way for you to change the locks?
Safety should never be the responsibility of a survivor. We should live in a world where sexual violence does not exist and where everyone is safe because people who want to commit crimes have learned other ways to control those urges.
But unfortunately, we don’t.
I would never, ever suggest that someone change their behavior to prevent their own experience of violence – because that simply isn’t possible. But I do believe that it’s important for someone to take whichever steps they think are necessary in order to help them feel as safe as humanly possible.
That feeling of safety – of being out of immediate danger, of experiencing a sense of autonomous security – is key to healing from sexual assault.
The reality is that healing from sexual violence must take place within the context of healing and emotionally safe relationships – whether platonic, familial, or romantic.
Holding the secret of survivorship doesn’t work. It’s lonely, it’s isolating, and it can even feel like your head is a toxic space, rather than the safe and loving mental space that we all deserve to inhabit.
The act of relating to another human can, in itself, be curative. The act of verbalizing the nature of the trauma to someone who you trust can be amazingly relieving. And the act of being heard, respected, and validated is nothing short of therapeutic.
Depending on your circumstances, there may be a person in your life with whom you can safely share the truth of your experience of sexual assault. This person may be a best friend, a partner, a community member, or someone in your family.
The choice of who (or if!) to tell is completely yours.
As you’re deciding who might be a trusted and safe person, here are some factors to keep in mind:
Will they judge you? Will they know, unequivocally, that it was not your fault? Will they know not to question any part of your experience?
Will they be able and willing to respect your privacy? Are they a trustworthy person who will respect your wishes around who (and under which circumstances) you would like to know about your assault?
Will they be willing and able to respect your autonomy? You have a lot of choices that you will be making in the upcoming days, weeks, and months after your assault. Many of these choices relate to reporting, seeking medical care, and talking to professionals. Will this person respect that your decisions are yours and yours alone? Will they honor whatever you choose?
Will they be on your side 100%? To choose neutrality is to choose the perpetrator – and that shit just can’t happen.
Remember that the decision to share your truth with another person is just that – your decision. But if it feels safe to do so, it might just be healing.
You have survived something awful. You experienced a trauma that no one should ever have to experience. And you came out alive.
That is remarkable. You, dear human, are remarkable.
You deserve to take care of yourself in the best way you know how. You deserve to nurse all of the battle wounds you incurred during your assault.
There are parts of you that are going to feel confused and fearful and sad. You may also feel anger or joy or fraudulence or numbness – or a million different combinations of a million different emotions.
Every single emotion and every single combination of emotions is completely and totally normal. You are normal.
You deserve to treat yourself kindly in the midst of the complex emotional experience that you may be having right now.
What does self-care look like for you?
Does it mean a day at the spa, a yoga class, a night out or in with a friend? Does it mean cooking a nutritious dinner or ordering a pizza? Does self-care mean creating a ritual that allows you space to breathe? Or does it mean a one-time special treat for yourself?
Whatever self-care means to you, now is the time to practice it. You are going through a lot right now, and you deserve kindness from yourself.
After being sexually assaulted, you have a number of choices to make related to the types of services you would like to access.
You have the option of reporting the assault to the police, pursuing a court case, and/or seeking medical attention or undergoing a forensic exam for evidence collection. You also have the option of reaching out to an advocate or therapist for emotional support.
These choices are deeply personal and each individual will make a different decision based on any number of factors.
Issues of identity play a huge role in the way a sexual assault is perceived by law enforcement and medical professionals, unfortunately. And there is rarely justice for survivors of sexual assault, even when the survivor fits into what we deem “worthy” or “acceptable.” So justice happens even less frequently when the survivor is a man, is a person of color, is trans, is a sex worker – the list goes on.
Depending on your individual circumstances, reporting an assault may or may not be the right thing to do. And unfortunately, a lot of people will have an opinion on this that they will want you to know.
Ask yourself: Do I want to report this crime or undergo a forensic exam or involve any professionals at all?
And listen to the answer that your heart provides. Everyone else can (and will) deal with your decisions.
If you do wish to report the assault and seek medical care, calling your local rape crisis center is a good place to start. Likewise, if you are interested in seeking advocacy or therapy, your rape crisis center should have resources for you.
You deserve to take the time and space necessary to heal.
If you are in school or at work, I hope you will feel empowered and deserving of time off. You are entitled to a vacation, and you are entitled to an extension on that paper or exam.
It is strong and brave to ask for what you need and deserve. You deserve accommodations so that you can begin the work of healing. You deserve to prioritize your own wellness and elevate your emotional and physical health above all else.
It’s important to keep in mind that you do not owe anyone an explanation. You do not have to disclose your sexual assault to anyone, even when you are asking for accommodations.
Your request can be as simple as “I’ve had an unexpected personal matter arise, and I need time to attend to that.” Or you can tell the full story of your assault if it feels safe to do so. Just remember that you are not obligated to disclose.
That paper that’s due next week? While I’m certain that it’s important, I’m also certain that it’s not more important than your own need for sleep, healthful meals, exercise, and relationships – all things that may take additional energy or effort after an assault.
You will likely need to make choices about what you can feasibly do. And there is a lot of privilege inherent in these choices.
If it’s at all possible, I would gently encourage you to ask for the time and space you need to elevate your own healing. If you are fortunate enough to work a job that has paid vacation time, it may make sense to take a few of those days. If you don’t have paid time off, but can afford to miss a day or two of pay, remember that your own healing is worth the cost.
And if you aren’t able to take time off of work or school, allow yourself to take time off of other areas in your life. Maybe you won’t be able to attend Sunday night dinner with your family – and that’s okay. Maybe you won’t be able to drive a friend to the airport – and that’s okay.
Feel entitled to whatever accommodations you need in order to support your own healing. You deserve it.
As you move forward in your healing journey, remember to treat yourself with the same loving kindness that I am certain you would dole out effortlessly to the people around you.
You deserve nothing less.
Sarah Ogden Trotta is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and psychotherapist at ContactLifeline, Delaware’s Rape Crisis Center. She can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @xsogden. Read her articles here.