You Have the Right to Share or Not: Tips on Disclosing or Reporting Sexual Assault
You are contemplating whether or not to share your story with others. You may be asking yourself: should I talk to someone? What if I am not ready? What if I am not sure about reporting the incident?
You have every right to decide whether you want to tell someone about what happened to you. You can decide to tell anyone or tell no one. However, many survivors do find ease in sharing their stories and making it known to others. Telling your story can certainly be healing and reparative. Here are some tips to help you disclose or report sexual assault.
When we have survived a deeply disturbing traumatic event, it can be painful or even unbearable to revisit the memory. Some survivors prefer not to talk about it while others prefer to share and release the burden that often is carried in their minds and bodies. Our trauma memories can continue to haunt us, especially if we try to avoid them. The more we push the memory away, the more the thoughts occupy our minds, impact our nervous systems, and our emotional and physical bodies. If and when one is ready to disclose or report their story, it is one of personal choice and will vary from one person to another.
Some things that can happen when we decide to disclose or report assault:
- The feelings of shame diminish. Shame can often lead us to feel like what happened was disgraceful or that we are bad at a deeper level for what transpired. We may think that others will judge or think less of us due to what occurred. But something happens when we tell our story in the presence of a comforting and supportive person, we start to realize that there was nothing to hide and we begin to feel lighter. When we begin to share or disclose our story, the initial feelings of shame that feel intense and overwhelming, over time begin to settle. We start to notice our breath again and slowly start to feel that we are in our bodies.
- Initial beliefs, thoughts, and feelings about the event that can be rather unhelpful or harmful to healing are corrected. Many survivors experience shifts in their beliefs about themselves and others. When survivors hold their story inside, it is often composed of beliefs that are inaccurate or fails to capture the magnitude of what occurred. Many times, survivors who conceal their story have internal narratives and thoughts about themselves that can be harsh, filled with shame, blame, guilt, and self-criticism. Over time, you begin to see the story in its fullness and you are able to understand that this wasn’t your fault.
- The trauma memory, over time, becomes less triggering. Reexploring a trauma can be very unsettling, triggering strong emotional and physical reactions and even flashbacks of the event. If we do not process the trauma these reactions can intensify and may lead to chronic distress and pain. Through the re-narrating, over time, our distress about it decreases. It is through the telling and sharing with loved ones or those who are supportive that the memory of the trauma no longer keeps us captive in the past. It is using our voices that allow us to loosen the grip of trauma from our minds, bodies, and nervous systems. It is through connection with a supportive and loving person that we can regulate our bodies and nervous systems and move towards the healing of sexual trauma.
- You begin to feel more aware of your bodily sensations. The pain of trauma is something that we harbor in our mind, nervous system, and bodies. The telling of the trauma memory can over time help you to begin to notice and pay attention to your body’s needs. The more awareness of your body the better you are able to feel and identify your emotions. The more awareness of your body the more you will learn to accept and be curious about your body in the present moment and without judgment.
- You begin to take ownership of your healing. The assault was not your fault. And you were not responsible for what happened to you. There are times where you may not feel in control of how you or your body responds to trauma memories. Your trauma is not your fault. Your trauma responses are not your fault. Your healing, however, is your responsibility. It can seem unfair because you may feel like the onus is put on you to dedicate time, energy, money and commit to the work that is called for when we prioritize our healing. But it is important that you get to have ownership over the way you heal, when you heal and how you heal. We may want closure from others or even an apology, and that is fair and understandable. But the one thing that we have power over is that we can give ourselves permission to do the work to heal. We get to reclaim ourselves, reclaim our power and take ownership of our healing.
When it comes to disclosing it is important to consider your why and to also prepare to respond or take better care of yourself when the reactions of others may stir up uncomfortable feelings or perhaps could even trigger you. We have the power to share or disclose on our terms. No one can take this away from us. Consider this when you prepare to disclose. Your words, voice, and story are valid. Your experience is valid. Remember your power. Remember your resilience. Remember your strength.
Questions to think about when you decide to disclose or report:
- Why do I want to disclose or report it? What purpose will it serve? Will it benefit me? Why or why not?
- Who can I disclose the story to? Who will make me feel safe, comfortable and supported?
- What would happen if I report the assault? Who should I talk to? Who can accompany me to the day of reporting?
- What do I imagine would happen if I did decide to disclose or report the assault? What do I imagine would occur if I did not disclose or report it?
- What do I want to say?
The Rape Advocacy Victim Program encourages survivors to consider the why in disclosing. We think these are great questions to ponder and reflect upon before disclosing or reporting sexual assault. Check out The Rape Advocacy’s 5Ws.
Now that you’ve understood your why. Here are a few tips when disclosing or reporting:
- Think about what you’d like to share. Write it down or record it.
- Practice telling your story to your support person. It will help having someone who supports you to hold space for what will emerge.
- Bring objects or items that can bring you calm or make you feel safe.
- Stay hydrated.
- Take deep breaths every step of the way.
- Take breaks as needed. Pause or stop anytime you need to.
- Visualize or think of an image in your mind that is soothing and comforting. For example, imagine you are sitting at the edge of the ocean waves releasing the intense feelings that come up, watching the waves taking them away.
- Inhale love. Exhale fear.
- Repeat a mantra or affirmation in silence or aloud. “I am safe. I am surrounded by love and support. I am strong and will get through this.”
Many survivors worry that disclosing or sharing can feel like it is out of their control. It can certainly feel overwhelming when we have experienced a traumatic experience such as sexual assault. Our culture doesn’t necessarily create a safe space of support for survivors to disclose or report. However, you do have an opportunity to take control of your story and your disclosure. You get to tell your story on your time and on your terms.
The Rape Victim Advocacy Program: https://rvap.uiowa.edu/help/disclosing/
The Gift of Holding Space: How to support relatives, loved ones, and friends who survived sexual assault:
Speaking our Truth, Even When Our Voice Shakes: When we disclose our survivorship stories with loved ones.
The Reward of Honoring One’s Feelings: Giving Ourselves Permission to Heal and Feel after Sexual Assault
Biany Pérez, LSW, M.Ed.