I have been an advocate for survivors of domestic and sexual violence for over 16 years. As Director of River House, Inc. I continue to advocate for survivors. April is an important month for advocates and survivors alike. April has been designated as Sexual Assault Awareness month. As an advocate, this month is time to remember the victims of sexual violence, promote awareness to stop sexual abuse, and celebrate the healing of survivors. This month is a time for all of us to talk about sexual assault. Bringing this difficult subject into our conversations is one way to increase awareness and begin the process of eliminating this crime from our society.
Sexual abuse is a difficult subject to talk about. Most survivors feel isolated, ashamed, and/or somewhat responsible for what happened to them. This makes talking about the assault very difficult. In addition, it is important to understand that the survivor has the power to choose when and how to share her story. Every time a survivor chooses to share her story with me, I am honored because I know that I have earned her respect and trust. She alone has the power of her story which is important after feeling powerless during the assault. In controlling who and how she shares her story, she is beginning to take back control of her own life and restoring her sense of empowerment.
When I met “Suzanne”, she was very much like the other women that I have counseled over the years. She was quiet at first and hesitant to talk about all that had happened to her. As she shared more with me and we discussed the events that led up to her assault, Suzanne began to realize that it was not her fault. She started to see how her assailant coerced and manipulated her into trusting him. She began to identify the ways that he harmed her by betraying her trust and forcing her into sex. He further exploited her by taking pictures of the assault and distributing the pictures. This final act of distributing the photos took away what little choice Suzanne had left after the assault. As I mentioned, survivors have the power of their stories and they alone can choose with whom they will share it. In Suzanne’s case, the photos were distributed to an unknown amount of people. Her family found copies that were sent to her laptop and her friends were shown pictures by her assailant. Through his actions, her abuser created more harm to Suzanne. She began having difficulty at school, work, and within her family. She had to share her story with police and prosecutors. Her laptop and phone were seized as evidence. She lost friends.
Suzanne then began to do something amazing. She began to heal. She did it in her own way and by her own rules. She began the healing process by holding her head high rather than hang it in shame. She became involved in a support group for other survivors, she created artwork and poetry, she wrote a statement for the court about how the assault affected her, and she helped to invite other survivors to join the support group. Through her actions, Suzanne took control of her story and reclaimed the power back over her life.
If you are a survivor or a support person of a survivor know that help is out there and healing is possible. Suzanne’s story stands as a reminder of the power of speaking out and the courage of one young woman in her journey of healing from sexual abuse. I am honored to have met Suzanne and to have the privilege of walking with her on her healing journey. I invite each of you who are reading this, to reach out to support survivors like Suzanne by attending an event at River House, sending a donation, volunteering your time, and/or spreading the word about our efforts to end violence. Thank you for being an ally against violence!