Being a victim of sexual violence is about more than hashtags and courtrooms – it’s time for society to step up support

I spoke out about my sexual assault months after it happened and was fortunate to be greeted with a wave of love and support. But after I dropped my case, people were not as interested in knowing my experience

Jane Jacks
Tuesday 30 June 2020 12:33
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You may have seen the hashtag #speakingout on social media over the past week. It’s the latest expression of online empowerment for sexual assault survivors. Yet, as a survivor myself, I’ve wrestled with my own feelings about it.

I’ve found myself squirming in front of the screen full of strangers lauding the bravery of those coming forward. As more and more people tell their stories, the opportunities for those who’ve been assaulted to speak out is greater than ever. But what happens after we do?

I spoke out about my sexual assault months after it happened and was fortunate to be greeted with a wave of love and support from friends and family. Even some acquaintances reached out, telling me how courageous they thought I was. I was believed, and I count myself as one of the “lucky” ones for that.

I took my case to court and as word spread, so did the intrusions. I would go to parties and have whispered conversations with friendly people that I hardly knew, with them asking me what was “going on” with the case. I didn’t mind talking about it most of the time but, while my rape remained at the forefront of my mind, the “case” rarely was.

Instead, my life had become one lived on the frontline. I battled sleep and nightmares. I fought with feelings of being trapped in a body I felt had betrayed me, struggling at times with alcohol abuse and self-harm.

I had relationships that broke down and then when I decided to navigate dating, I watched the faces of men contort in shock when I told them about the rape. Then they would try to figure out what I needed from them - emotionally or physically. More than once, I watched people walk away when it got too hard, when the reality of the support I needed became apparent.

And once, in a moment of profound isolation, when I’d convinced myself of my own worthlessness and that my damage was beyond repair, I did something that ended up putting me in hospital.

These are the things that matter to me about my life after assault, and these are the things that should matter to anyone interested in helping victims. In the end, I dropped my case and after that, not many people were interested in talking to me about what I’d been through anymore. I was no longer in a courtroom drama, so who cared?

Hashtags like #speakingout are important in raising awareness about sexual violence, but at present the survivor’s role stops at the point at which they speak out. What is the point in hashtags, bravery, and courtrooms, if the support is not there?

As a society, we have to do better at understanding the consequences of sexual violence; the way it casts shadows on so many aspects of a survivor’s life.

For those of us who are trying to rebuild our lives after assault, the general obsession with the criminal justice system and social media hashtags is not always healthy. Of course, accountability and justice for perpetrators is important but so, too, is striving to understand and support victims.

The onus cannot continue to be on survivors to educate society. (Although, I’m aware of the irony that in writing this I’m doing just that.)

So what can you do? Start by reading about it, watching films about it, listening to podcasts. There’s a wealth of wonderful material out there.

If you know a survivor who wants to talk to you about their experience then you are in an important position and you must listen. Most importantly, survivors need love. Love offered without judgement or fear and with as much generosity as can be mustered.

Only once this is understood can we begin to have meaningful conversations around sexual assault.

The author is writing under a pseudonym

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