Survivors Of Sexual Assault Shouldn’t *Have* To Speak Out

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I am sitting on a stool, midway through an interview with a news organization about my experience as a survivor of both rape and sexual assault. It’s a weekday. The sun is shining. My curly hair is framing my face.

Across from me, a journalist asks, “What were you feeling when you were being assaulted?”

My stomach drops. My throat closes. I have no voice. I cannot move. I am quite literally triggered beyond words.

Trigger: the mechanism that fires a gun.

Trigger: to provoke a memory or feelings connected to a trauma.

I have been talking publicly about my abuse for more than 15 years, and still, I never know when I might feel triggered by someone or something that will make sharing my story hard. And now, with sexual misconduct allegation after sexual misconduct allegation emerging near-daily, it seems as though people expect survivors, like myself, to readily share every detail of our story. I feel like the Energizer Bunny of Survival. And my batteries have expired.

The prevalence of sexual harassment and assault may be new for the public, mainstream eye. But for many people, it’s not. We have been sharing our stories and working to end sexual violence and misconduct for years; the world just didn’t pay attention before.

The first time I publicly shared my story was in April 2003, my freshman year of college, during Take Back the Night. Speaking out has saved my life. Along with years of therapy and supportive family and friends, incorporating my story into my work as a spoken word poet, writer, journalist, educator, and activist, has helped me transcend surviving. It helps me thrive.

And yet, I continually experience a disturbing and often traumatic tactlessness from the media, friends, acquaintances, friends of friends on social media, and society at large. I feel like people expect me to be strong, and I am. I’m also a human being. I’m not unbreakable. And I know I’m not alone. A culture of misogyny and disbelief led us to this moment in the first place. That very same patriarchy—which has silenced so many survivors—needs to go.

The expectations for how and on what terms survivors speak out are excruciating and problematic. People want click bait—sensationalized, graphic accounts. In the days following Tarana Burke’s decade-long #MeToo campaign going viral this fall, I shared my story publicly on social media (as I have before) and was approached by several news organizations. Strangers, and people I knew, demanded I name names of the people who abused me. Except, that won’t keep me safe. Some people said I should learn to defend myself. Except, it wasn’t my fault. And then there were people who pressed me for my take on sexual harassment and abuse given that, you know, I’m a survivor. Like it’s part of my identity. Like suffering this trauma makes me an expert able to spit out wisdom like quarters from a winning slot machine.

Despite having shared my story for more than a decade, that week ripped me to my core. I flung myself onto my bedroom floor wailing after a friend of a friend harassed me online. I had posted on social media using the phrase “#MeToo” 15 times, followed by “More times than I can count.” After a male friend began commenting, one of his friends—whom I do not know and have never met—suggested I get a gun to protect myself. My friend piggybacked from there. I asked them to please stop co-opting my personal thread. As other friends came to my defense, these men started to harass them as well. A stranger chimed in: “There is no rape culture in this country. Feminism has destroyed gender roles….Masculinity is not toxic. If masculine men are so hated, then stop sleeping with them.” More than 100 comments later, I screenshot each one, then deleted the thread.

This isn’t new.

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