When we decided to write this series on sexual abuse, we made a conscious choice to write it together. Mutual disclosure of the hard life stuff has characterized our relationship almost from the beginning. Our relationship unfolded for us because in the other, each of us found a person who could look into our lives naturally with compassion, grace, and mercy. So many survivors of sexual abuse need to have places where they can have open, honest, and safe conversations about their experiences. Unfortunately, those safe spaces seem rare to the point of being precious.
It’s these kind of observations that make Lindsey’s head spin. Before we started having candid conversations about Sarah’s sexual abuse, Lindsey thought that virtually everyone healing from sexual abuse had companions on the journey. After all, don’t abuse survivors share their stories with their closest friends, get help, and move forward in life? Isn’t that what we are led to believe? Lindsey has sat through dozen of trainings on sexual abuse for mandatory reporters, but theory only gets you so far. The simple truth of the matter is that disclosure is risky, especially when it comes to disclosing to one’s closest friends. Who wants to share his or her story with a trusted friend only to be met with disbelief, dismissal, blame, and even an aggressive to command to “forgive” and get over it already? Often, survivors have more experience with such responses than non-survivors may imagine.
Abuse depends on a culture of silence. It’s more than one’s abuser saying, “Never tell anyone what happened.” It’s more than one person’s bad reaction. Survivors of sexual abuse have to climb a mountain of cultural misconceptions about what counts as real abuse, what justice ought to look like, and what one is asking for when he or she discloses instances of abuse. Sexual abuse survivors who share their stories are often shunned for airing dirty laundry and refusing to let private matters remain private. Every time an abuse survivor tries to break the silence, he or she can run into a cultural wall of, “You know, you really need to talk about this with a therapist. I’m not trained to help you deal with your problem.” When we say that, we think we are giving good advice and doing what is best for the person. But we aren’t. Sexual abuse is a huge problem. We’ve stopped looking at statistics because it seems like the numbers keep growing. What can a friend do to help bring about real and enduring healing in cases of sexual abuse?
It seems too simplistic that listening would be the most critical action in helping another person heal from sexual abuse. However, note that listening breaks silence. Abuse silences the victim. Listening gives space to be heard. Often, abuse shoves the story deep within a survivor. Survivors have learned never, ever, ever to tell their stories because speaking comes with costs that are too high. Imagine a survivor who has had the courage to write her story of molestation on a t-shirt for a Take Back the Night event. She goes with a close friend to look at the shirts, all while observing whether this friend has ears to listen. Walking through the t-shirts, the friend comments appropriately on some messages left. The survivor’s hope builds as her shirt is approaching. 3 steps, 2 steps, 1 step, BREATHE, linger, wait. Her friend is another 2 steps away… “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe someone put that shirt in the display. Who cares if your brother touched you? That’s totally normal. Hasn’t she ever heard of kids playing doctor?” Sometimes, both direct and indirect ways people tell a survivor to shut up can be even more painful than the abuse itself. The silencing continues, and the survivor needs to gather herself before moving forward. She can’t find a voice even in anonymity.
It can be easy for people who haven’t been sexually abused to say, “Okay, I get it. Some people react badly. But I would never react in that way. I know to listen.” Here’s a pin for popping that balloon. It doesn’t work that way. If a survivor has tried to share his or her story with 24 other good and trustworthy people, you’re simply the 25th person in that line. Survivors aren’t stupid. A culture of silence means that survivors are attempting to fly to a safe haven with no navigation aids. In a culture saturated by social media, some survivors have decided to throw caution to the wind and say something on a public platform: why risk systemically testing your friends one by one to see if any among them know how to listen? Isn’t it better to get it all out at once and see who is still standing by you when the dust settles? But even then, a survivor encounters the demands of a culture of silence that shames him or her for “oversharing” and asserts that certain things are best handled through “proper channels.”
Although it’s well-intentioned, discussing the “proper channels” shows a deep misunderstanding of how trauma from sexual abuse work. So much of what non-survivors know assumes that the abuse is actively occurring right now and is principally a legal matter that needs to be addressed by the police. Have you filed a police report? Do you need to go to the hospital? Are you going to press charges? What evidence do you have? Unfortunately, this kind of “support” is limited and assumes that there is a standard, simple path that all survivors need to take after being abused. Non-survivors can be absolutely clueless in knowing how to listen to a survivor sharing about events from years ago. If a survivor is still processing sexual trauma from over 5 years ago, far too many non-survivors will gaze at the survivor with disgust and say, “Look, I’m not your therapist. If it’s still on your mind that much, then you need to get help…serious help.” Trauma is never simply erased. As survivors heal, they get better at dealing with the various kinds of memories that surface, even if these memories remain unexpected and intrusive. Anyone can listen. Some topics can certainly be difficult for non-survivors to hear. It’s great to say things like, “I’m so glad you trusted me with this story. Thank you for letting me listen. It sounds like you might benefit from talking about this with some more people besides me as well. Do you have a therapist that you’re talking with now? Would you like help in finding someone?” Because disclosures can be exceptionally difficult for listeners it’s okay to seek out support for yourself when a disclosure hits you particularly hard.
With it being so hard to find people who are willing to listen, many survivors catch the memo that there’s no place for their stories to be heard. Often, they stuff the hurt, the pain, the anger, the betrayal, everything, all inside. It’s a futile exercise as inevitably our body revolts. The silence becomes crushing, and survivors seek balm for the pain that cannot be shared safely with others. Sarah has heard more disclosures of sexual abuse while drinking heavily with other people or during eating disorder treatment than either one of us care to count. Survivors will self-medicate in a number of ways, many of which are self-destructive. If there is no one willing to listen, there is no other way to deal with the pain than numb it. Even then, people in their lives tend to see the destructive behavior as coming from a place of resentment and lack of forgiveness rather than a place of incredible hurt.
As hard as it is to talk about sexual abuse, it’s possible to make a difference by becoming someone who is able to listen. Sarah finds that listening well comes rather organically after having done so much healing work over time. As a non-survivor, Lindsey has tried to cultivate active listening strategies. It’s hard to listen if you’re doing the talking. Lindsey believes that “Stop talking” is the First Rule of Listening. Some of us are cursed with a tendency to yammer when talking about difficult topics. Watching for your own tendencies can be helpful. It’s also good to practice asking open-ended questions. Think about difficult experiences in your own life where you really needed someone to listen. Who among your friends have been good listeners for you? What do they do that makes them effective listeners? When you speak, express gratitude that a person has trusted you with his or her story. Acknowledge that sharing can be difficult. Lindsey makes an active point of rehearsing how Lindsey wants to respond when a survivor opts to disclose. As of this writing, Lindsey’s immediate response goes something like: “Thank you so much for trusting me with your story. I’m incredibly sorry that you’re having to deal with this. I am willing to listen as you want to tell me more. Are you safe?”
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