What I Wish People Understood About Being A Survivor Of Sexual Assault

I’m no different from anyone else.

Last year at the Academy Awards, Lady Gaga gave an emotional performance of the Oscar-nominated song ‘Til It Happens To You, from a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. She’d been introduced by then-Vice President Joe Biden, who said that, “too many women and men … are still victims of sexual abuse.”

A group of men and women, all survivors of sexual assault, joined Lady Gaga on stage as she sang. They had words written on their arms: ‘Not My Fault’, ‘Survivor’ and ‘It Happened To Me’. At the end of the song, they all joined hands as the audience got to their feet and cheered.

I didn’t watch the show, but the next day a couple of my friends asked if I’d seen it. It was powerful, they said. It made them cry, they said. I read about it and decided not to watch, feeling inexplicably grouchy about the whole thing.

The thing about being a survivor of sexual assault is, sometimes I really don’t want to be a survivor of sexual assault. I don’t want to be called a ‘survivor’ at all. I don’t want to have to keep talking about it. I don’t want people to say I’m brave, or strong, or anything else. I don’t want to have to speak up when I’m called for jury duty and they ask if anyone has ever been the victim of a crime.

As much as I’m tired of being a poster girl for sexual assault; as much as I sometimes feel weary of talking about it, there are a few things I wish I could make people understand about being a survivor. If you’re one too, maybe you feel the same…

I don’t want to be labeled.

Having been raped doesn’t define me. Sometimes I get so frustrated, because while I don’t want to deny my experience or stay silent, I don’t want to be judged, either. I don’t want people to assume they know something about me, just because they find out I’ve been raped. I don’t want anyone’s pity. I don’t even want to be called brave.

Speaking up is exhausting.

A 2010 study by the National Institute of Justice and the Department of Defense found that nearly one in five women have been raped, or experienced an attempted rape. One in four have been beaten by a partner. “I don’t think we’ve really known that it was this prevalent in the population,” said a director at the agency that conducted the survey. No kidding. Maybe it’s because talking about it is draining, and people never look at you the same way again after they know. We all end up feeling more alone, because we’re all tired of talking about it.

Taking care of myself has to come first.

Sometimes women reach out to me after I write about my experiences with sexual assault. They’re looking for a friend, for advice, for understanding. I know I should write back to them. I know I should be the supportive fellow survivor they’re looking for. But sometimes I just can’t. I start to reply and my hands shake. Or I suddenly feel like I need to go back to bed, in the middle of the day. As much as I’d like to be an advocate and a safe space for other women, I have to put self care first.

I’ll always think it’s my fault.

When I call myself a survivor, there will always be a part of me that feels like a phony, because I can so easily look back at the things that happened to me and rewrite history so they didn’t happen. If I hadn’t gone to that party. If I hadn’t had that drink. If I’d kept my mouth shut, been more careful, been more responsible. If I could have prevented it by choosing different actions… how is it different than being at fault?

Logically, I know it’s not my fault.

Of course, it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t make that guy at the party pin me down and wrap his hands around my throat. I didn’t make him laugh at me and hurt me. No matter how I ended up there, there’s no excuse for him doing that. It was wrong. I may have been guilty of poor judgment; but he was guilty of a crime. However, knowing something to be logically true in your head isn’t the same as feeling it to be true in your heart.

I’m never going to be ‘over it’.

I can keep my mouth shut, or keep talking about it. I can shy away from the ‘survivor’ label, or embrace it. I can reach out to other survivors, or only worry about myself. But whatever I do, I’ll never be ‘over it’ – and that’s okay.

I did eventually watch that Oscars segment with Lady Gaga and Joe Biden and all the survivors. I had to admit, it got to me. It was moving and powerful, just like my friends said. Part of me resented knowing my friends had seen it and thought of me. Part of me was tired of talking about it, tired of thinking about it. And then there was another part of me – the part that wanted to get up on stage with those women (and a few men) and hold up my hands in solidarity.

Because we are survivors. And we’re no different from you.

Comment: Have you experienced rape or sexual assault? What do you wish people understood about being a survivor?