Guest Post: Dear Survivor of Sexual Assault

Dear Survivor of Sexual Assault,

I have had the privilege of being a sexual assault prosecutor for 28 years and have handled thousands of cases. I have learned much about both the fragility and the resiliency of the human spirit, which sometimes coexist in an uneasy and unexpected alliance. Here are some things I have learned along the way and I share them with you in hopes of helping you in your journey to recovery.

The impact is not what you imagined it would be.

People who have not been a victim of a sexual assault have a picture in their heads of how they would respond if it happened to them. That picture is almost never correct.

Most people think things such as “I would fight.” “I would run.” “I would call 9-1-1.” The truth is that victims almost never do any of those things.

The first thing you must acknowledge is that trauma has a powerful effect upon both behavior and memory. You may not and often cannot behave in a planned, logical, and rational way because of the phenomenon of trauma. One common reaction is “tonic immobility,” which means that the trauma causes verbal and/or physical immobility. Stop beating yourself up for the way you reacted or didn’t react and the way your life is affected. Accept the fact that you have been affected by sexual assault as you would the impact of a serious car accident, because the impact upon you may be just as powerful. Then look to the future and focus on healing.

Not everyone is going to believe you. And that’s OK.

Some people may not believe you for various reasons. Some are aligned with the perpetrator. Some hold false extreme views that women make up stories about being sexually assaulted. But I believe that many people who are doubters doubt out of self-preservation. They simply do not want to believe that sexual assaults happen in their family, or their neighborhood, or their church group, because such an acknowledgement would make them feel unsafe and vulnerable. They try to find a way to explain away your assault consistent with their worldview to make themselves and their family members feel safe. They feel safer in believing that sexual assaults do not happen, even though that belief is a myth.

You must accept the fact that there will be naysayers. Do not let this affect you. Ignore them. Avoid them. Don’t listen to them. The best approach to deal with doubters is to stay focused on the truth of your report, and stay firm in seeking justice and in finding the help that you need. The naysaying often fades away and can become less and less hurtful and impactful as time goes by. They and their alternate reality they have created will likely fade into oblivion as you heal and become stronger.

Confide in someone you trust.

You may underestimate the power of social support at this critical time in your life. Do not make that mistake. You need support from people who love you. Choose someone you trust, and not just mildly: choose someone you would trust with your life. Confide in that person. Let them know how this is affecting your life. Ask for their help and support.

I often tell victims that the road to becoming a survivor may be a long and winding one. There will be twists and turns. There will be potholes. There may be times when you are broken down on the side of the road. The key is to just keep going. Take this journey one step at a time. Get through the next step and then the next step and each step after that. And have people you love and trust traveling with you on what may be the most difficult road trip of your life.

Seek counseling.

Most people think that they shouldn’t need a counselor or therapist – that they should just “tough it out” on their own. Give therapy a try, even if it is just for a few sessions. Most states have programs that will pay for counseling for victims once a crime has been reported. Use that service if you need financial help. You may be pleasantly surprised at how much you benefit from counseling. There are compassionate people who know much about the exact road you are traveling, and they know the potholes, the twists and turns. Please keep in mind that different people need these services at different times. You may be doing just fine for a while and then need help. Be bold and proactive about seeking help whenever you need it.

Report what happened to you to the appropriate authority.

It is your choice whether to report your assault. Please know, however, that when it comes to the criminal justice system, the sooner a crime is reported, the better the case will be. Evidence like DNA profiles and documentation of injuries need to be gathered right away or will be lost forever. Other evidence is also often fleeting, such as evidence left at the scene of the crime. It is often critical to interview witnesses right away. Also, the sooner a crime is reported, the sooner you will have access to help and support that you otherwise would not have, such as victim advocate services that will help you through the process.

You can choose to get a medical exam and it is confidential unless you decide it should be disclosed to the police. It is your choice whether to have a medical exam, but remember that critical time-sensitive evidence may be lost forever if you choose not to have an exam soon after the assault. If you have not decided to report to the police and begin the criminal case process, you could have the medical exam done so that evidence is preserved if you do decide to go forward at some time in the future. And the primary reason to have a medical exam is so that you can get medical treatment for the assault.

Do not assume that if you report your assault to a religious leader, school authority, or therapist that is all that needs to be done. The criminal justice system is separate and on its own. Criminal justice professionals such as police, prosecutors, and advocates have training and experience in these cases that other authorities do not have. A pastor may be well intentioned, but is probably not trained specifically about sexual assault trauma and how to recover. Choose to work with professionals that are highly trained and experienced in working with sexual assault victims.

Commit to the long haul.

I am not going to sugar coat it: participating in the criminal justice process can be a difficult and frustrating experience. If you report your assault, an investigation will be done and charges may or may not be filed. If charges are filed, the case may take many months or even years to come to an end. The criminal case may seem to be focused on the defendant. Do not be surprised by this. Do not be discouraged by this. Do not be offended by this. The Constitution gives criminal defendants many rights which must be protected by prosecutors and judges. The defendant has a lawyer, often paid for by the state, and you may not. This is because if they cannot afford to hire a lawyer, they can only be prosecuted if they have a lawyer provided to them.

In the criminal justice system, speak up for yourself. Ask questions. Give input. Be an active participant in your case. The police and prosecutors involved will welcome your active participation. But please remember that the criminal case is brought by the government, and decisions may be made that you do not agree with. A good and compassionate prosecutor will always seek your input on important matters such as resolving the case. But please know that a prosecutor is required to make decisions for the case.

It may surprise you to know that most states have laws and even some state constitutional provisions that provide rights for crime victims. Seek out information on your rights as a crime victim. Criminal justice professionals are required to respect your rights. And always remember that you have a right to speak to the judge at different points in the case. Take advantage of your right to give input in court, and speak whenever you have the opportunity. Your input may make a difference in the outcome of the case.

Your healing does not depend on the outcome of the criminal case.

Think of the criminal justice case as separate and apart from your healing process. It may not provide all the answers, and it will not fix everything in your life. Be confident in moving forward, regardless of what happens in the criminal case.

Your participation in the criminal justice system will give you some comfort in that you will know that you have done everything you could do to seek justice. If the result is exactly what you hoped, great. If the result is not what you wanted, then you can still move forward with your life knowing that you did what you could according to your ability at the time.

I once had a case with Nellie, an 87-year-old woman who was a rape victim. She came to meet with me in my office and I was terrified that the criminal case would be hard on her, and cause her further damage. She came in to meet with me with a sense of humility and even humor about her situation. In the meeting, she was the person who comforted me. She leaned across my desk, took my hand and said “Do you see this body? It’s not me. It is like a piece of furniture that I move around my house every day. Don’t worry. He didn’t hurt me. He just hurt the furniture. I am going to be fine.” And she was fine. She had found a way to separate the sexual assault from herself and move on with the life that she had left.

When you are ready, find a distance between yourself and the assault. Do not let it define you. Seek out positive experiences and relationships in your life. You deserve a happy and full life.

Donna Kelly

Sexual Assault Prosecutor

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8 Responses

  1. Spunky says:

    Thank you so much for this.

  2. Jan Signore says:

    Excellent information for all of us, thank you so much for taking the time to write.

  3. Caroline says:

    Wow. Such excellent points. Thank you, Donna.

  4. Pat says:

    Thank you Donna Kelly. Your article comes at a time …. well … really helpful, supportive input, applicable to sexual predators, grooming, sexual harassment; perspective, especially regarding: “For the naysayers.”

  5. violadiva says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful information! I wish I had read it 15 years ago, but I’m so glad it’s here for other women to find now.

  6. Ziff says:

    Thanks for sharing this information, Donna. I think your analysis of why people often won’t believe a victim of sexual assault is particularly spot on. It does feel safer to imagine we live in a world where it doesn’t happen; it makes sense that some people would find it easier to just pretend that that’s reality.

  7. anna says:

    Another important part I would like to add, is that there is a normal reaction to trauma of wanting to “forget it ever happened” and go back to life as before. In my experience working with rape victims this hits one to five days after the assault. At the hospital within an hour or two of the assault, the victim wanted to report to the police, she wanted to come in for counseling. Then a few days later, she would cancel her counseling appointment or just not show up. When the police would follow up, she would refuse to cooperate with the investigation. I would call her about not coming in to the counseling appointment and she would insist she was fine, she just wanted to forget about it and get back to normal.

    Like in the steps in accepting death, she would go into the denial stage. This is really a very normal but unfortunate reaction that can last from a few days to ten and twenty years.

    If the victim can be warned that this is a normal stage in the healing process, that can be fought, and that healing is much quicker if they retain the initial desire to cooperate with police and stay in counseling. Denial gives the victim time to adjust, but just like being in denial after a death, it is not healthy and with trauma it can last years. This delays healing, and usually means the victim is uncooperative with any police investigation.

    Most of the clients who actually came in for counseling had spent years in denial and finally could not hide from the damage any longer. The PTSD became worse, and their ability to hold life together began to fail, and this disintegration would finally bring them into counseling.

    It is better in the long run for the victim to understand that the tendency to go into denial does not work long term, and that the pain will be gone sooner if she can force herself to keep working with the police and to get into counseling.

  8. Liz says:

    This is excellent. I’ll be keeping this bookmarked to send to people who are looking for this kind of resource. Thank you so much, Donna.

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