By Sarah Jane Runge, Program Intern
Sexual violence continues to be a growing and devastating issue. The #MeToo Movement created visibility and voice for many survivors of sexual violence, but rates continue to be high. When a survivor tells someone about their sexual assault for the first time, they are likely to disclose it to a trusted family member or friend. If this experience is negative, it can discourage survivor’s from telling anyone else or seeking healing and other resources.
Telling someone about their assault can be a critical part of a survivor’s journey. Disclosures are unique to the individual survivor, and it is a process, not an event (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network). According to Morris and Quevillon, survivor participants in their study took an average of 9 months to disclose following their sexual assault, and disclosed on average to only four people. It was reported that negative social reactions, or poor disclosure reactions, had a significant direct impact on cognition after the assault.
As stated by the American Journal of Community Psychology, “to speak and be heard is to have power over one’s life. To be silenced is to have that power denied.” (Ahrens, 2006). When a survivor’s experience of telling someone about what happened to them is negative, for example their friend or family member says “it could have been worse” or “it wasn’t that bad,” or the experience results in the survivor being forced into a specific action, like reporting, it further takes away the survivors power. This can be retraumatizing. A disclosure experience like this can cause a second wave of betrayal after the incident, and in turn leads to feelings of pain and betrayal by their support system.
Disclosure trauma can lead to feelings of self-doubt. As a result of this, survivors may adapt using coping methods of avoidance and minimization. These tactics may work initially with adjusting to trauma, but they are not sustainable over a long period of time (Ahren, 2006). Avoidant coping strategies often coincide with minimization. In receiving negative reactions to disclosures, survivors may feel like they must resort to silence, as if their trauma is burdensome or insignificant and must be minimized.
Women of color are much more likely to be subjected to sexual violence. Additionally, Black women are more likely to be treated unfairly and have their reports of violence and assault disregarded in the justice system. Not only that, but black women are also far less likely to receive legal recourse, which creates a hesitation to disclose to someone about their assault and seek legal action (Finoh & Sankofa, 2019). Cultural trauma, systemic racism, and racial bias can make it much harder for survivors of color to disclose and adds additional barriers for survivors who wish to pursue legal action.
A survivor can benefit greatly from a positive disclosure experience. It is an important piece in the healing journey of survivors and can encourage seeking medical, mental health, and legal services. A survivor deserves to be believed, trusted, and made to feel safe.
How you can respond positively to disclosure:
- Make sure the sexual assault survivor is safe
- If they are in need of immediate medical attention, help them to seek proper care
- Listen without judgement
- Tell them you believe them
- Thank them for telling you
- Respect their choices about next steps and reporting
Find out more information about helping survivors on MCASA’s website at https://mcasa.org/take-action/for-friends-family-of-survivors.
Ahrens C. E. (2006). Being silenced: the impact of negative social reactions on the disclosure of rape. American journal of community psychology, 38(3-4), 263–274. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1705531/
Delker, B. C., Salton, R., McLean, K. C., & Syed, M. (2020). Who has to tell their trauma story and how hard will it be? influence of cultural stigma and narrative redemption on the storying of sexual violence. PLOS ONE, 15(6). Retrieved from: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0234201
Epstein, R., Blake, J. J., & Gonzalez, T. (2017). Girlhood Interrupted. Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality. Retrieved from: https://www.law.georgetown.edu/poverty-inequality-center/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2017/08/girlhood-interrupted.pdf
Finoh, M., & Sankofa, J. (2021, October 21). The Legal System Has Failed Black Girls, Women, and Non-Binary Survivors of Violence. American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved from: https://www.aclu.org/blog/racial-justice/race-and-criminal-justice/legal-system-has-failed-black-girls-women-and-non
Understanding the Impact of Trauma (2014). Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/