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Why I share my story of sexual assault | COMMENTARY

Lady Gaga holds hands with survivors of sexual abuse after singing her Oscar-nominated song "Til It Happens to You" at the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 28, 2016. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Lady Gaga holds hands with survivors of sexual abuse after singing her Oscar-nominated song "Til It Happens to You" at the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 28, 2016. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)

April is National Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Month. Each spring, we hope eternal that raising awareness about a pervasive societal problem will lower rates of sexual assault. Yet among the brightly colored remembrance ribbons and the sea of statistics is a noticeably absent element of the conversation: survivor stories.

While choosing to recount a traumatic violation is a deeply personal decision, speaking up can help shut down sexual assault. Encouraging survivors to share their stories accomplishes three important, interrelated objectives: It increases the likelihood of reporting, diminishes the stigma surrounding a taboo subject and actively promotes healing.

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How do I know? I am a survivor of rape and sexual assault. In 2015 after another volunteer assaulted me at a nonprofit organization, I did something I did not have the courage to do when similar instances occurred in my adolescence: I reported it. A criminal trial ensued. The assailant was convicted.

Understandably, many survivors of sexual assault face barriers to reporting, preventing them from enjoying the closure I received. For those in the armed forces, fear of retaliation, perceived career consequences or chain of command obstacles may block service members from seeking justice. People of color may distrust law enforcement or lack the structural support to come forward. Survivors may be convinced reporting will ruin their reputation, further compromise their safety or threaten their livelihood. Each situation is as unique as the survivor.

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The decision to report a sexual assault must always be a survivor-driven process, as is the choice to press criminal charges or pursue civil damages. From firsthand experience, the scrutiny unleashed on a survivor’s character and the invasive examination of their intimate life can be as unbearable as the physical assault itself.

For those who elect to report, it may lead to a punitive outcome. Reporting can potentially put an end to a cycle of abuse for the reporting survivor and any additional persons silently suffering at the hand of the same offender. As demonstrated by the recent record-shattering $1.1 billion settlement between hundreds of survivors and the University of Southern California, abusers can harm dozens of survivors, undetected, for decades. Reporting sexual assault can be the key to exposing an abuser’s insidious actions previously hidden in plain sight.

Reporting sexual assault also mitigates the stigma surrounding survivors. By sharing their stories, survivors shift the narrative from one of brokenness to empowerment. Countless celebrities, from Lady Gaga to Terry Crews, have used their platform for this exact purpose.

While being a survivor is part of my history, it is not my identity. I am a marathon runner. I conquered COVID-19. I am a public servant. Sexual assault does not define me. I use my voice to amplify my experience and to encourage other survivors to seek justice, should they choose to do so, but most importantly, to achieve healing.

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I was assaulted during a community service project I created to celebrate my 30th birthday — 30 Days of Service. Rather than allow one individual’s behavior to tarnish my passion for volunteerism, the assault reaffirmed my commitment to giving back and speaking out. I shared my story with Street Sense, a publication run by those experiencing homelessness — the precise population I was assisting when the attack happened.

In 2020, I was invited by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to deliver a keynote address at the annual Crime Victim’s Ceremony at the District of Columbia Court — the location where my assailant’s trial took place. It was a full-circle moment that instilled in me a greater sense of peace. Healing has not been a linear journey, but patience has led to a worthwhile payoff. Whether it is by seeing a mental health professional, spending time in nature, exercising or becoming an advocate, there are many resources for healing.

I continue to share my story because not only is it cathartic, in doing so, I signal to other survivors sharing is more than acceptable — it is encouraged. Only once survivors feel free to share their stories will reporting increase, stigma diminish and the shame surrounding survivors of sexual assault transcend to healing. I implore you to support the survivors in your life. If you are a survivor, I urge you to consider reporting or sharing your story with a trusted party if you are able. Let us transmute one of the worst experiences of our lives into a force that has the potential to better us all.

Melissa Sullivan (melissa.sullivan.a@gmail.com) is a press officer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She is a graduate of American University’s School of Public Affairs and a two-term AmeriCorps alumna.

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