In the 1970’s the feminist movement began to uncover sexual abuse as feminist therapists and attorneys started to help women change the laws and dialogue around sex abuse. We have a long way to go. In many ways #MeToo has opened up a Pandora’s Box of abuse, yet for those of us in the fields working with sex abuse survivors this is nothing new. One in four girls will experience some form of sexual abuse by her sixteenth birthday.
As a therapist working with sex abuse survivors for thirty years I hear stories of sex abuse every day. I hear the stories of girls in their teens, women in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, who have held their secrets close. The teen girls and young women I work with are healing and thriving because they have let go of their secrets earlier. How do teens begin to heal from sexual abuse after disclosing their experiences and how do we help them as friends, loved ones and the bigger community.
How to help:
1. We can all heal from trauma and one way can be to disclose the abuse, but one story is not more important than another. We must support all abuse survivors.After a survivor discloses her abuse there are many emotions that follow. She may be very sensitive to any backlash. If you hear her say “mine was not so bad”. Make sure to tell her that any sexual abuse is serious and damaging, traumatic. One experience is not less important than another.
2. Although women are coming out with their stories and seem brave to disclose, there is so much shame and guilt that sex abuse survivors feel. Make sure the first thing you say is “It’s not your fault!”
3. If you hear a #MeToo story and you recognize your co-worker, your friend, your acquaintance privately offer support. It is one thing to click a like button, and another to send a personal email. Just say thanks for sharing, I admire you for that.
4. If it turns out that you are close to that person and had no idea, please reach out and let them know you able to offer any support they need, that if and when they are ready to talk about it you are ready to listen. Make sure to tell her that you believe her and that it is not her fault. Ask if there is anything you can do and let her know that if she does not want to talk about it, that is fine too.
5. Be prepared to hear more that may upset and disturb you. Understand that sex abuse does not occur in a vacuum. Some of these survivors were not supported as children, some are incest survivors, rape survivors, but perhaps that is not the story they are ready to tell. We need to be ready and open to hear it all.
6. Even if you are uncomfortable with the subject, know that the abuse survivor has suffered more than you just by listening. Work on being open to hear possibly horrific experiences. Look the person in the eye. If we want to change the culture, we must be open to the truth, we can’t run away.
7. Educate yourself, read books about sex abuse, look up the statistics, realize that #MeToo is only stating in publicwhat goes on behind closed doors, in homes for centuries. By giving your support you are becoming a link in the chain to help end sexual abuse.
8. Ask if there is anything you can do, let her know that you are in for the long run and open whenever and if ever she wants to talk about it.Tell your close friend or relative that if she is triggered she can call you any time day or night.
By doing all this, by supporting the conversation you are not only helping your friend, co-worker, relative, heal. By being a part of rooting out the secrecy surrounding sexual abuse you are honoring teen girls, and women. As we honor their individual truths we help to change the male dominated culture of misogyny and abuse of women and children which is our only hope to prevent our daughters from having a #MeToo story.