By Meghann McCluskey
Psychotherapy has long been hailed as “the talking cure,” and even its earliest pioneers understood the healing potential of simply speaking aloud that which has previously been unutterable. This is especially true in the burgeoning field of trauma therapy – an arena in which shame and secrecy so often compound the fear, despair, and profound sense of loss endured by many trauma survivors. For the hundreds of thousands of adults, teens, and children who are subjected to traumatic sexual assault every year in this country, giving voice to their experience is often the first important step on the road to growth and recovery.
As a therapist with Denver’s Rape Assistance and Awareness Program, I have the privilege of bearing witness to the healing properties of disclosure on a regular basis. For some clients, talking about their assault during therapy marks the first time they’ve told anyone about the injustice, terror, and dehumanization they’ve lived through. Naming the assault can be overwhelming, and many clients experience an intense array of emotions when they begin to talk about it – from sadness to rage, from acute relief to expansive hope, from fear of judgment to fear of being disbelieved. Of course, the timing of one’s disclosure is crucial, and survivors must consider their own safety, their sense of comfort, and their readiness to reveal details of their trauma history before taking such a step. Talking about sexual assault is a momentous event in and of itself and also the start of something far greater. In a therapeutic context, these early, painful disclosures initiate the difficult yet ultimately liberating process of trauma treatment. Over time, with hard work, courage, and determination, the prospect of healing looms large: injustice slowly gives way to validation, terror is gradually replaced by confidence, and dehumanization morphs into empowerment.
Talking about sexual assault in therapy can lead to enhanced wellbeing, insight, and self-assurance. Talking about sexual assault with trusted friends and family members can diminish feelings of social alienation and restore one’s sense of safety and belonging in the world. And talking about sexual assault in public and political realms can reduce social stigma around sexual violence, challenge damaging myths about victims of assault, and contribute to the successful prosecution of perpetrators. Given all of these potential benefits, why do sexual assaults remain one of the most underreported crimes in our society? Why do so few people come forward to speak about their experiences with sexual trauma?
Sadly, the barriers to talking about sexual assault remain numerous and daunting in 21st century America. Despite the exhaustive efforts and impressive victories of feminist organizations, violence prevention campaigns, and political allies in Washington, the phenomenon of victim blaming is alive and well. Survivors of sexual violence continually face scrutiny when they share their stories – What did they wear? How much did they drink? – while perpetrators are seldom held accountable. Survivors who do come forward frequently face hardships in the form of untrained or insensitive first responders, institutional sexism, convoluted legal proceedings, and unsympathetic peers and family members, not to mention the serious mental and physical symptoms that often develop in the wake of sexual trauma. For survivors of color, survivors from the LGBTQI community, low-income survivors, survivors with disabilities, and youth or elderly survivors, the turmoil following sexual assault is often exacerbated by pervasive social inequalities and prejudices. Talking about sexual assault is crucial to overcoming the silences and stigmas that help perpetuate it, and yet talking about it so fraught with danger and disappointment that it’s no wonder so few survivors speak out.
It’s time to talk about sexual assault, but we shouldn’t place the onus of responsibility solely on survivors to begin the conversation. We can all work towards creating safer communities by adopting zero-tolerance policies for sexual assault in our midst. We can learn to be effective bystanders and respond appropriately to any kind of sexual violence we observe – this includes routine street harassment and the ubiquitous rape jokes so many of us are regularly exposed to. We can be responsible allies by supporting rather than dismissing our friends if they disclose their stories to us. We can advocate for legislative changes that will facilitate perpetrator prosecution. We can shrug off the shroud of secrecy and act immediately if we become aware of suspected child sexual abuse. And as service providers in the field of trauma therapy, we can continually remind ourselves of the remarkable bravery embodied by our clients each time they sit with us and begin to speak.
Meghann McCluskey is the Southeast Office Therapist for the Rape Assistance and Awareness Program (RAAP) in Denver.