‘Me, Too’: Sharing Stories of Survival After Rape, Other Sex Abuse

Teenager sitting on the curb crying while friends “Me, too” was once something people whispered to other survivors, often in the context of a support group or a friend’s revelation of rape. In the wake of allegations against producer Harvey Weinsten, #metoo became a widespread social media movement.

Alyssa Milano was credited with posting the first #metoo status. Within 24 hours of her post, the tag had been posted 54 million times. Though Milano was credited with founding the #metoo movement, and other white celebrities with lending their voices and support to its rapid spread, this movement is in fact long-standing: black anti-violence activist Tarana Burke created the movement more than 10 years ago. Burke, the founder of Just Be Inc., has dedicated her life to helping sexual violence survivors and has shared in interviews that she first realized the power of “me, too” when counseling a child about the sexual abuse she had experienced. Ten years after that first conversation, in 2007, she started a “me, too” movement and has encouraged women to destigmatize abuse by sharing their stories ever since.

The prevalence of the #metoo hashtag has brought to light what was once invisible. People have learned their parents, their children, their best friends, or their grandparents survived abuse. The hashtag has also made very visible the abuse many survivors face when they come forward. Many survivors have received comments that are threatening, demeaning, or that blame them for their abuse.

So what’s behind this movement, and how does sexual violence affect society?

Terminology Basics

Media stories about sexual abuse tend to use terms interchangeably, or lump all forms of sexual abuse together. This can make it difficult to understand studies of sexual violence or talk about sexual violence in a way that accurately captures the survivor’s experience. State and federal laws vary and evolve with time. So too do medical guides and study terminology. This means one study’s definition of sexual assault might be quite different from another’s.

In general, and for the purposes of this article, here’s what various terms mean:

  • Sexual assault is a broad term for physical forms of sexual abuse. It includes not only rape, but also actions such as grabbing a person without their consent or kissing them against their will.
  • Sexual abuse is an equally broad term that applies to all forms of sexual violence. Many studies use it only to refer to childhood sexual abuse.
  • Rape is any forced sexual contact with a person, whether or not this contact includes intercourse. Some rape survivors might feel their rape “counts” only if it included intercourse. This can make it difficult for survivors of other forms of rape to discuss their feelings.
  • Sexual harassment is any form of sexual abuse that includes verbal harassment, unwanted gestures, or the creation of a hostile environment. An employer who repeatedly makes unwanted sexual advances is engaged in sexual harassment. People often use this term to refer to workplace sexual harassment, but sexual harassment can happen anywhere.
  • Street harassment is a form of sexual harassment by strangers. It includes a wide range of behaviors, from catcalling to attempts to grab a person.

Everyone Knows a Survivor

If you didn’t see a #metoo status on your social media feed, you might think you don’t know a survivor of sexual abuse. But statistically, everyone likely knows at least one survivor. Survivors are often reluctant to come forward and might not reveal their experiences, even to an anonymous surveyor. Studies consistently find between 10-30% of women have been sexually assaulted, and many more have faced sexual harassment. Women are not the only people affected by sexual assault, as it can happen to anyone. In all cases, male perpetrators outnumber those of other genders.

Consider the following statistics:

  • In 2012, the British website Mumsnet polled more than 1,600 women about their experiences of sexual violence. Twenty-seven percent had been raped. Fifty-two percent had been sexually assaulted. Of those who had been raped or sexually assaulted, 23% had been victimized four or more times.
  • Eighty-three percent of Mumsnet survey participants did not tell the police about their assault. Twenty-nine percent told no one at all.
  • A 2004 study found that 22% of women and 3.8% of men reported being sexually assaulted in adulthood.
  • The 1998 National Violence Against Women Survey found that 17% of women (1 in 6) and 3% of men face an attempted or completed rape during their lives.
  • The 2000 Sexual Victimization of College Women study found that 1.1% of college women had been raped in the previous nine months. An additional 1.7% had faced an attempted rape in the same time frame.
  • In two online surveys conducted in 2007 and 2008 by the website Stop Street Harassment, 99% of women reported experiencing street harassment at least once, and 65% said they were harassed at least monthly.

(While we recognize sexual assault can happen to those who are nonbinary, gender fluid, or have another gender identity, available statistics focus on the experience of those with a gender identity of male or female and do not encompass the experience of those who are not male or female. Neither do all studies encompass the experience of transgender people. Most estimates suggest, however, that rates of sexual abuse among nonbinary people are higher than in the general population.)

Why Survivors Delay Coming Forward

Many observers of #metoo were shocked to learn that someone they love had experienced abuse they never discussed. Some wondered why survivors waited so long to come forward.

Surviving sexual assault can be an isolating experience, particularly since many people don’t talk about their victimization. Survivors may feel like no one they know will understand. So when one person comes forward, it may inspire another to do so. When numerous people come forward, it can feel safer to reveal a history of abuse.

Surviving sexual assault can be an isolating experience, particularly since many people don’t talk about their victimization. Survivors may feel like no one they know will understand. So when one person comes forward, it may inspire another to do so. When numerous people come forward, it can feel safer to reveal a history of abuse.

There’s little data available on how long survivors wait to come forward. High-profile cases demonstrate, however, that some survivors silently carry their pain for decades. Anthony Rapp, the man who accused Kevin Spacey of sexually harassing him when he was 14, said the incident happened in 1985. Sixty women have now accused Bill Cosby of rape and sexual violence, and some of these accusations date back to the 1960s.

Surveys suggest some survivors never tell anyone about their abuse and/or delay coming forward because they think no one will believe them. A brief review of comments on articles about sexual abuse suggests one reason survivors don’t go public: they face a massive backlash. They may be vilified and threatened, particularly if they accuse a high-profile person. Often, people simply don’t believe them, insisting they must have some ulterior motive. This is in spite of overwhelming evidence that survivors who do come forward do so at great personal expense.

Some other factors that may play a role include the following:

  • Many people continue to view sexual violence as something survivors cause. They wore the wrong clothing, walked in the wrong neighborhood, or didn’t fight back enough. Survivors may choose to keep silent because they do not want to be blamed or seen as weak as a result of victim blaming.
  • Survivors may keep quiet because they don’t want their parents, children, or friends to be upset about what happened to them.
  • Some survivors may feel the penalty for rape is too harsh or that they are partially to blame. They may sympathize with the perpetrator or believe they are sorry and avoid coming forward to keep from causing the perpetrator harm.
  • Some survivors don’t come forward because they wish to avoid being re-traumatized and simply want to move on. Coming forward means answering questions, fending off accusations, and being unable to control how people respond to the news. They may think that not sharing their experience will allow them to move on.

Sexual abuse is likely to be extraordinarily traumatic. According to the U.S. National Comorbidity Survey Report, 50% of sexual assault survivors develop posttraumatic stress—a rate higher than that associated with other traumas, including military combat. Facing the backlash associated with coming forward can be profoundly damaging in general, but even more so when a person has PTSD.

How #MeToo Can Help Survivors Talk About Their Experiences

Surviving sexual assault can be an isolating experience, particularly since many people don’t talk about their victimization. Survivors may feel like no one they know will understand. So when one person comes forward, it may inspire another to do so. When numerous people come forward, it can feel safer to reveal a history of abuse.

Silhouette of two people holding hands at sunset, rear view photo

This doesn’t mean #metoo protects survivors from backlash and abuse. But when they see all survivors are getting the same backlash and abuse, they may find it less personal and thus, less frightening.

The #metoo phenomenon might also explain why the flood of accusers against high-profile individuals began as a trickle. The more people came forward, the safer it may have felt to join them.

Talking About Sexual Abuse Productively

One of the simplest ways to support survivors of sexual assault and abuse is to always assume a survivor is present during discussions of sexual abuse. Consider how a survivor might feel about the discussion and then try the following:

  • Avoid blaming victims of sexual assault by questioning what they could have done to avoid the assault.
  • Sympathize with survivors, not perpetrators. Don’t talk about how an allegation will “ruin” a perpetrator. Discuss how it might affect the victim.
  • Don’t stigmatize sexual abuse survivors by insisting that they are lying or must be seeking money.
  • Correct people who perpetuate myths about sexual violence, such as that victims ask for it or lie about abuse. Rape is an underreported crime, and there is no evidence that people lie about it more frequently than they lie about other crimes.

How to Support Survivors

If someone you know is a survivor, you can offer support in many ways. One of the most important is to believe them. Don’t interrogate them about their experience, demand they explain things you don’t understand, or otherwise put them on the defensive. Remember that talking about the experience can be traumatic, and a survivor might not wish to reveal details, or even discuss the experience at all.

Consider asking the survivor what they need, since every survivor is different. Some places to start include:

  • Offering support in the immediate aftermath of an assault. Offer to go to the emergency room with a rape survivor, help them find counseling, or go with them to the police.
  • Use the terminology the survivor is comfortable with. Don’t force them to call something rape, even if it is. Don’t demand someone who feels like a victim use the term survivor.
  • Support the individual’s efforts to regain control. Sexual abuse is a significant loss of control. Trying to force the survivor to do something—including report the crime—can be harmful.
  • Help the survivor find ways to feel safe. If they’re fearful at night, ask if you can stay with them, call to check on them, or do something else to help them regain a sense of safety.
  • Listen when the survivor wants to talk. Ask follow-up questions that show you are listening but avoid demanding details. Make sure to focus on the survivor, not your own feelings about the assault. If you are yourself a survivor, consider how your own history might color your reactions.
  • Know that it can take years to recover. Don’t pressure a survivor to “move on.” Instead, encourage them to seek help.

Where to Find Help

Survivors can and do recover. It’s possible to lead a fulfilling and happy life, even after a highly traumatic assault. Survivors should not feel pressured to recover immediately, but they should also know the right help can make life more manageable.

Both survivors and those who love them may need assistance. So if someone you care about has been victimized, survivor resources can help you manage your own feelings while helping you assist your loved one. Some places to find help include:

References:

  1. Bill Cosby’s accusers now number 60. Here’s who they are. (2016, August). Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/lifestyle/cosby-women-accusers
  2. Chivers-Wilson, K. A. (2006). Sexual assault and posttraumatic stress disorder: A review of the biological, psychological and sociological factors and treatments. McGill Journal of Medicine, 9(2).
  3. Garcia, S. E. (2017, October 20). The woman who created #metoo long before hashtags. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/20/us/me-too-movement-tarana-burke.html
  4. Elliott, D. M., Mok, D. S., & Briere, J. (2004). Adult sexual assault: Prevalence, symptomatology, and sex differences in the general population. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 17(3), 203-211. doi:10.1023/b:jots.0000029263.11104.23
  5. Melas, C. (2017, November 2). ‘House of Cards’ employees allege sexual harassment, assault by Kevin Spacey. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2017/11/02/media/house-of-cards-kevin-spacey-harassment/index.html
  6. Responding to transgender victims of sexual assault. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ovc.gov/pubs/forge/sexual_numbers.html
  7. Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/resources/statistics/sshstudies
  8. Victims and perpetrators. (2010, October 26). Retrieved from https://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/rape-sexual-violence/Pages/victims-perpetrators.aspx#note3
  9. ‘We Believe You’ campaign: Mumsnet survey on rape and sexual assault. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mumsnet.com/campaigns/we-believe-you-campaign-survey-on-rape-and-sexual-assault

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  • 8 comments
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  • Belinda

    Belinda

    November 9th, 2017 at 7:46 AM

    I have been so inspired by the stories of these women and men who have now found the courage to speak up and speak out about the abuse that they have received. I think that this is something that can resonate with so many of us, and I am proud that this movement has the steam and the momentum to leave more and more people feeling safe to come forward. It is never right for anyone to use their power in any way over another person, and I am hopeful that this is going to be a time for real change.

  • ella

    ella

    November 9th, 2017 at 2:20 PM

    I was always too focused on what someone would say about me of they knew, never thinking that I was not the one who should be ashamed of my actions. He was the one who would be mortified if anyone knew how he really was behind closed doors.

  • Royce

    Royce

    November 11th, 2017 at 6:26 AM

    The more stories that continue to come out on a daily basis these days, the more I wonder why there has to be a question about whether or not this is true. I have thought about this a lot and I have come to the conclusion that most of these men and women would have not one thing to gain for coming forward other than it is a weight that they have been carrying around with them for a very long time.

    Why does the one who is being accused have to be the one who is given the benefit of the doubt? Why do we always question the motives of the victim, thinking that they stand to gain anything more than shame and embarrassment and likely harassment for coming forward?

    Honestly I thought that as a society we were better than that. I have time and again been proven wrong.

  • hope

    hope

    November 13th, 2017 at 10:33 AM

    imagine how much easier it would be for victims to come forward and share their stories if they believed that they wouldn’t automatically be disbelieved?

  • BowenD

    BowenD

    November 14th, 2017 at 6:55 AM

    A family relative abused me for years when I was younger and my father never would believe that this was true. I think that this is what bothers me more than the abuse. That part I could block out but the fact that my own father wouldn’t believe me when I told them what was happening, and I am pretty sure that he still doesn’T? That is a blow that most kids can’t recover from.
    We all need to have someone on our side, people who trust us to tell the truth even when the story isn’t something that they want to believe. Parents should always give their children the benefit of the doubt. They would expect that for themselves, so why do young children often feel like there is no one that believes them?
    It is hard enough to talk about already without feeling let down in so many ways.

  • A faceless stat

    A faceless stat

    April 9th, 2018 at 5:10 AM

    In late 1992 I was at a club with my friends and had met a guy there who seemed interesting. At the time I confused his English arrogance and narcissism for confidence which I found attractive. It’s easy to do when you are young and drinking mojitos with your friends. After little talking, and the club getting ready to do last call, we decided to leave the club and go get something to eat at the local 24 hour diner nearby.
    Everything in the diner went well and he seemed like a really nice guy. He told me about he was a musician and came from a family of musicians, and how he was about to be signed with a record label and how great his life was going. We shared stories about different things. Typical dinner conversation type stuff. He mentioned that there was a really cool place to see at night and we should go after we ate. I agreed because everything was going so smoothly.
    We took his car and drove for about 10 minutes in an area I felt really uncomfortable in. It was an area of town that was poorly lit, and just a bad vibe. He pulled over in a vacant lot off the road a little ways. I asked him where he was going, but he didn’t answer. He parked behind some trees and told me to get out so he could show me something. I didn’t want to because if felt unsafe, but he kept saying get out.
    When I got out he forced me up against the car and was being way too aggressive. I told him no, and pushed him away. I asked him to take me back to my car because I didn’t like how this was turning out. He said he would after I quit playing games, and how he didn’t tolerate a “c**k tease”. I told him to back off and started walking toward the street. I figured I would just walk back.
    While walking towards the street he hit me in the back of the head with something. It was a loud dull thump. I don’t know what it was, but my ears started ringing and I dropped to the ground. I was really dazed. While I was trying to get my balance back I kept feeling his fists hitting me in the face and back of the head. He kicked me in the ear from behind and knocked me out.
    I woke up with my clothes torn with some in the bushes, and I was in severe pain. I couldn’t see out of my left eye, my hearing in my left ear was dull, and my face hurt like crazy and was swollen. I couldn’t find my purse or ID. It was missing. It was still fairly dark and I was dazed and scared. He was gone and I was able to make it back to the street where a trucker saw me and pulled over to help me. I went to the hospital where they did the rape kit and I reported the event to the police. I had some x-rays and tests done for the injuries to my face. My eardrum was ruptured as well as my left eye had been hit so hard I permanently lost 20% vision out of it. It never fully healed and I have difficult time hearing out of my left ear to this day.
    They ended up catching the piece of s*** Owen G., but his attorney and families money kept him from doing any time or suffering any punishment for what he did to me. In fact they were trying to countersue me for it. He claimed after we had consensual sex in his car we got into an argument and I told him to drop me off at a hotel near the vacant lot. Where I walked up to some strange black guy in the parking lot and started hitting on him to make Owen jealous. Owen left, and this imaginary black guy was the one that had beat me up and robbed me. I felt so humiliated and victimized. I still can’t believe that I could be a victim of assault and rape, and somehow look like the guilty party. This taught me to not trust men in general, the justice system, and people with money. They can do anything they want with impunity.
    This anger and hatred I have for him will never leave me.

  • Rina

    Rina

    May 16th, 2018 at 7:49 AM

    I can’t blame you for not trusting. It was a traumatic experience.

  • chasidy c.

    chasidy c.

    February 12th, 2019 at 9:59 AM

    I am a rape victim It started when I was 3 year’s old and finally ended when I was 11 and have enough courage to say something because when I was telling them nobody believed me. It took my cousin to sleep in the same bed and after she heard my gasp and go down stairs my mom finally CAUGHT HIM I know I shouldn’t be saying this but I’m telling my life story I had sever PDST and have to be on sleep medicine of 150 mg and nightmare pill’s because of this. I am 32 year’s old and It still make’s me feel down. I have 2 kid’s a boy and a girl and It’s very hard to let men around them because you never know I still cry and think about it I can never let it go I tried so hard but it is still there. I want the other rape victims know YOU ARE NOT ALONE don’t let it get you down as much as it did mean because know one listened to me until 3 year’s ago when I got a therapist I know how you feel do not let it go GET HELP SOON AND NOT LATE LIKE ME?

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