April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This year, it feels especially relevant given the national dialogue that our society is engaging in surrounding the #MeToo movement. April is always a meaningful time for me, as it marks what I think of as my entry into this work. Prior to college, I really had never thought about domestic or sexual violence, until a friend invited me to attend a Take Back the Night event with her. Take Back the Night is an international series of events with the goal of allowing survivors of sexual assault a chance to metaphorically “take back the night” of their assault. It is a powerful event, which sometimes includes opportunities for survivors to speak out about their experiences, often for the first time.
Take Back the Night will always hold a special place in my heart, but I see the event differently after having worked with so many survivors of domestic violence. In April, we recognize the prevalence of sexual assault. Lately we have been hearing stories of harassment and assault across various industries, economic classes, and race. Yet what we aren’t hearing are the stories of sexual assault occurring within the context of a relationship. This intersection with domestic violence is all too often left out of the sexual assault conversation.
When I was working at REACH’s shelter as a Residential Advocate, I conducted an initial assessment with survivors when they first arrived. Part of that assessment asked about the types of abuse the survivor had experienced. These categories included Physical, Emotional/Verbal/Psychological, Financial, Cultural/Identity/Spiritual, or Sexual. Rarely would a survivor indicate that they had experienced sexual abuse, and for those few who did, it was often from either childhood or a past relationship. Yet months later, those same survivors would often disclose experiences of sexual assault in the relationship that led them to shelter. I would often ask myself, why now? What had changed that this person who had so vehemently told me that they had not experienced sexual abuse in their relationship was now able to discuss these experiences?
Looking back now, I wonder if it was not just one, but several things that had changed. Most importantly, the survivor needed to trust me with this information. People reach out to us every day about the domestic violence they are experiencing, but it can feel very different to talk about sexual abuse. Though shame and self-blame are frequently expressed by survivors of any form of domestic violence, when someone has experienced sexual abuse at the hands of a person they loved, the wounds and impacts can feel unique. Another reason why survivors of domestic violence may be hesitant to talk about their experiences of sexual abuse might be that they simply didn’t recognize the acts as abusive. Sexual abuse can take many forms, and though we often think of penetrative actions, it encompasses so much more than that. This lack of recognition can run deep. Many of the survivors I worked with were married prior to the criminalization of marital rape in all 50 states. Though laws have changed, culture can be slow to adapt, and it can be hard to recognize your experience if you grew up with messages that a wife was her husband’s property to do with as he pleased. This limited form of thinking also creates strong barriers for survivors who are part of the LGBTQ community, or who have experienced abuse at the hand of someone who is not a cis-gender man. When we narrowly define what sexual assault is, we create an environment that silences many survivors from coming forward with their experiences.
Events like Take Back the Night can be incredibly healing for survivors. It shines a light on stories often left in the darkness. But for survivors of domestic violence where sexual abuse was part of their experience, there isn’t just one night to take back. Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviors, not just a single incident. Thinking about the complexity of this experience, though events like Take Back the Night can be healing, they can also feel triggering or isolating.
This month, as we honor survivors’ experiences and continue to hear the resounding cadence of #MeToo, we need to be mindful of the vast array of abusive and assaultive experiences survivors can face. We can create a space for survivors to feel more supported and comfortable by being conscious of the way in which we speak out about sexual assault and abuse. Being inclusive of survivors with all experiences, whether they be women, men, part of the LGBTQ Community, were in a relationship with their abuser, or were trading sex for things of value, all experiences of sexual abuse can leave lasting impacts on survivors. Perhaps if you are sharing an article on social media, look for one that represents a variety of experiences, or in conversation, be sure to bring up the multiple ways sexual assault can happen.
If you’re new to this conversation and want to learn more, join us for our Domestic Violence 101 Training on May 9th where we will talk about the various forms of abuse, including sexual abuse and how it looks unique in domestic violence relationships.
Sexual Assault Awareness Month is an incredibly important time for recognition. This year, let’s be sure to elevate all survivors’ voices.