April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and in my experience supporting persons impacted by sexual trauma, I have witnessed the pervasive impact it can have on one’s sense of self, relationships, health, and so much more. One common theme I have witnessed is shame – the feeling of distress, worthlessness, humiliation, or self-loathing as a result of the trauma endured.
What’s the antidote?
Our therapist, Jordan Ferranto, LCPC, ATR (URL at bottom of page), shares her perspective of “shame as an instinct to hide and that the antidote to shame is connection/being seen without judgment.” Jordan references this comic, “10 Things No One Ever Told You About Life After Sexual Abuse” by Psychologist Dr. Nina Burrowes (URL at bottom of page) as a helpful tool to understand shame and the impact of sexual trauma. Jordan explains “#4 [in the comic] addresses the way that blaming yourself for what happened creates guilt/shame, but that people do that to try to regain a sense of control. This self-blame is reinforced by victim-blaming in our culture. This comes up a lot in my work with survivors.” The comic also highlights that sexual trauma can feel very isolating and feel risky to tell others.
Sharing Your Story
Finding connections and sharing with others can look a lot of different ways. Some may talk about it with loved ones or a therapist, while others may find it very difficult to talk about out loud. It is important to feel a sense of safety with others and in your environment to share vulnerable thoughts, feelings, or memories – with or without words. Some research also suggests that creating art could help reduce symptoms of shame, such as this one on “The effectiveness of combining mindfulness and art-making on depression, anxiety and shame in sexual assault victims: A pilot study” (URL at bottom of page). Here in Chicago, Awakenings (URL at bottom of page), is a non-profit organization on a mission, “committed to creating a physical and virtual artistic space in which to engage in an open dialogue that promotes healing of survivors through the arts and furthers awareness and understanding of sexual violence.”
I have also found that those impacted by sexual trauma often desire the support of a family member or friend, but are uncertain how to share or how their loved one will respond. It may help to talk through a plan with your therapist or advocate to help you identify what and how you want to share your story.
Be an Ally
It is also important for family and friends to learn how to remain calm and help as an ally. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has information for family and friends on how to support someone who has experienced sexual trauma in A Guide for Friends and Family of Sexual Violence Survivors (URL at bottom of page).
For free and confidential support, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 (HOPE).