Strange as it might sound, Kesha was the reason I finally came forward with my own story of sexual abuse earlier this year. I was emboldened by her public efforts to expose producer Dr. Luke, and it was her strength and resilience that showed me I could be brave too. Rainbow, a collection of intimate confessions about her emotional and personal journey, changed everything for me. “The past can’t haunt me if I don’t let it,” she wails on “Learn to Let Go,” an anthem about accepting trauma and rebuilding her life. Listening to it, I felt liberated.
I’ve spent 27 years blaming myself, but I still haven’t named my abuser, and I’m not sure I ever can.
I’m scared that doing so will derail relationships I care about, force me to relive my abuse, and make me ashamed for coming forward. I’m scared that people will choose sides; I’m scared everyone will pick his. Those fears are paralyzing—and I’m not alone in facing them.
“Some people just know they aren’t up to the task of coping with the anger and fear that could come with going public; some feel too ashamed of having been vulnerable to make the disclosure,” Manhattan-based clinical psychologist Lucia Vail, Ph.D., tells me.
“Others just don’t feel comfortable rocking the boat; they feel more loyal to the community than to themselves as individuals. These people need patience and kindness, but they often struggle, partly because they aren’t sure they have allies or may feel guilty about the events. But if they don’t talk about it, they don’t get the consolation they may need for having been hurt.”
The decision to disclose is incredibly personal, and there is no clean-cut playbook that can definitively tell you what to do next as a sexual assault survivor. As Rachel Elliott, a Sacramento-based therapist who works with sexual assault survivors at Thrive Therapy and Counseling explains, “One person may really feel that getting justice, coming out, and not hiding is necessary and a part of their healing. Some feel that exposing the perpetrator is helpful, whereas others feel quite the opposite.”
I spoke with experts to develop further insight into what choosing to publicly name your abuser can mean for sexual assault survivors, how both choices can aid in recovery, and what the ramifications of this decision might be.
To Disclose or Not to Disclose
New York-based therapist Matt Lundquist of Tribeca Therapy, who has worked with sexual assault survivors for more than a decade, first weighs his patients’ emotional health to determine whether the individual is capable of withstanding what can come next if they choose to disclose.
In the end, reclaiming your rights—including the right to disclose or not—can be a very important part of healing.
Relatedly, in determining a patient’s next steps, Vail takes a critical-thinking approach by clarifying the four categories on a 2×2 piece of paper: She asks the patient to list the pros and cons of disclosing on top, and the pros and cons of not disclosing on the bottom. This activity makes the decision very real and can provide the survivor with a sense of power.
The Benefits of Disclosing
Justice is the most obvious upside. “A move that results in an abuser being called out, identified, or punished can be a logical next step for some patients,” Lundquist says. “Survivors can feel like they’re helping to protect those who would otherwise be hurt in the future, and that can be an important step in recovering from your own trauma.” Additionally, legal system ramifications or other public consequences can feel like vindication. “At its best, if justice follows, there’s validation in having outside forces confirm that what happened, happened, and that what happened was, in fact, wrong.”
At its core, sexual abuse is about power. “Someone overpowers someone who is less so—either physically or by status,” Lundquist says. If a survivor chooses to disclose, that balance of power shifts tremendously. “It allows an abused person to be able to say, ‘You overpowered me and caused me this harm, but now I am using my power to protect myself.’ There’s an experience of agency that is often helpful in recovery.”
The legal system may or may not be involved, but exposing the abuser can be especially satisfying for the survivor, Vail says. “The person who experienced abuse can feel freer, more powerful, and may be hailed as a hero, since some nerve was needed for the disclosure.”
Disclosing can also lend the survivor “a chance to reshape” some of the emotional narrative, including feeling like “an unwitting secret keeper” for not disclosing, Lundquist says. “When things are kept private, they have a way of festering—victims may think of what happened as their shame, as opposed to the shame of the abuser.”
Elliott also notes that disclosure may be the final piece to fully coming out of a clouded, self-blame cycle. “Reporting or disclosing the assault can be a sort of proclamation that it was an assault, that it was wrong, and that the wrongdoing is the responsibility of the perpetrator,” she says. In cases lacking physical evidence, she notes filing a police report can still be critical, not only in an individual survivor’s recovery but leading to justice down the road.
She explains, “A police report is a paper trail. So even if this perpetrator is good at covering their trail, if they assault again and another victim comes forward with a similar lack of evidence but similar report against the same person, now law enforcement is faced with a clear pattern. In this way, making that first report plants the seed and creates the potential for justice, even with a sophisticated sexual predator.”
Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey. Jeremy Piven. Brett Ratner. The list of powerful men abusing their position seems to just go on and on and on and on. The past several months have resulted in a wave of allegations, illustrating that sexual assault can really happen to anyone—and be perpetrated by anyone. “Being outspoken about your own assault creates a really good example for people. There are so many biases and shaming messages out there—this is already something people struggle with when it comes to proclaiming a sexual assault,” Elliott says. This outward ripple can be invaluable to other survivors.
If a survivor chooses to disclose, the balance of power shifts tremendously.
“There is often a lot of shame involved in being a victim. Self-blame is a common reaction, as a survivor often thinks, What could I have done to prevent this? or Did I do something wrong that this happened to me? Public examples of people who go through the same struggle and come out strong on the other side, facing and getting justice against their abuser… it’s a very powerful message to put out into the world,” Elliott says.
The Downsides of Disclosing
Sometimes, when I’m alone, I’ll say the name of my abuser out loud, over and over, as a way to extricate myself from the memory. While I say his name, I imagine what it would be like to publicly denounce him, to make him feel the shame I feel. Sometimes, I can’t imagine he would do what he did. But he did… and then that leads to questioning myself. Didn’t he?
Vail stresses that many survivors undergo a similar trajectory. “There can be sadness at the recognition that someone in a position of power actually did engage in the problem behavior,” she says. “And some people find ways of minimizing or denying that their experiences of abuse are real.”
There’s a lot of potential blowback too—which is a large part of what’s prevented me from disclosing my abuser, at least so far.
“The person who discloses must be prepared for being branded a liar or an opportunist, or for being blamed for destroying a family, a community, or a reputation,” Vail says. “People loyal to the perpetrator can be very cruel in trying to protect that person and their image of him or her. This happens in families, for example, when a child tells someone about abuse in the family and gets blamed for the turmoil that results.”
This is why I stay quiet. Someone close to me recently asked who it was. In fear, I made up a story that a neighbor, whose name I could no longer recall, violated me one weekend while visiting family. I just couldn’t tell the truth, at least not yet. This makes me often feel isolated from everyone—even from myself, at times.
“Keeping the abuser’s name private often leads the survivor to make sense of the experience alone (or with a therapist), which can just be a lonely experience,” Vail says.
If you name your abuser publicly, a weight can be lifted off your shoulders—but you risk family and friends turning on you, blaming you for the trauma and defending the abuser. That’s the greatest fear I have. “It’s sadly common. It’s almost universal, at least to a degree,” Lundquist says. “Those individuals weren’t your friends to begin with. That’s probably a very easy thing to say, but it’s important.”
Like all mental and emotional sexual-assault issues, of course, there’s no way to generalize the effects across the board. Typically, though, this negative response from family and friends is a defense mechanism.
“Detractors don’t want to believe that what happened really happened; it can make things difficult if they do believe it. Maybe it goes against their preconceived ideas of the perpetrator,” Elliott says.
That’s when victim blaming sets in. “They blame the victim for putting themselves in that circumstance, being seductive, being attractive, all kinds of things. It might be hard to withstand this kind of stuff when you may already be raw from the assault.” In addition to seeking out support systems, live and online communities, and local therapists, find a friend or friends who actually have a clear perspective on what assault is, she says.
Worse still is being made out to be “crazy” or “delusional.” “In every environment, there are abusers and those who enable that abuse. The people who enable the abuse can be particularly excruciating. It’s a crazy confidence game,” Lundquist says. “It’s part of what can allow these kinds of things to happen without repercussions. The enabler almost makes you angrier.”
Considering the possibility of retraumatization is also important in the early stages of recovery. “Sometimes, the very process of speaking to the police, speaking to HR, going to the press—that in and of itself can be re-traumatizing. It’s very much a case-by-case basis,” Lundquist says.
So What to Choose?
“I think it is always helpful for an injured person to tell the story and feel understood, but that doesn’t always need to take place in public; people have been crying on each other’s shoulders with great benefit for as long as there have been people,” Vail says.
“The people who have been hurt should feel entitled to stay within their comfort zones with regard to speaking out publicly; the backlash might feel just as bad as the abuse and thus not be worth it. But if someone is willing to brave the consequences and wants to speak out, the experience can be very freeing. It just probably won’t be uncomplicated.”
Whichever path you choose, you’ll probably have to face both negative and positive consequences, so it’s a good idea to prepare yourself before you experience them. “Try to have support in place for either course of action,” Vail says. “And don’t feel forced to do something that doesn’t feel right—that can be what the abuse experience felt like, and you don’t need another helping of that.”
“Their experience of violation and assault is theirs and theirs alone,” Elliott says. “They’ve already had a violation of their boundary, so their right to choose on this piece shouldn’t be another violation. Often, survivors get a lot of people telling them what to do. This can be hard to withstand, but in the end, reclaiming their rights, including the right to disclose or not, can be a very important part of their healing.”
Another piece of the puzzle is personal safety. “It’s not only OK to be looking out for your own safety, it’s imperative,” Lundquist says. “In grappling with competing interests in this struggle, it’s important to prioritize that. What’s the move that’s going to be the safest for you?” Lundquist says. “Even in a world where we seem to be giving an awful lot of attention to these issues, there are still people who are in environments where it isn’t safe for them to call out their abuser.
We, as a society, have work to do in that regard. It’s important that we not pile on yet another layer of blaming the victim in assuming they can always make moves that protect themselves. It’s gotta be safe, and that’s the most important thing.”
Jason Scott is a writer based in West Virginia. Itching for creative freedom, he founded his own music-discovery site called B-Sides & Badlands, which specializes in long-form writing and pointed cultural criticism. If you enjoy being woke and a flood of kitty pics, follow him on Twitter.