As I watched the video of a group of pink-hatted women sing I Cant’ Keep Quiet at the Women’s March last weekend, my eyes filled with tears. As a survivor of sexual violence, I know what it’s like to feel silenced. And I know what it’s like to find my voice in small and big ways. As a survivor, I want to be seen, heard and believed. But for many survivors – men and women – the desire for visibility still comes at a cost.
In an era where online sharing dominates the culture and survivors are front and center in public campaigns to prevent and end sexual violence, it’s easy to feel pressured or obligated to go public. But going public isn’t the right choice for every survivor.
And staying silent doesn’t make a survivor any less brave.
That’s what struck me when I met Karen, a recent survivor of workplace sexual assault. Her experience was harrowing: raped by a senior leader as a recent college graduate and then interrogated by internal investigators only to learn that her company would not take action against her assailant. Traumatized and betrayed by a company she loved, she quit.
As much as she wanted to go public with her story, the risks of doing so clearly outweighed the benefits. First, she risked her financial security. Like most survivors of workplace sexual violence, her severance was tied to a confidentiality agreement preventing her from speaking publicly about the company or its employees. Second, she risked her privacy. Going public against a company would likely make her a target of journalistic – and non-journalistic – investigation, with online sleuths seeking to uncover every detail of her life and discredit her in some way. Third, she risked friendships, as some people in her life believed these things were private matters, not to be shared with the world. And finally, she risked her own blossoming pathway to healing and recovery. Every disclosure can feel emotionally exhausting, draining the energy needed for self-care and preservation.
But Karen, like other survivors, was plagued with a sense of obligation, and felt going public was some kind of measure of her commitment to the movement, to activism and to advocacy. Despite the solidarity that some sexual assault survivors (mostly the female ones) found in the momentum leading to the Women’s March, many of them still face the very real emotional, psychological and economic challenges that come with going public. Whether silenced, quiet or public, all survivors deserve attention, support and a chance to pay their experiences forward, should they so desire.
My decision to go public in the age of the internet came fifteen years after going public for the first time as a speaker at a campus Take Back the Night rally. At that time, a campus speech did not become a viral, digital tattoo. After college, as a young professional working in the nonprofit sector, I never figured out a way to incorporate my survivor status into my elevator pitch or resume. While I never kept this part of my life a secret, the topic of sexual violence simply never came up professionally or even among a growing circle of friends and acquaintances. On the one hand, I relished the fact that my emotional and psychological scars were now invisible. I didn’t have to engage in uncomfortable conversations, or wonder what people thought or said about me.
On the other hand, I recognized the privilege I carried as a survivor who did get access to help and healing, had a wonderful and supportive network of relationships, and a career track record that actually could withstand some potential judgment. The family members who abused me were dead, and I was at peace with those still living. I had two decades worth of social capital to spend as I chose. My self-care practice was strong enough to withstand a barrage of online commentary and the frequent disclosures that might come my way.
My understanding of what public meant had also matured. Sharing my story still meant there might be parts I kept to myself. I no longer felt obligated to answer every invasive question about my abuse or assault – and had picked up some professional pivot techniques to boot. I was far enough along in recovery that there was more for me to talk about than just the trauma itself. I was prepared to set boundaries with friends and acquaintances who sought me out for support, and had relationships with organizations and professionals to help me carry that weight.
Ultimately, I made the choices right for me and for my family, just as every survivor should.
When people tell me I’m brave, I tell them all survivors are brave. Every breath you take after someone steals your dignity is bravery.
Going public is a calculated choice, and not the only choice that can make my experience mean something. It’s not a requirement to be an effective advocate or movement leader. And it’s something I’ll keep doing until survivors like Karen don’t have to risk so much to have their voices be heard too.