'That doesn't define me': What life is like after speaking out about sexual assault

Sarah Walsh and Ashley MacDonald discuss how their lives changed after they came out publicly with their stories of sexual assault.

2 women discuss how their lives changed after going public with their experiences

Sarah Walsh, left, and Ashley MacDonald say their lives changed after they came out as victims of sexual assault. (John Pike/Paula Gale/CBC)

For every 100 sexual assaults in Canada, five are reported to the police.

These numbers from Statistics Canada highlight the rarity of speaking out about sexual assault. But for the small group who of people who choose to go public, what happens then?

How does a person's life change after he or she has chosen to identify as a victim of sexual assault?

I definitely don't want to be known as the rape victim. That's not my goal in life.- Ashley MacDonald

Sarah Walsh and Ashley MacDonald have each spoken to the media separately about their experiences. They came together to speak to CBC Radio host Ted Blades about how their decisions affected their lives. 

MacDonald spoke publicly for the first time when she started a thank-you card project for the complainant in the sexual assault trial against RNC Const. Carl Douglas (Doug) Snelgrove,

"I felt really good [going public]," MacDonald told CBC Radio's On the Go. It's so cliché, [but] I felt lighter, because for the last almost five years, it's this thing that I have always felt like I'm not supposed to say. You're not supposed to talk about it. You worry about how people are going to look at you afterwards.

"And so once I had actually said it, it was just like 'Whoa. OK, that's done. All right, let's move on.'"

While MacDonald waited a few years to tell her story to the public, Walsh went public almost immediately to speak about her assault by a cab driver.

"It was at a point where realistically the police had done everything that they could, but they came to a standstill. We couldn't go any further. It never made it to trial, and I was just plain naked frustrated with the whole situation," Walsh said.

"I think that the reason that I decided to come forward was ultimately because of how many people that were friends of friends that had gone out of their way to message me and said that they had virtually the exact same experience, but they didn't go forward."

While both Walsh and MacDonald said most people have been supportive and kind, there has also been some backlash. Walsh said she got hateful messages on social media and even via mail to her mother's house.

"I did get a lot of messages vocalizing how I was a liar, or a slut, or how I deserved worse, and it was just a number of people that had gone out of their way to send something cruel and unnecessary based on my case," she said.

Professional and dating life affected

Both women said their sexual assaults are now a part of their identities and can affect their lives in ways they hadn't necessarily thought about, like when going on dates or job interviews.

"We live in the Google age," said Walsh. "If you go for a job interview there's a very real possibility that your tentative employers are going to Google you or look you up. And unfortunately for me, the first three results are on sexual assault in St. John's in Newfoundland."

MacDonald said a Google search of her name only shows one result relating to her, and it refers to her sexual assault.

We live in the Google age … and unfortunately for me, the first three results are on sexual assault.- Sarah Walsh

"As far as dating goes, it's definitely something I hadn't thought of in advance is that, 'Oh, this guy's already going to know that this happened to me. I'm not going to get to make the decision on when he knows,'" MacDonald said.

Walsh and MacDonald said they have no regrets about coming forward with their stories, despite the challenges they've faced. However, their sexual assaults are only one part of their lives.

"As much as I'm happy that I've come out publicly and told people about it and I feel like I've done something that's good for me and also, hopefully, for other people, I definitely don't want to be known as the rape victim. That's not my goal in life," MacDonald said.

"You're happy that you're getting the word out there and that you're doing something good, but I hope that other people will acknowledge that there is much more going on in my life than that. That doesn't define me."

You can listen to the entire interview from CBC Radio's On the Go here.

With files from On The Go