The psychological battle for women who go public about sexual violence

Silence can protect survivors of sexual assault, allow them to heal. Or it can isolate them, and let shame fester. So it’s hard to know when to break it.
Lauren McKeon, left, and Manya Whitaker, right, each chose to go public about sexual violence that they'd been silent about for years. (Yuli Schiedt, submitted by Manya Whitaker)
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Lauren McKeon says she was 16-years-old when she was raped for the first time, by a boy she knew, but it was many years later before she told anyone.

In the hours, days, weeks and years afterward, even as she experienced subsequent assaults, she kept quiet about what had happened; she was focused on surviving, coping with the emotional fallout of the attack and, eventually, beginning to heal, all of which needed to happen before she could consider breaking her silence.

"This idea of telling someone just gets scarier and scarier because eventually you're not just telling someone about your assault," she says.

"You're also telling them that you're depressed. And then you're also telling them that you self-harm. And you have to articulate what happened when it's this moment in time that you never want to return to again in your life."

Manya Whitaker says she was 15 when she was assaulted by a fellow student while she was at school, before being saved by another young man who pulled her attacker away.

Whitaker says she hurried to class afterwards and simply moved on. She didn't have the words to identify what had happened to her. She didn't think about that day until over a decade later when her rescuer popped up in her social media feed.

In that moment, she was flooded with a range of emotions as she realized that she now had the words; she had survived an act of sexual violence that was so normalized, she hadn't even been able to identify it at the time.

Breaking silence

Whitaker and McKeon both went on to write about their experiences. It was important to each of them to speak out, to help shift a culture that seemed to see these attacks as normal in some way, but that doesn't mean it was easy.

"I didn't want to be painted as the girl who was attacked. I didn't want that to be my legacy at the time. And I think that's the concern for many survivors," says Whitaker, "Because it's not as objective as 'I was mugged' or 'Someone broke into my house'. We have all these clues and evidence that support that story but when it's an interpersonal interaction, it's so subjective."

Whitaker adds that "many survivors... don't want to go through this battle continuously for weeks, months or sometimes years, and then at the end of it, all people know about them is, 'Oh, you're the one who said that this happened.' And I respect that people don't want to possess that identity."

Meanwhile, McKeon says you have to be ready to cope with the unknowns of what will happen once you disclose. In her case, members of her family reacted with anger toward her mother because they felt like she should have known. Others figured they could casually ask her about the incident since she had written about it, even though that was extremely painful for McKeon.

"The thing about disclosure is that you don't know where to situate yourself after. It's something that you've held for so long and then you own it and then I think there is a moment where it feels like it's all of you," says McKeon.

"And now I'm in the moment where I'm trying to make myself even realize that it's just a part of me."

Breaking one's silence isn't the end of coping with sexual violence, it's the beginning of a new story that may or may not ultimately be freeing and healing. While movements such as #MeToo have motivated many survivors to make public disclosures, something both McKeon and Whitaker see as a powerful act, they also caution that the time must be right for the individual and you've got to have to supports in place to deal with what comes next. 

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This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Breaking Silence".