To speak is to ask to be heard. When what you have to say will be damaging, to both yourself and to those you ask to listen, how do you decide to speak? When what you have to say will create devastating, life-changing upheaval, for you and the people you love most, how do you speak up? This is a question that every rape victim must face. Just contemplating what revealing rape to someone else will mean, for you and for them, is crushing. Simply mentioning the word ‘rape’ makes most people squirm silently, or loudly, in discomfort and embarrassment. There are very few people who have any idea how to respond to and acknowledge rape. When you then add to this, the distressing history of response to rape victims – disbelief, blame, public humiliation, shame and abuse (a history that most women are only too aware of) – the decision to speak becomes even more burdened with anguish and stress.
The fear of receiving a negative or dismissive response in return for disclosing such an intimate and distressing truth about yourself is a dreadful disincentive to speak. To have your truth denied, refused, dismissed, belittled, misunderstood, misconstrued or in anyway not listened to in a gentle, receptive, open manner can feel like the acts of the rapist are being repeated. To speak up is to insist upon your unique presence in the world, on your right to be heard. You can only speak up if you believe in yourself. The rapist has already declared violently and arrogantly that your voice doesn’t need to be respected, has dismissed you outright and through the very physical nature of the assault has seared this dismissal into your very flesh. To reclaim your voice, you must directly counter this act, you must dismiss the rapist and all that he did. You must assert your worth in direct contrast to his assertion of your worthlessness. This requires great strength and courage and considerable self-esteem. None of which are readily created by the experience of rape.
Those to whom you disclose, and those who choose to hear you and support you, will likely go through many of the same impacts as you. They will feel shock, horror, fear, distress, anxiety, anger, sadness, confusion, hurt and loss. To acknowledge rape and, further, to acknowledge that rape is such a common and widespread feature of all societies worldwide that it is actually, technically, a crime of pandemic proportions, means confronting a radically different world view from that which most of us would choose. A world of violence, of injustice, of cruelty and brutality. A world of systematic inequality where over half the population is refused such basic human rights as safety from harm and the right to choose how, when, where and why they will engage in sexual activity.
These are all devastating ramifications of the choice to disclose. Consequences that will be circulating endlessly in the mind of anyone in this situation. Worst of all, though, is that it really isn’t a choice at all. No one who could confide in those they love, in their supporters, in their local police force and the people who are instructed with enforcing the law and ensuring their safety, would choose not to disclose. It is simply that many people feel they must keep their trauma a secret because bearing the hurt alone is a lesser burden than running the risk of being dumped with these injurious effects on top of everything else. Yet again, rape – the lack of choice, the refusal to listen, the brutal disrespect and the manipulative harm – is the paradigm you are forced to enact.
Fortunately, in Australia at least, much work has been done, and continues to be done, to ensure that these consequences are becoming less common. In the aftermath of my rape, still reeling from the shock, I somehow figured out that I should at least talk to my doctor. It took me a few days to actually make it happen and I was barely able to string the words together to convey my reason for being there, but nonetheless in return for my disclosure my very supportive and well-resourced (female) GP, responded with calm and considerate care and, immediately after taking care of me, referred me to my local CASA (Centre Against Sexual Assault), where I received outstanding support, comfort, information and choice. The power of such positive and supportive responses to disclosure is to undo some of the damage that rape has set in motion – they reject the dismissal, the degradation, the violation of the assault and instead, confirm your worth, your rights and your capacity for agency. They restore some of your faith in yourself, your community and the world around you. Most of all, they ensure that responsibility is allocated, exactly as it should be, solely to the attacker. Disclosing that you have been the victim of a violent and degrading crime is unlikely to ever be other than a halting, terrifying and heart-breaking process but with genuine and knowledgeable support, information and concern it can be a manageable and even somewhat healing process.