Strength in Vulnerability: A survivor’s story
Content warning: This article discusses instances of violence and sexual assault.
I could see my intake form on the clipboard in her lap — she was fidgeting with the pen attached to it, trying to not make eye contact. When she finally looked up, I could see the tears in her eyes. She was the first therapist I saw, and being a psychology student myself, I knew that a clinician crying during a session is a cardinal sin. I thought, how fucked up must I be to make her cry in our first session?
I wasn’t comfortable with being vulnerable, and I didn’t like the idea of sharing the darkest parts of myself that I hated the most with someone I didn’t even know. Her tears felt like a betrayal since I had worked up enough courage to finally open up and ask for help, and it was too much, even for a professional.
Walking back to my dorm, my rage settled into numbness as my mind recalled the moment this all came out in the first place, a memory that I had shoved deep down and compartmentalized for three years. This time, though, I knew I was too triggered to block it out, so I sighed and allowed it to begin replaying in my head, knowing full well it would feel more like reliving it than just remembering it.
My throat hurt from screaming, but my body was locked in a fetal position, and I couldn’t stop crying. I could move my eyes, and I could see the terrified expression on my mother’s face. She cried, almost as hard as I did, while I explained to her that the trauma of being molested as a child had finally caught up to me after holding it in for nearly 10 years.
When stories of child sexual abuse come out, it’s inevitable for the “Why didn’t you tell anyone sooner?” questions to crop up. For many survivors, like myself, the answers are often complex and multifaceted. The statistics of child sexual abuse are startling and unsettling: 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse in the US.
My hope in sharing my story is to use it as an opportunity for learning what we can do differently to protect children from this trauma.
Given what I now know from being involved in this subfield of psychology, I have identified several protective measures that could’ve helped me and certainly may help others.
Like many, I received the standard “stranger danger” talk from my parents, so I knew to report if a stranger tried hurting me. However, 90% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone that the child or child’s family knows and trusts. Conversely, not every child sex offender is an adult, with more than 70% of children being sexually abused by a peer. The reality is that abusers can be neighbors, friends, other children, or family members.
My case aligns with each of these statistics as I was repeatedly molested by someone that my family and I knew and trusted when I was around 8 years old. This often leads to immense confusion, as we all like to believe the people we trust would never hurt us. Emphasizing consent and body boundaries is critical in eliminating this confusion, as it’s far easier for a child to identify if someone, regardless if it’s a stranger or if they know them, is violating their consent.
Perpetrators of child sexual abuse will often dedicate “special” nicknames for children’s sex organs, which can make it more difficult for a child to communicate what’s happening to them if they’re unable to label where they’re being victimized. Educating kids about their bodies in an anatomically accurate way can eliminate this barrier.
The traditional awkward “sex talk” needs a significant update. As sexual development is ongoing, it’s time to move away from a one-off awkward conversation and towards continuous conversations about sexuality. Treating these conversations with openness, honesty, and security encourages healthy attitudes and relationships with sexuality.
However, a common misconception is that talking to kids about sexuality will make them engage in sexual behavior sooner and more frequently, however, this is a myth, much like the misconception that asking someone if they’re suicidal will put the idea in their head.
Education equals prevention, so the rule of thumb in this field is the sooner these conversations happen, the better. Fostering safe and supportive dialogue surrounding sexual development can make all the difference.
It’s an indescribable burden to bear as a survivor; the weight of responsibility to heal from these experiences. I wish I had been more forgiving and empathetic to myself for being molested, but I did what many survivors do and blamed myself. I was also angry with my parents because I felt they failed me when they had an opportunity to put me in therapy following my disclosure, but didn’t. It’s taken two therapists and three years of weekly sessions for me to let most of my anger go. I have forgiven the person who abused me, but as I say to my therapist, “I've forgiven it, but my body will never forget it."
It’s taken several years of self-growth, empathy, forgiveness, acceptance and countless hours of therapy for me to feel healed enough to pursue a career in this field. Since August of 2022 I have been lucky enough to work with Dr. Raymond Knight of the Psychology department at Brandeis University, in his sexual violence lab. My master’s thesis is on identifying characteristics of child sex offenders with the hopes of exposing commonalities of behavior and traits.
The clinical application of this research is to educate communities on developing prevention and intervention efforts to reduce child sexual abuse. After all, “child sexual abuse is preventable, not inevitable,” according to the Johns Hopkins Moore Center for Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse.
The reason I decided to finally share my story publicly is the same reason why I still show up and work on myself in therapy every week: because there is so much strength in vulnerability.
Resources for survivors:
"Sexual violence is devastating, and with so many differences between individual experiences, it can feel impossible to know what to do or where to turn when it happens. Thankfully, there are an abundance of resources to help survivors, and the people who love them, access information about support services to navigate through this trauma. I've listed several of them below, but please note this list is not exhaustive, for more information you can always contact the student counseling center at Brandeis, call 1-800-656-4673 to access the National Sexual Assault Hotline, or visit https://www.psychologytoday.com/us to find a mental health professional.
1. "If you have been the victim of non-consensual porn (AKA "revenge porn") please use this resource guide to find out what you can do to have the images removed from the internet, and find support services: https://consumer.ftc.gov/articles/what-do-if-youre-target-revenge-porn#:~:text=Call%20this%20hotline.,878%2DCCRI%20(2274).
2. "This is a resource guide for anyone aware of the creation, distribution or ownership of child sexual exploitation materials (CSEM), through the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children: https://www.missingkids.org/gethelpnow/cybertipline
3. "For anyone who is or knows a victim of child sexual abuse, this is a PDF of all the federally funded resources available for survivors to access, organized by county in Massachusetts": https://www.mass.gov/doc/child-physical-sexual-abuse-services-by-county-printable-document/download
4. "The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) publishes a resource guide for survivors of sexual violence to access support through every step of the experience including 'where to get help', 'about sexual assault', 'what you can do', 'after sexual assault': https://www.nsvrc.org/survivors
5. "This is a resource guide specifically for friends & family of survivors of sexual assault, The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) provides resources to help people learn how they can be there for their loved ones": https://www.nsvrc.org/friends-family
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