An Open Letter to Survivors of Sexual Assault
I’m sorry that you are reading this letter and I’m sorry for what you have been through. The experience of sexual assault leaves many survivors with painful and confusing thoughts and feelings. Many people have questions and concerns that we hope to address in this letter. No matter what, I hope you know that we believe you, you are not alone, and you did not deserve what happened to you. Whatever your process looks like, we will be here for you.
What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault is a form of violence between people that can be uniquely traumatizing. Any form of sexual touch or behavior that happens without the consent of every person involved is sexual assault. Anyone can be a survivor of sexual assault, no matter their age or gender, and anyone can commit sexual assault against another person. Though many of us were taught to fear things like “stranger danger,” the truth is that most survivors know the person who harmed them. There’s no certain kind of touch or contact you need to have experienced to “count.” Each person’s experience is their own; sexual assault is defined by the person who experiences it. We aren’t going to ask you to share what you’ve been through or justify your experience. If you feel that your consent was violated, that is enough.
What is consent?
Consent is a mutual agreement between people; in sexual situations, consent specifically refers to a person’s ability to say yes or no for whatever reasons they want, at whatever time they want, and trust that they will be respected. That means that consent is about more than just “yes” or “no.” Consent has to be freely-given, meaning that there can’t be consent if a person is pressured, threatened, or manipulated into saying yes. A person also can’t consent if they are intoxicated, unconscious, or asleep, and silence doesn’t count as saying yes. Consent also has to be enthusiastic, which means that there can only be consent if a person is saying yes because they truly want to engage in sexual contact, not because they feel they have to.
The overwhelming majority of sexual assaults do not result in serious injuries or involve weapons. Just because there wasn’t a weapon involved doesn’t mean that there wasn’t coercion or threat. And all sexual contact requires consent, regardless of who it is between. Even people in relationships have the right to give consent or take it away; it doesn’t matter if a person has consented previously, they still get to decide whether or not to consent each time. No one — not even doctors — has the right to touch our bodies without our consent.
Why did this happen? Why did it happen to me?
It is very difficult to say why sexual assault happens. But there is one thing that’s clear: there is only ever one person who is responsible for a sexual assault, and that is the perpetrator. Sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault; what happened to you was not your fault. There is nothing a person can do to deserve to be sexually assaulted. Sexual assault doesn’t result from what the survivor was doing or not doing, how they looked or acted, what they were wearing, how old they were, what their gender or sexuality is… People don’t commit sexual assault by accident; sexual assault is a choice that the perpetrator makes. In every case, the person who committed the assault could have chosen not to. And they should have.
It’s natural to have regrets and wish things happened differently. You can wish that you hadn’t been in the situation you were in without blaming yourself for being there. You can wish that you had responded differently without blaming yourself for your actions. During an assault, the decisions that people make are what enable them to survive the experience. Some people freeze, some people fight; whatever you had to do, then or now, to stay safe, sane, and alive is a choice we honor.
What should I be feeling?
There’s no right or wrong thing to feel right now. Some survivors feel angry, others sad, others totally numb. Sometimes, you might feel all those things at once. Everyone reacts differently to sexual trauma. You don’t have to feel any particular way in order to be a “real survivor” or to heal. Whatever emotions you are having are valid and okay. Partners, friends, and family members of survivors can react in ways that either support the survivor and reduce the symptoms of trauma, or add to the intensity of the negative experience (or sometimes both). Sometimes, the people close to a survivor expect particular kinds of reactions or respond to their own discomfort and fear by criticizing or blaming the survivor. Sometimes, they want the survivor to answer questions or explain their experience. You don’t owe anyone anything in this moment; you only owe it to yourself to heal the way you need to heal.
What should I do now?
We can help support you as you weigh your options and explore next steps, but you know yourself best. Each step is your choice. You are in charge and we trust you.
SASS can provide education and emotional support to you and your partners, friends, and family members. We are available 24/7 via our Crisis & Support Line and in-person during drop-in hours or by appointment. We hope you reach out if we can be of help to you in this challenging time. No matter what, we believe you and we are here to support you.