Surviving Sexual Assault Part 3: The survivor's journey

Emma Leaning
While no experience is the same, there is a universal truth: All survivors of sexual trauma have lost something. But is there potential for growth after trauma?
Emma Leaning

Edited by Zhou Shengjie. Subtitles by Wang Xinzhou.

What defines you? It's a big question. Is it your beliefs, your work, a passion, or the people you love? Should we define you by the ways you've been broken or how you were pieced together? Are you one thing, or are you many? Society likes to put things and people in boxes, but most of us occupy more than one space. We are neither the darkest moments in our lives nor the brightest, and when other people take control of our narrative, part of our story goes untold.

While no experience is the same, there is a universal truth: All survivors of sexual trauma have lost something. Usually "that thing" is the safe, predictable world they once knew. Being confronted by someone else's pain is a daunting experience because we're often afraid of doing or saying "the wrong thing." But we don't need to be experts in the lives of others. By listening with intent, we empower people to define themselves, and in doing so forge another truth: There's potential for growth after trauma.

In the last of our three-part series on sexual assault, we reconnect with Megan and Tonye to learn more about the individual's journey from victim to survivor. We also hear from Shanghai's leading mental health professionals about how we as a community can support.

Support takes various forms

Surviving Sexual Assault Part 3: The survivor's journey
Courtesy of Sabeen Irfan

Sabeen Irfan, senior manager of satellite clinics and mental health service line at United Family Healthcare

As Tonye speaks of the warmth and love she felt from her grandma, one can hear how much it mattered at that moment. Family and friends play crucial roles in the healing journey, but it's worth noting that support takes various forms. Survivors don't need answers to all questions. You can help someone in the aftermath of an assault by listening attentively, staying calm, offering a hug, or even sitting with them in silence.

Losing control or power during an assault often troubles people the most, and it's important to keep this in mind while they share experiences. Don't tell a survivor what to do. Instead, allow them the space and time to express emotions, and empower them to make decisions on their own. It is up to the individual who they share their experience with, so reassurance of confidentiality is essential. And while we might make suggestions on seeking professional help, doing so must be the survivor's choice. Healing is a journey of highs and lows that can take years. Those supporting survivors need to be patient while caring for themselves to avoid emotional burnout.

You almost certainly know someone who's experienced sexual trauma

Surviving Sexual Assault Part 3: The survivor's journey
Courtesy of Louise Roy

Louise Roy, director of operations at Ferguson Health

Listening to Megan and Tonye share their trauma, you might think: "Wow, I'm lucky." And if so, great; you're currently one of the two-in-three women or five-in-six men who haven't experienced sexual assault. Or perhaps you're thinking: "I don't even know anyone who's been sexually assaulted." But look back at that statistic: One-in-three women and one-in-six men will experience sexual assault or violence during their lifetime. This sad fact means you almost certainly do know someone who's experienced sexual trauma.

On sharing her experience, Tonye said: "I was afraid of the reaction." It's common for well-meaning loved ones to say something that inadvertently adds to a survivor's trauma. Rape and sexual assault are crimes that affect people differently. Similarly, people's response to a friend or family member sharing their story is personal. Responses are affected by factors like our past and myths or beliefs about rape and assault. Accepting sexual trauma can (and does) happen to anyone is the first step to becoming a safer person in a survivor's life. Sexual assault is never the victim's fault. Take this lesson further by learning how to respond should a trauma be revealed to you.

Focus on how trauma affects the individual

Surviving Sexual Assault Part 3: The survivor's journey
Courtesy of Lorraine Lee

Lorraine Lee, mental health advocate at Inward

Survivors can struggle with their identity after a sexually traumatic experience. There's an internal battle against stereotypes and stigmas that we've all learned by observing public opinion about sexual assault or rape. Tonye's mention of an ill-informed comment about her rape really hit home for me. As a fellow survivor, part of my battle was how the details of my trauma would be perceived. Would it be picked apart? Would it change who I was in the eyes of others?

The specifics of any trauma are for the survivor to share if they ever want to. Society's job is to focus on how that trauma affects the individual. There's no room for comparison or judgement, and a person's response and needs are as unique as our own biology. To reiterate what's been said, we don't need to be experts in the lives of others. To support someone through their experience of sexual violence, focus on your words. Will they lift the individual up or tear them down? And if you've no idea what to say, there's this:

"I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for you to experience what you have. I want to thank you for trusting me enough to share something so personal, it must have taken a lot of courage. I want you to know I think you are incredibly brave, and if there is anything I can do to support you, please let me know."

Growth after trauma is possible

Surviving Sexual Assault Part 3: The survivor's journey
Courtesy of Pete Rogers

Pete Rogers, director of counseling at Community Center Shanghai

Impossible as it may seem, there's potential for growth following trauma. In the mid-1990s, psychologists explored the concept of post-traumatic growth (PTG) to explain the reality that many people recover from trauma and are positively transformed in its aftermath. Put differently, victims developed a better understanding of how to live their lives through increased self-awareness, more intentionality in their relationships, and a focus on future choices they wished to pursue.

While related, PTG and resilience are not the same things. Resilience refers to our ability to bounce back to "normal" after stressful or traumatic life events. PTG, however, speaks of the growth that can occur when core beliefs about oneself (relationships, family, etc.) get challenged in ways that help us understand ourselves and our place in the world more powerfully than we did pre-trauma. In other words, and to echo the stories of Megan and Tonye, growth after trauma is possible. With support and intentionality, you can grow into the fullness of whom you're meant to be.

Healing through our free support groups

Surviving Sexual Assault Part 3: The survivor's journey
Courtesy of Hu Bojun

Hu Bojun, clinical psychologist at United Family Healthcare

In a support group made up of similar experiences, people gain a safe, non-judgmental and confidential space to share how past traumatic events affect their current lives. Members can feel freer speaking about their thoughts and feelings when empathic others are listening and sharing in return.

Tonye and Megan co-facilitate in a free support group run by United Family Hospital in partnership with Community Center Shanghai, Ferguson Health and Inward. In real-time, our groups go through different stages of healing that include finding safety, reclaiming one's voice, mourning loss and (re)creating oneself in relationships. Members practice talking about their difficult experiences and meet the range of negative and positive feelings within themselves. They understand what compassion and support mean for them, whether from within or the people around them, and help one another set and negotiate safe physical and emotional boundaries. With co-facilitators' support, members learn to trust and empower each other to develop resilient coping strengths.

As Megan and Tonye powerfully voiced, trauma does not define a person, but how one heals from it can.

Surviving Sexual Assault Part 3: The survivor's journey
Surviving Sexual Assault Part 3: The survivor's journey

You can scan the QR code in the poster below to help provide free or subsidized medical and counseling care to victims of domestic violence or sexual assault.

Surviving Sexual Assault Part 3: The survivor's journey

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