On Monday, I spoke at UMass Boston’s Take Back the Night as a part of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center’s survivor speaker bureau. The speakers bureau has been a great way to tell my story for the purpose of breaking silence, dispelling myths, and educating the community about the realities of sexual assault.
BARCC’s training for this program is excellent. For me, I was comfortable talking about my experiences but the training provided some additional tips and approaches that open the door for questions and discussion – an important part of the education process.
Here’s the gist of it:
- I tell my story in 5 minutes. No easy challenge for a story that spans more than 20 years and involves more than one type of sexual assault. But shortening it makes it easier to tell and leaves lots of time for questions and answers.
- I leave the audience some hooks so they feel invited to ask questions. For example, here are some of my hooks:
- This was not the first or last time I was sexually assaulted, but it was the first time I told anyone.
- There were some ways I coped that were unhealthy and hurtful – ask me to tell you more about them when I’m done
- My therapist worked in many creative ways – not just talk therapy – remind me to tell you more about that.
- I make it clear that it’s MY story, and don’t make it about statistics, theories of violence, or anything other than just my story. This frees me up to be the expert on my experience, and the BARCC volunteer who accompanies me can handle the rest.
By telling my story in this way, it breaks the ice for questions and people feel like they have permission to ask if they want to learn more. I also make a statement about questions before I speak that goes something like this: I’ve been telling my story for many years, and I can’t imagine that any question you ask will be one I haven’t heard before. So don’t worry about offending me or hurting my feelings. If you happen to be the one person who asks the one question I don’t want to answer, I’ll just tell you that I don’t want to answer it.
Finally, I’m often asked why I choose to tell my story when it’s just as easy not to tell it. A long time ago, someone I really liked and respected told me that I SHOULDN’T tell my story because it made me a martyr and people would look at me as a victim, not an advocate. This comment stuck with me for many years, and I worried that my professional or personal circles might look at me differently if I started making my experience of sexual violence part of my public personal narrative. I thought that people would think I was crazy or damaged, or not capable of doing my job. Then I decided he was wrong and his perspective reflected exactly the dynamic I seek to change by speaking out. If I had been injured by a drunk driver or survived cancer, no one would think twice about me telling my story publicly, as a way to educate the community, or even as a part of my standard personal introduction in a new group of people. But because it’s sexual violence, it’s viewed as shameful. This is one reason I speak out – I want to change that dynamic and lead by example
The second reason I speak out is because I feel lucky to be here. The universe smiled on me. The right therapist called me back at the right time. I found friends who supported me. My parents had money to pay for the treatment I needed. I owe it to those who don’t have the same timing and luck as me to speak out and give them hope. I owe it to the friends and family members of survivors who really want to help but don’t know what to do and area afraid to ask. So feel free to ask me about my story – I’m happy to answer any questions!