- Telling Loved Ones About Sexual Assault
- Thinking about disclosing?
- How should I tell someone?
- Talking to a romantic partner about sexual assault
- Emotions of the person you disclose to
- Supportive and unsupportive reactions
- Tips for dealing with unsupportive reactions
- Planning your disclosure
- When To Tell a New Partner You’re a Sexual Assault Survivor
- “It took me a decade to start talking openly about being a survivor with friends and family.”
- How Sexual Assault Changes You
- “I’m nearly 30 and no one had ever told me that I have the right to consent.”
- A Sexual Assault Survivor in the #MeToo Era
- “It’s alarming that none of the men I’ve told are aware they’ve ly been with survivors before.”
- How to Start the Survivor Conversation
- “When you’re ready to broach the subject with a new partner, put your needs first.”
- “If they react poorly, be ready to find nurturing and nourishment elsewhere to repair any harm done by a conversation which didn’t meet your expectations and needs.”
Telling Loved Ones About Sexual Assault
It can be hard to talk about an experience with sexual violence, and sometimes it may feel most daunting to bring it up with people you are closest to, such as family, friends, or a romantic partner.
Whether you choose to tell others right away or years later, or prefer not to disclose is completely up to you.
If you’re considering telling someone about what happened, below are a few questions you may want to ask yourself beforehand, tips to help prepare for the conversation, and ways to cope with unhelpful reactions if they occur.
This article does not cover questions you may have about deciding to report to law enforcement. For more information, please see reporting to law enforcement.
If you are under 18 or over 65, you should be aware that some people are legally required to report what you tell them to the authorities. Who is a “mandatory reporter” varies by state, but often includes teachers, childcare workers, eldercare workers, and some members of the clergy. To learn the laws in your state, visit RAINN’s databases on children or the elderly.
Thinking about disclosing?
Telling someone that you’ve experienced sexual violence is 100% up to you. There is no one-size-fits-all that applies to survivors—each person’s story and healing journey are unique.
There are many different reasons why survivors choose to disclose or not to.
Remember, deciding to tell your story doesn’t have to mean sharing every detail—it’s your decision to tell as little or as much as you’re comfortable with.
How should I tell someone?
Talking about sexual assault is never easy, but if you do choose to tell someone about your experiences, it can be helpful to have a plan about how you would to do it. Below are a few suggestions for what you might want to consider before disclosing to a loved one. It can also be helpful to discuss some of these questions with RAINN’s hotline staff or a therapist you trust.
What. What you choose to share about your story is completely up to you.
If the person you’re telling does not know how to respond and is trying to think of something to say to you, they may end up asking for details of what happened. Just because they asked doesn’t mean you have to tell them.
You can always say, “I wanted to tell you that this happened to me but I don’t feel comfortable sharing any more details about it right now.”
From what you know about the person you are planning to tell, do you think they will react in a supportive way? Have you heard them make unsupportive or judgemental remarks about sexual assault when it comes up in the news? Have they shared an experience they have had with sexual assault? Do they know the perpetrator, and if so, could this affect their reaction to your disclosure?
When. It will be best to have the full attention of the person you are disclosing to and also give them time to process what you’ve shared. If someone is about to go to sleep, leave the house, or is intoxicated, consider waiting for a better time to tell them.
Where. If you feel safe with the person you are disclosing to, then it will probably be best to choose a private place to tell them about what happened. However, if you fear they might become angry or violent, a public location would be safer and you could ask someone you trust to come with you.
How. The way you choose to tell someone is about what will make you most comfortable. It can be in-person, over the phone, or in the form of a letter.
There are positive and negative aspects to each of these ways of telling someone, but it all comes down to what is right for you.
For instance, if you are worried about being interrupted or being asked too many questions, writing a letter could be helpful.
No matter how you choose to tell someone, it is a good idea to set some ground rules first. You can say something : “I’d to tell you about something that’s hard for me to talk about and it would mean a lot to me if you would just listen and not ask any questions.”
Talking to a romantic partner about sexual assault
Talking to a romantic partner about sexual assault can be difficult—whether the assault happened recently or decades in the past, and whether you just started dating or have been together for many years.
Though you don’t ever have to tell a romantic partner about sexual assault, if you’re sexually intimate with them it can help both of you to understand what you are comfortable with and anything you might want to avoid because of your past experiences. If you feel strong emotions or flashbacks during sex, it could be helpful to tell your partner how you would them to support you during these times.
Communicating with your partner about specific sexual activities or situations that make you uncomfortable doesn’t mean you have to tell them any details of what happened.
If you’re unsure how to bring it up, you can try something : “I am not ready to talk about it in too much detail, but I want to let you know that I don’t to do ____ and prefer instead ____ because of something really difficult that happened to me in the past.”
Emotions of the person you disclose to
You deserve to be listened to and supported when you choose to tell your story. However, the reality is that sometimes the conversation will not go the way you hope. Even with the best intentions, someone may not know how to react.
It is common for loved ones of a survivor to experience a range of emotions when learning that someone they care about has experienced sexual violence. Some survivors feel that they end up providing a lot of emotional support to the person they disclose to, which may not be helpful in the healing process. Here are a few emotions the person you are speaking to may be feeling:
- Anger. Many people you tell will feel anger toward the perpetrator and may express that they want to seek revenge on your behalf. This is a natural way to feel, but isn’t always helpful.
- Confusion. Sometimes the person you tell will be so scared of saying the wrong thing, that they’ll stall for time by asking lots of questions about the assault and what led up to it. Often, these questions will make it sound they’re blaming you for what happened, or suggesting that you could have avoided the attack by doing something different. If that’s how it’s coming across to you, let them know—and remind them that the best thing they can do to help is to just support you.
- Fear. Loved ones may fear for your safety and feel extremely protective. While it is OK to want to help, being overly protective of a survivor of sexual violence can take away their feelings of control over their own decisions.
- Frustration. Someone who cares about you may feel powerless to help. But healing is different for each survivor and may take a long time, and it is important for those supporting you to be patient.
- Guilt. Someone close to you may feel guilty or responsible for what happened to you, even if they are not. They may be trying to think of how they could have prevented this from happening, but the fact is that the only person responsible for the sexual assault is the perpetrator.
- Shock. It is natural to feel shocked and disturbed that someone they care about has experienced sexual violence, however sometimes this can come across as not believing the survivor's story.
Supportive and unsupportive reactions
Having someone react in a supportive way can be an important step toward healing and may help you feel comfortable sharing your story with more people. But even if disclosing goes well, it can still be an emotional experience—and that’s OK. Sometimes telling your story can bring back painful memories. This is natural. Remember, every survivor has a unique healing process.
Examples of supportive reactions to disclosing:
- They listen to you in a non-judgemental way.
- They show support by saying:
- “I believe you.”
- “It’s not your fault.”
- “You are not alone.”
- “I’m sorry this happened.”
- “I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.”
It can be very hurtful when someone you trust reacts in an unsupportive way. If you don’t receive a supportive reaction, it’s important to remember that this is reflective of them and not of you.
Examples of unsupportive reactions to disclosing:
- They doubt or question your story.
- They ask what you were wearing or doing when the assault occurred, making you feel blamed or shamed.
- They say you should have gotten over it by now.
It can be especially difficult to disclose to a family member if the perpetrator of the abuse was another family member. You can read our article on Help for Parents of Children Who Have Been Sexually Abused by Family Members for more information.
Tips for dealing with unsupportive reactions
The person you have told may not be providing the support you need, but remember that you are not alone. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org (y en español rainn.org/es).
If someone in your life isn’t supportive, that doesn’t mean that others won’t be.
However, while you determine to whom and whether you’ll share your story again, we recommend that you be kind to yourself and take care of your own needs as best as you can.
Ask yourself what you are feeling and think of self-care activities that help to ground you and make you feel better. Take a look at RAINN’s self-care page for some ideas.
Planning your disclosure
If you’d support developing a plan to disclose your experience with sexual violence, feel free to call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org (y en español rainn.org/es). We’re here to help you.
When To Tell a New Partner You’re a Sexual Assault Survivor
Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and trauma.
I’ve often found myself wondering if there’s a “right” time to unveil to a new love interest I was raped at 15 when I was a virgin.
My high school sweetheart, Travis, was the first person I told. We hadn’t had sex. When we did become intimate, we took things very slowly.
To date, no one has taken this information more carefully than he did, which motivates me to always tell a potential partner before intimacy.
I recently asked Travis how he felt when he found out I’d been raped.
“I thought, how could she let this happen? Why would she put herself in a position that this could happen? Why didn’t she fight back? The more you talked about it, I realized it wasn’t your fault.
I felt I wish I could’ve done something or been there to prevent it,” he said. I was the first person he’d been with who’d endured sexual trauma, as far as he knows.
It took me a decade to start talking openly about being a survivor with friends and family.
Only then did I realize that in order to have a meaningful relationship, I needed to be upfront about what had happened to me as early on in a budding relationship as possible.
Five years ago, I made a pact with myself to tell new sexual partners about being a rape survivor before sex, but never managed to do it.
“It took me a decade to start talking openly about being a survivor with friends and family.”
I followed through with the commitment for the first time this month.
I casually mentioned that I’d been raped as we stood on a hectic sidewalk in Vietnam waiting for street food — this wasn’t the best approach.
I was interested in this person and it looked things were moving towards intimacy. Not staying true to my promise had been eating away at me. I was so anxious that it just came out word vomit.
He reacted as they usually do — with shock, a tender touch, and a statement along the lines of “fuck, I’m so sorry.” Full stop. End of discussion. It’s excruciating to share something so personal so early on.
Our connection fizzled out a few days later for external circumstances.
We never had sex and I can’t help but wonder if he created distance between us once he learned I was a survivor of sexual assault, which would have been deal-breaker for me anyway.
The fear of being perceived as “damaged goods” has prevented me from keeping true to my promise. I’ve worried that sharing something so serious and “real” so quickly might scare men away. But then again, do I really want to be intimate with someone who isn’t capable of supporting me as a survivor? Honestly, probably not.
I have sexual triggers, which can give me violent flashbacks. There are moments every day when I remember I’m a survivor of sexual assault. I need a partner who is prepared to support me at times when I feel triggered.
Choking triggers violent flashbacks for me. Usually, I write it off by telling a partner I don’t being choked because I have asthma, which may play into it, but isn’t the full picture.
Omitting the truth makes me feel I should be ashamed.
How Sexual Assault Changes You
“Sexual assault may be a formative part of your life experience, as unwanted and your control as it was. It might be that surviving sexual assault has changed you and made you who you are. You wish it hadn’t happened, but it’s changed your perspective and informed the person you are and your values.
In this case, as a core part of your sense of self, it might be that you wouldn’t be interested in being with someone who is not accepting, understanding, or loving of who you are in all of your experiences,” says Counseling Psychologist Dr. Alex Kasozi.
“On the other hand, the experience of sexual assault may have left you feeling vulnerable, ashamed, and self-blaming — as sadly it so often does. You may have strong beliefs about yourself about being unclean or unworthy. In this case, you are in a much more vulnerable position.
Your partner’s response can either help to begin to shatter these negative core beliefs or continue to affirm them,” she continues.
In the past, I’ve mustered up the courage to tell some lovers I had a traumatic sexual past. I spewed out the bare minimum details of what had happened to me one evening on the beach to Maikel after we’d been dating for a few weeks and were already sexually active. I’d never told someone I didn’t know very well before. I was absolutely terrified.
He told me I was the first sexual assault survivor he’d been with, to the best of his knowledge. At first, he thought someone who had been sexually assaulted would not enjoy sex as much, but reassured me that I disproved this immediately. This sort of sentiment makes me hesitant to tell future potential lovers who might make similar assumptions.
“I’m nearly 30 and no one had ever told me that I have the right to consent.”
Talking about sexual assault with my romantic partners hasn’t gotten any easier. I didn’t tell my ex-boyfriend Julio about being raped until I was re-traumatized when I was sexually assaulted in Morocco. When I told him, he was in disbelief.
Just Maikel, I was the first person Julio had been intimate with who’d been raped and told him about it.
“Rape was something that happens in the movies or to other people you know — all of a sudden I was sharing my life with a rape survivor,” Julio said.
I told Julio more than I’d ever shared with anyone else. It wasn’t easy. He’d be angry and upset that I was suffering — I often felt I had to console him. These were conversations we had to have, as it’s a major part of who I am today.
I never felt our chats about sexual assault impacted our intimacy. I asked Julio if knowing I’m a rape survivor changed his perception of me: “I felt pity for you, but, I began to understand more about you.
I know why you are so strong and caring, why you want to help people, and how you feel towards injustice,” he said.
A Sexual Assault Survivor in the #MeToo Era
My relationship with Julio ended right at the dawning of the #metoo era. Suddenly, I found myself in what I call the “age of consent” for the first time. I’m nearly 30 and no one had ever told me that I have the right to consent.
For a year after we broke up, I stayed celibate, mostly fear my experiences with sexual assault. Eventually, I started engaging in casual sexual activity but it felt hollow after being in a serious relationship.
I value meaningful connection and respect above all else so I knew it was time to invoke my pledge to be open-hearted and discuss being a rape survivor with new partners.
I started dating Martin but didn’t keep my vow — I slept with him without disclosing my past trauma. I shared the story of being forcibly masturbated on and mentioned it triggered PTSD from being raped. He held me tightly and didn’t say much. I was the first sexual assault survivor he’d been with — at least as far as he knows.
It’s alarming that none of the men I’ve told are aware they’ve ly been with survivors before.
In the United States, someone is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN).
It appears few survivors tell their partners, which isn’t surprising, considering the stigma surrounding sexual assault and how very few survivors actually attain justice.
“It’s alarming that none of the men I’ve told are aware they’ve ly been with survivors before.”
The fear I have about being treated differently by a partner hasn’t been realized but it isn’t irrational either. Brooke is a sexual assault survivor who hasn’t figured out how to tell partners about her rape, as her past attempts have never gone well.
“I told a partner I lost my virginity at age 12 and he said, ‘At age 12? What’s wrong with you?’ One told me he no longer found me sexually attractive. Another asked me if I thought about my rapist when he fucked me. The same guy also told me I fucked a rape victim,” she told me.
These reactions aren’t just disappointing, they’re incredibly dangerous.
How to Start the Survivor Conversation
As Brooke has experienced, you may be ready to share your truth but you can’t be certain how someone will respond. Their reaction is exclusively a reflection of them, not you or your experiences.
If you’re considering telling someone you’re a sexual assault survivor, try to assess first if they can hold space for you in case you experience flashbacks while sharing.
Kenya Crawford, a mental health counselor specializing in working with sexual assault trauma survivors, says those who are active listeners — meaning they have strong communication skills, show compassion, and emotional intelligence — are ly to be the most equipped to provide adequate support for a survivor.
Crawford suggests having conversations about sexual assault with a new love interest that aren’t related to your personal experience in order to learn about their beliefs and potential biases. “You may uncover your prospective partner is attuned to oppressive structures specifically impacting survivors of sexual assault,” they say.
When you’re ready to broach the subject with a new partner, put your needs first. You only need to share what you feel is important. You’re not obligated to answer any uncomfortable questions. Avoid downplaying the seriousness of the conversation in order to ease the tension. If your partner is worthy of your time, energy, and affection, they’ll want to be there for you.
“When you’re ready to broach the subject with a new partner, put your needs first.”
Setting expectations can help avoid reactions, which could be damaging. Think about what their reaction will mean for you and preface the conversation with an explicit disclosure about your needs.
Understand your intention behind sharing your experiences with sexual assault.
For me, it’s important to share my experiences of sexual assault with those I’m intimate with so I can feel safe to express my feelings.
“Communicating what you need before disclosing a trauma can be helpful in increasing the lihood of feeling positive after the interaction. Say something ‘I’m going to tell you something which happened to me. I want to tell you but I’m feeling scared/vulnerable/exposed/nervous. I need you to respond with kindness and empathy, can you do that?'” suggests Dr. Kasozi.
This primes your potential sexual partner to be supportive of you and sets the stage for open, honest, and respectful communication throughout your relationship. You may also want to reiterate that you want to have a healthy sex life if that resonates with you.
Be clear about any triggers you may have, how you avoid them, and ways to support you when you’re triggered is also crucial.
If they react poorly, be ready to find nurturing and nourishment elsewhere to repair any harm done by a conversation which didn’t meet your expectations and needs.
“Self-love and compassion are things we’re not very good at — particularly if we’ve endured others mistreatment and been assaulted. You’re so worth every drop of kindness, love, and compassion you were hoping to get. If someone else lets you down it’s not because you don’t deserve it.
Telling yourself this can help to stop the further entrenchment of negative beliefs about yourself.” says Dr. Kasozi.
“If they react poorly, be ready to find nurturing and nourishment elsewhere to repair any harm done by a conversation which didn’t meet your expectations and needs.”
“Every survivor engages with their story differently. Some find liberation in sharing while others choose to selectively share their story, if ever. The decision is solely up to the survivor.
Disclosure does not define healing. A survivor is a survivor regardless of their disclosure,” says Kenya Crawford, a mental health counselor specializing in working with sexual assault trauma survivors.
Ultimately, it’s a personal choice whether or not you chose to disclose you’re a survivor of sexual assault. If you do decide to disclose, only you know when you’re ready to reveal your history with sexual assault to a potential partner.
It will require you to feel comfortable and have a level of trust, which forms at various stages of a relationship.
Once you’ve formed a strong bond and are empathetic to each other’s experiences, it’s more ly you’ll be able to create a safe space for divulging you’re a sexual assault survivor… if that’s what you want to do, at least.
If you’ve experienced sexual violence and are in need of support, call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).