The following advice has been written by Karestan Koenen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Dr. Koenen is a licensed clinical psychologist with expertise and experience in developmental psychology and psychiatric epidemiology.
Dr. Koenen served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger in the 1990s. As a survivor herself, she has written this advice in the hopes of assisting other survivors to tell friends, family and others about their experiences during Peace Corps service.
Some advice on telling your parents or anyone for that matter about your sexual assault
The advice below is cobbled together from my personal and professional experience. In terms of personal experience, I was raped as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger in 1991 and in the past 20 years have had to tell many different people about the rape in many different contexts. When I first returned, I had to tell my parents and friends. Later, I had to tell sexual partners. Most recently I have told colleagues, reporters, and congressional representatives. As a professional, I am a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in psychological trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder. I have had to coach many clients through the process of telling people about their sexual assaults. Like myself, my clients have experienced the most anxiety about telling family members and potential sexual partners. I have tried to put together advice that will apply to most survivors under most situations. But everyone’s experience is unique, so if you have questions about the advice below please feel free to email me via First Response Action at firstname.lastname@example.org .
- Consider the relationship. In my own situation, I felt completely unprepared when I told my parents. I returned to the Peace Corps D.C. and did not tell them I was there for several weeks. Then, at the encouragement of friends, I called them and literally said, over the phone, “Hi. I am back in the U.S. from Niger because I was raped.” Their response was stunned silence and that was very difficult for me. But looking back, what did I expect? I did not have the type of relationship with my parents where I discussed personal issues. So telling them about my rape was revealing more about myself than I ever had previously. Nothing in their experience had prepared them for this moment.
- You do not need to go through this process alone. Even if you have not told anyone yet, please feel free to contact me, members of First Response Action, your local rape crisis center or support groups.
- Try to do everything you can to make the disclosure process an empowering experience. You don’t owe your story to anyone. So you decide where, when and how much you want to tell people. When I returned from Niger, I had this compulsion that I needed to be “honest” with people about why I was back. I felt guilty “lying” so I told many people what had happened. Ultimately, this was not a positive experience. So eventually I came up with a modified account of events whereby I was separated for medical reasons. That was usually enough information to satisfy people as to why I was back in the U.S. Few asked additional questions.
- Before you tell someone, ask yourself ‘what response do I hope to get emotionally?’ Practically? And then – and try to be as honest as possible with yourself about this – what response is realistic to expect? Is what I want realistic given who they are and our relationship? How are they likely to respond? The best predictor of someone’s future behavior is their past behavior. If your parents have a history of being emotionally supportive, they are likely to be again. If not, then not. What is often most challenging here is how to answer these questions for sexual partners and new romantic relationships. You may not know the person well enough to predict how they will respond. So think about why you feel the need to tell him/her at this time. Some clients I have worked with have found it helpful to find a way of bringing up the issue of sexual assault more generally to test the waters. When I returned from Niger, there were some high profile rape cases in the media that were good material in this regard.
- Given what you want and how you expect them to react, decide what you want to tell them and in how much detail. You have control over how much information you give about your experience and to whom you give that information. For example, I only wanted to tell my parents that I had been raped and that was the reason I was back in the United States. I wanted them to know I was physically okay as far as I knew. I did not want to share the details of my experience or even much of the emotional effects. I wanted to stick with the most basic of facts. You do not have to answer any questions you don’t want to. Feel free to say, “I am not ready to talk about that” or “I don’t feel comfortable providing more details right now but I want you to know I am okay . . .”
- Help whomever you are telling by starting with letting them know what you want. For example, ‘I want to talk to you about something difficult that happened while I was in the Peace Corps.’ This may be hard for you to hear but I hope you will respond by giving me a hug, helping me figure out what to do now that I am home, etc. Parents and others may feel at a loss at how to response and what to do – so help them respond how you need them to. However, you are not responsible for how they respond.
- Be prepared -the questions you get may by surprising – even upsetting. Most recently, I have disclosed my experience more broadly as part of my supporting First Response Action. I have received a lot of support – but also questions that have taken me aback at times. Many friends seemed most inclined towards getting more details about what happened like whether I knew my attacker or whether I was on a date. Twenty years ago, I would have felt compelled to tell them. Today, I feel no such compulsions and am comfortable telling them their questions are irrelevant as far as I am concerned. You could use sample language such as: “I prefer not to disclose that information at this point, but thank you for your concern.”
- Role play your disclosure. If you have people you have told, have them role play your parents. Predict different ways the disclosure may play out – positively and negatively and practice responding to your friends.
- Seriously consider bringing a support person with you when you tell them. If you cannot, make arrangements ahead of time to talk with or meet someone supportive afterwards.
. Even if you don’t feel like you have any friends or family you can trust, you can contact me via First Response Action at email@example.com . You can also search for rape crisis centers, support groups or counselors in your area.
Karestan Koenen, Ph.D.