#MeToo and Suicide: What is the Price of Shame and Silence with Sexual Assault?

February 16, 2018

 

With the current atmosphere in Hollywood, the launch of the #MeToo campaign, and the vast coverage on the Larry Nassar trial, sexual assault cases are now gaining more exposure than ever. The alarming statistics on sexual assault are enough to make the hair on your arms stand up—how is it possible that 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime? [i]  And what does it mean for these women after-the-fact? (This issue also impacts men, although at a lower rate of 1 in every 33, so I will be referring to victims/survivors as women for the purpose of simplicity)[ii].

 

We often get flooded with the facts and details of cases that reach the media, but rarely do we hear follow-up about how to cope with being sexually assaulted, and what happens to women after they either choose to report or choose to stay silent. Only 2 out of every 3 assaults are reported [iii], which means 33% of sexual assault victims stay silent. What price did Larry Nassar’s 250 victims pay by staying silent for so long? And what price do the 66% of women face when they come forward? Most survivors that report an assault face shame, disbelief, judgment, long trials, and oftentimes never see any justice rendered on their behalf. The price is destructive emotional damage.

 

The prominent and detrimental effect of sexual assault on an individual’s mental wellness is devastating. Rape survivors are four times more likely to contemplate suicide after their assault than non-crime victims, and 13 times more likely to have attempted suicide. [iv] With approximately 321,500 victims of rape and sexual assault (age 12 and older) each year in the United States, [v] the numbers speak for themselves. The trauma, shame, and torment that is experienced in the minutes, hours, days, and years following a sexual assault can be unrelenting, and tragically, some survivors succumb to their suffering.

 

In the Netflix documentary, Audrie & Daisy, these exact effects are deeply explored. We hear two stories of young rape victims, who are victimized a second time by society and negligent law enforcement authorities after reporting their assaults. Following this, each girl endures relentless harassment, online and at school, both attempt suicide, and heartbreakingly, one dies. Audrie’s mother says something that speaks directly to the correlation between sexual assault and suicide, and to suffering and suicide in general: “She [Audrie] didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” following her rape and what transpired from reporting. The profound loss of hope is the core undertone in most all attempted and completed suicides, and can be even more exasperated when dealing with the trauma of a sexual assault.

 

So what can be done? Here are a few things YOU can do in the event you know a sexual assault survivor provided by RAINN [vi]:

 

  1. BELIEVE. When a survivor tells you their story—believe them. It takes tremendous courage to speak out about a sexual assault. Tell them, “I believe you. / It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.” They may feel ashamed, worried they won’t be believed, and/or concerned they will be blamed. Skip any “why” questions, those are for investigations and experts—just offer your support in this time.
     

  2. REASSURE. Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame “It’s not your fault. / You didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Let the survivor know that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story if they are comfortable sharing it, and remind them that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they heal from the experience. “You are not alone. / I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.” 
     

  3. COMFORT. Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be extremely difficult. / I’m so glad you are sharing this with me so I can be here for you” help to communicate empathy. “I’m sorry this happened. / This shouldn’t have happened to you.” These phrases reaffirm your belief in their experience and let them know they have a safe place to share.
     

  4. CONTINUED SUPPORT.  Check in periodically—the event may have happened a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean the pain is gone. Check in with the survivor to remind them you still care about their well-being and believe their story. Avoid judgment. It can be difficult to watch a survivor struggle with the effects of sexual assault for an extended period of time. Avoid phrases that suggest they’re taking too long to recover such as, “You’ve been acting like this for a while now,” or “How much longer do you think you will you feel this way?” Know your resources. You’re a strong supporter, but that doesn’t mean you’re equipped to manage someone else’s health, or should be. Become familiar with resources you can recommend to a survivor, such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online at rainn.org. Also research your local resources. Some Spokane resources include the Sexual Assault & Family Trauma (SAFeT) Response Center 509-747-8224 for sexual assault crisis and services, First Call for Help 509-838-4428 for suicide crisis, and FailSafe for Life 509-475-7334 for suicide prevention resources and training.  

 

If you or someone you care about is considering suicide, please call 800.273.TALK (8255) or text CONNECT to 741741 any time, day or night.

  1. National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey (1998)
     

  2. National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey (1998)
     

  3. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2010-2014 
     

  4. DG Kilpatrick, CN Edumuds, AK Seymour. Rape in America: A Report to the Nation. Arlington, VA: National Victim Center and Medical University of South Carolina (1992)
     

  5. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2010-2014 
     

  6. RAINN: “Tips for talking with survivors of sexual assault”; rainn.org; 2018.

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