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The burden of telling your story

We are living in the era of TMI, countless personal essays and first person narratives masquerading as news.

I don't think that's a bad thing. But it's definitely a thing. 

And an unfortunate side effect of this new culture is that people assume that privacy = shame. If you're not talking about something publicly, it's because you're riddled with shame. If you're not joining the chorus of people saying #BeenRapedNeverReported or #MeToo, then you've either never experienced sexual violence or you are as sick as your secret. (We can thank AA for that one, too).

This is particularly troubling when you consider that sexual assault victims have notoriously bad boundaries.

Not a popular thing to say, but we gotta real talk about it because folks, I'm tiiiiiiiired. 

I could go on and on about all the nasty things that happen to you when you open up about secret pain. Plenty of ink has already been spilled on the death threats, threats of violence, libel suits and stigmatizing that comes with naming your experience.

The first time I publicly told a story of sexual assault was for xoJane in 2013 and as a result, a US blogger wrote an entire article about how badly I needed to be doxed and then sterilized. It's been nearly 6 years and trolls still dig up that story as though I should be ashamed of it. In 2015 when I came forward about my experience at the Royal Military College, the threats were so bad that I couldn't speak in public without a police presence. That same year, my abuser died and I "came out" about my story. The results were just as awful.

But a major, major component of telling your story that doesn't get nearly as much attention is how you become the listener to everyone else's story. 

When I went public with my experience at RMC, I not only received 100s of messages from trolls and abusers. I also received just as many tweets and e-mails from survivors who would often go into graphic detail about their experiences of sexual violence in the military.

Since I "came out" about my experience of stalking 3 years ago, and especially in light of the film I made in December, not a day goes by that I don't hear from a survivor or their ally, telling me their story and asking for my help.

It's rough. It's hard. It's exhausting. And it's a major guilt trip.

It's a guilt trip that is easy to exploit because as survivors, we know what it's like to be isolated; we've also been desperate for connection and validation. 

But very few of the women publicly telling their story are also social workers or therapists. Very few of us have the benefit of peer support skills and lengthy training in setting boundaries. I'm lucky that I do but I know I'm in the minority.

And remember what I said about survivors and bad boundaries? The nature of sexual violence is that your boundary is crossed. Rape, by definition, is a boundary violation. And so when your internal compass says no but someone does it anyway, you lose the ability to listen to that compass; in both yourself and in others. 

You also learn that if you want your way, if you want to be heard, go HARD. Insist. Persist. Don't back down. 

This is a survival skill that helps survivors in so many ways, but it can also make survivors reaaaaaally awful to other victims. 

In short: Victims can be really fucking demanding and really fucking insistent.

I can't tell you how many "I demand a meeting/a coffee/a phone call/a letter of support/etc" e-mails I have in my inbox or DMs I get on Twitter. It's truly astounding.

And I'm just one lady, at home, working for herself, scraping by. I don't get paid for these. I don't get designated time to answer these messages or go to these meetings. I have to do them off the side of my desk, while I work full time on this very intense issue; a very intense issue that I know intimately from personal experience. 

It's taken me years and years of work and therapy and several breakdowns to learn to set and maintain boundaries with these demands. It still gnaws at me hard when I have to say no, because I want to be everything to everyone. I really do.

But I can't. Nobody can.

Here's my advice:

1- If you're a survivor who wants to go public, do all the necessary safety planning around ensuring you don't get doxxed. Look into your local libel laws and protect yourself from legal action. Then do a serious internal inventory and ask yourself what you are prepared to give to the (inevitable) deluge of fellow victims who will reach out to you. Make a boundary. Stick to it.

2- If you are a survivor who wants to share your story, ask yourself who it's for. Ask the person "Are you in a position to hear my story?" Respect the answer. 

Please. Please. Pleaaaaaaaaaase. I'm begging you: Don't just hop into someone's Twitter feed with your traumatic story. 

Part of creating a consent culture is asking for consent before we dump our emotional luggage on someone else. Part of creating consent culture is respecting when that person says "I'm not in a place to hear this."

Victims and survivors deserve to a voice and a platform. But we all deserve to talk and listen in a safe environment.

Let's take better care of each other. <3