It is okay not to tell.
We don’t owe anyone our story of assault or abuse, and it’s perfectly valid to decide that we don’t want to tell anyone, or don’t want to tell a specific person. There may be many reasons that we decide not to tell. What is most important, is to prioritise our own healing journey.
It is okay to tell.
A trusted friend, family member, counsellor, or an authority figure — it’s up to us with whom we choose to share our story. Telling someone may be a good way to find release, can give us a safe place to cry, help us to feel less alone, or can be a step towards gaining more ownership over our story. The most important factor to consider is what makes us most comfortable and what will help us heal.
Choosing who to tell can be a difficult decision and there's no ‘one size fits all’ for who to tell about an assault. We all want to feel safe and understood when we share something so personal and traumatic. We should consider what we want from sharing our story, and try to find someone who we feel will give us the support we need — whether that is a shoulder to cry on, or maybe support within the reporting process. We should consider who we trust and who we feel will be able to provide us with the space we need to vent and process.
Sometimes our loved ones can react emotionally towards hearing our pain. These reactions, which might include anger, are sometimes motivated by feelings of helplessness or guilt: they are angry that this trauma happened to us, and they may think they could have stopped it from happening. It is important to remember that we do not have an obligation to manage anyone else’s emotions. Choosing to tell someone is about healing ourselves.
Secondly, we need to consider that the people we tell might not believe us, or they might disagree that what happened to us was sexual assault, rape, or abuse. If we tell someone who knows our abuser, they may defend that person or refuse to change their behaviour towards them. It’s crucial to remember that it’s not our fault if they don’t believe us. We can’t control people’s reactions to our trauma. It doesn’t mean we didn’t tell them in the right way, and it certainly doesn’t mean that our trauma didn’t happen. But this is why choosing who to tell can be so important because we deserve to be believed and supported.
Lastly, there might also be cultural factors that influence our decision of who to tell. We understand that different cultures view sexual assault differently; in patriarchal societies, people can end up blaming the survivor of the assault rather than the abuser(s). This doesn’t mean everyone close to us will feel this way. Telling someone we trust and whose viewpoints we are comfortable with will ensure we safeguard ourselves when cultural factors are involved.
Choosing who you tell also involves assessing your level of trust with that person. It’s possible that we tell someone about our trauma, and they tell someone who we didn’t want to know. If we tell a friend, they could tell another friend or acquaintance; if we tell a family member, they could tell a different member of the family. Or, if we tell someone at work that a colleague assaulted us, they could tell another colleague. This is why we as survivors might feel conflicted about recounting our experiences: we are sharing very sensitive, personal information, and we lose some control when we tell someone about it.
Even if we decide to tell someone, we still have control over how much we tell. We can choose to share as much as we like. We don’t have to share everything at once. Choosing to tell someone small parts of our story, instead of saying it all at once, can be a way to test our trust with that person and may be easier to deal with emotionally.
As we said before, we can decide to tell someone if we feel they would be able to offer us the emotional support we need to process our trauma. There might also be some practical considerations when telling someone about what happened that could be useful to you. For example:
Telling a workplace colleague about anxiety, flashbacks, or other aspects of our mental health impacted by trauma can help them react appropriately when these symptoms occur.
Telling a friend so that they can support us in difficult situations. For example, accompanying us on walks that feel unsafe.
Telling a therapist/mental health practitioner/GP so they can offer the appropriate clinical support.
It is also important to understand that there might be legal implications to consider when deciding who to tell about your assault, especially if you are under 18 or over 65. In some countries, people in certain jobs have a duty to report, also called mandatory reporting, for any illegal and/or unsafe behaviour, even if it happened a long time ago. This is especially true if the abuser is still in a position where they could hurt someone else. Examples include: teachers, doctors, religious officials, social workers, law enforcement (lawyer or police officer), or if your abuser is employed where you still work. So, if we are thinking about telling a person who has a job with a mandatory reporting duty, it might be helpful to look into what the legal implications of telling them would be.