At what point do you open up to someone, with whom you may have a future, about painful things in your past? What matters for them to know, and what doesn’t? And what would a supportive response look like?
We spoke to a survivor of rape and an abusive relationship, and two professionals who work with rape survivors, to highlight some things to think about before having such a conversation. But first, two caveats: Just because lots of people are speaking out right now doesn’t mean you need to. And these suggestions are not necessarily one-size-fits-all.
Disclose only if and when you feel ready. Jess Davidson, interim director of End Rape on Campus, notes that because sexual assault takes away someone’s agency and ability to make decisions, it’s important for survivors to have control over how and when they decide to talk about what they’ve been through. “Survivors should never feel guilty about centering their own needs, whether that means sharing with your partner or not sharing with your partner,” Davidson says. Similarly, Lindamood of the DC Rape Crisis Center says that she preaches deliberation. “How is it something that doesn’t feel like an obligation but also not an impulse?” she says. “Ideally, it’s not something that feels like a choice you didn’t get to make for yourself. This is something that I feel in control of, as well as prepared for.”
Think about where to have the conversation. A 33-year-old survivor of rape and an abusive relationship said she used to tell new partners about her past trauma during pillow talk, but because that can be such an intimate, vulnerable moment, she prefers to broach the topic over dinner or somewhere far from the bedroom. She doesn’t have a strict timeline for herself, she says, but she usually brings it up before a new relationship moves from casual to committed. Having this conversation with a new partner once she knows she can trust them “has only ever increased our level of intimacy,” she says.
Feel free to set ground rules for how you’d like the other person to respond. Lindamood suggests opening the conversation by setting some guidelines for how your partner might respond or create space for you to speak openly. “Give some direction about what would feel like a supportive response,” Lindamood says. Such as: I need you to not interrupt me until I finish. I’m not willing to answer questions. Or: I need you to take some time before we talk about it again. “Hearing a disclosure has an impact on the person hearing and the person disclosing,” Lindamood adds.
The responses you get might vary widely. “When I was in my 20s, I almost never disclosed this to a guy without [him] responding by saying: ‘I wish I could hurt that man.’ Or: ‘Do you want me to punch him?’ ” our 33-year-old survivor says. In her 30s, the responses have been more about her than the perpetrator, such as: “What do you need from me to make you feel safe and comfortable?” To which she usually responds: “Just be who you are. If you’re a good guy, just be a good guy.”
Set up ways to communicate your needs during sex or other activities that could be triggering. Recovery from trauma is not linear, Davidson notes. “The notion that survivors can’t or won’t have healthy sex lives after assault is false,” Davidson says.
She suggests practicing affirmative consent during sex, meaning both partners are mutually agreeing to sexual activity, which can help avoid getting into a situation in which a survivor feels powerless during sex. “Affirmative consent allows survivors to communicate what they want and how they want it — and does not rely on assumptions that because they’ve experienced assault they don’t want to” be physical, Davidson adds. She also suggests having a safe word that someone can use to stop sexual activity if they’re feeling triggered or having flashbacks.