Conversations around systems of oppression, rape culture, and the necessity of believing survivors have become more prevalent in the media, thanks to campaigns like the #MeToo movement and #TimesUp. Addressing the topic of sexual violence within our personal relationships, however, can sometimes feel difficult to navigate. When you're dating someone, it can feel difficult to know how to talk to your boyfriend or girlfriend about sexual assault.
According to The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSRVC), one in three women and one in six men have experienced some type of contact sexual violence in their lives. Whether you identify as a survivor, someone who has encountered sexual discomfort in some form, or someone directly affected by sexual violence, opening up about sexual assault can span from uncomfortable to triggering to every feeling in between.
In efforts to widen support for survivors, and heighten conversations about sexual violence survivor advocacy, I spoke with Hailey Jures, President/CEO of Hailey Jures Consulting and the former Director of Special Projects at the Violence Intervention Program, as well as violence prevention specialist Leah Dirkse, about how to speak to your boyfriend or girlfriend about sexual assault.
"Receiving the support and validation that you need from someone who cares about you can be incredibly beneficial for healing, trust-building, and relationship growth. However, all this does not happen overnight. Figuring out what you need to feel safe and supported is an ongoing process," Dirkse says. "If you and your partner prioritize open communication and active listening in all aspects of the relationship, it can help normalize expressing and listening to each other’s needs and feelings." Divulging an experience with sexual violence can be a long-winded process. It can take time to understand and come to terms with your own needs, before you begin to articulate them.
People of all genders experience receiving unwanted sexual contact or attention. This is especially true for women, AFAB, and femme-presenting people who face higher risks for sexual violence than those who identify as cis men. According to the the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), nine out of 10 victims of rape are women. These rates can deeply impact how women and femmes understand sexual violence, and inform how we talk about sexual assault with men.
"There is not one right way to disclose an experience of sexual assault to someone," Dirkse shares. "You can share as much or as little with them as you feel you need to. You do not have to label the experience, go into detail, or limit the disclosure to a one-time discussion. Your safety and comfort level are the utmost priority and deserve to be respected." When thinking about opening up about your own experiences with sexual violence, consider if you feel ready or safe having the conversation with your partner. If you're ready to share, you can say whatever words feel right. You don't need to quantify your own experiences to your partner, or even use the term "sexual assault." You can share how you're feeling in the moment.
"It can also be very helpful to check in with your own needs when you consider disclosing to a partner." Dirkse says. "Are you looking to open up or revisit a conversation about sexual boundaries? Do you really just need someone to tell you they believe what happened to you, that it’s not your fault, and then hold you in their arms?" If you just need to be listened to, held, or believed, you can start the conversation by telling your partner that. You do not need to ask for their advice, opinion, or even their feelings about your own experiences.
When opening up to your partner, it's important to remember sexual violence is never the fault of the survivor. According to RAINN, someone in the world experiences sexual assault every 98 seconds. If you have experienced sexual violence, or you feel impacted by sexual violence, you are not alone. "Sexual assault is never the victim/survivor's fault; it is an active choice by the perpetrator stemming from a need of power and control. It is not your responsibility to educate the person you are with, but you may choose to do so, so that they better understand," Jures says. "You are entitled to feel however you feel after a sexual assault and if someone is making you feel bad about that, the issue is with them, not with you." You are in control of your narrative, and as a survivor, you get to choose who, how, and when you share your story.
A strategy for opening the conversation about sexual assault with your partner could be to incorporate pop culture references or related world news before sharing your personal experience. It may make you feel more comfortable to breach the topic objectively, before sharing your own experience. "If you don't want to share your own experience with your partner but want to gauge their reaction, have a conversation about a sexual assault in TV or in movies. When I'm teaching college students about sexual assault, I usually use a clip from Amy Schumer's show about victim-blaming. The clip is a spoof on Friday Night Lights and generates good conversations about sexual assault as a whole," Jures says. Hearing your partner reflect on how a movie or TV show depicts sexual assault may open up a conversation around sexual violence.
If your partner has made comments or insights about sexual assault in the media that are not always understanding of survivors, or if they are confused about the gray areas of consent, this knowledge may inform how you choose to share your own experiences. "Maybe you have heard your partner make some upsetting comments about sexual assault stories in the media. They could have blamed women who have come forward during the #MeToo movement or made excuses for some of the men who have been called out. If these kinds of comments are upsetting and hurtful to hear, you have the right to tell your partner and ask them to stop," Dirkse adds. "Assess your level of comfort and their anticipated level of openness and understanding. If they don’t seem to 'get it,' they might not be able to be sensitive to your needs on a more personal level if you were to disclose." Even if you're in love your boyfriend or girlfriend, your story is yours. If you're not feeling ready or comfortable enough to share — you don't have to. "You don't 'owe' your partner anything," Jures adds.
When sharing your story with your boyfriend or girlfriend, it's natural to fear how they might react. "Maybe you are nervous that the information you share will activate anger for them, maybe they would even threaten to harm the person who harmed you," Dirkse says. "This moment of your bravery and vulnerability should not be overshadowed by their reactions. Stating your needs, saying something like, 'I really need you to listen, support me, and follow my lead in this,' can act as a reminder of whose experiences deserve to be centered." While trying to be conscious of your partner's feelings, you do not need to tailor your own experience, or how you choose to share it, to you partner's own emotions. There is room and time for you both to share and process, but there is also time for the conversation to just be about you and your needs.
If your partner asks for help learning how best to support you, there are systems in place to educate and support loved ones of survivors, in addition to the organizations built for supporting survivors. "Rape crisis centers provide free counseling and 24-hour hotline services for survivors to help them process the underlying trauma of a sexual assault experience," Dirkse says. "Some of the resources can also be utilized by significant others, friends, and family members that are looking to be better advocates to their loved ones as well." These resources can be helpful tools when it comes to processing assault together. Holding intentional space for each other to share can open lines of communication, and ensure that your comfort and safety are being prioritized.
Unpacking sexual trauma can be long and difficult, but there are systems out there to support you outside of your romantic life. "Your partner does not have to be the only source of support that you turn to. A trusting, understanding friend or family member can be a strong addition to your support system," Dirkse says. "There are also many excellent therapists that specialize in treating clients that have experienced sexual assault. You can decide what your network of support looks like and how you access it when you need it."
On their website, RAINN lists centers near you. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline, at 1-800-656-4673 for information about local resources. Local churches, queer centers, and other community groups may have information as well as online therapy, which can be more accessible. Additionally, the Anti-Violence Project offers free, bi-lingual, 24-hour crisis intervention and support to survivors of any type of violence, as well as to those who love and support them.
When it comes to sharing your story — you are in control. Giving yourself, and your partner, time to process, heal, and unpack your emotional needs, can prioritize your psychological wellbeing within the context of your relationship. If you've experienced sexual violence, or if you've been impacted by sexual assault, you are a brave, strong, resilient warrior. Your story is yours, and you can do whatever feels right with it. Whether you choose to share your experiences with a partner or not, you are supported in your actions, and you are never alone.
If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you’re not alone. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.