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I was raped a few years ago: how do I tell others and build trust again?

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Leslie asks:

Hi, when I was about 16 (I am 21 now), I was sexually assaulted by two extended family members. Over the years it has caused me to loose trust for many males especially the ones I met after the incident and males of my race. The only people I seem to fully trust are my four brothers and parents. I have not told them about he incident and I am scared to do so because I don't know how I will or what their reaction might be. I am also facing a problem with dating. I am a little scared to date as I don't know how my partner my react to this incident or if I will treated nicely. Recently, I have been approached by two male friends who have interest in me and I am a little scared to even date them. I have built a trust for them. What should I do?

Heather Corinna replies:

You just take whatever time you need, at whatever pace you need, to build trust with a new partner or potential partner.

Being assaulted of course impacts how we trust people and makes it more difficult to trust, especially when you were assaulted by people who you trusted, who those around you trusted, or who you were assured were trustworthy. It's normal for anyone -- whether they have been abused or not -- to need time to develop trust with someone else, and it's fine to take a longer time with that than someone else might. You can get to know those friends more first, you can start with one date in a public place, continue with more and spend time talking, and you aren't obligated when you date someone to have anything be sexual. You can even, if you do start to develop feelings for someone you're dating, just tell them that you need to take things slowly: you don't have to explain why right off the bat.

It might help, when it comes to concerns about a lack of trust particularly for men and men of your race to realize that what those men had in common was not primarily their gender or their color: what they had in common was that they were rapists. For sure, rapists are far more often male than female, but at the same time, statistically, more men are NOT rapists than those who are. In other words, most men are not rapists. Most people of any given race are not rapists. It's totally normal to feel how you're feeling -- and to be triggered by any commonality a person may have with the people who assaulted you -- but in time, that will ebb, and it can help to just try and remind yourself that anyone can be a rapist, but that most people -- of any group -- are not. Trying to kind of internally profile is a pretty natural thing -- after all, we obviously don't want to be assaulted again, and so our minds can try and filter out who might assault us -- but the truth of the matter, and it's a hard truth, is that that kind of profiling doesn't really work or protect us. In terms of looking out for who might do you harm, you're more looking for things like people who don't respect your boundaries, who push things too hard or too fast, who appear to have issues with seeking power or control over you, who seem hateful or insensitive towards you or given groups of people, or who can't respect the fact that you need time in order to build trust with them.

A good benchmark for you of when it might be okay for things to start to become sexual might be when you feel enough trust to tell someone you're dating you were assaulted, and so building trust first and taking things more slowly is a must for you. If you're dating someone who can't handle that, or mistreats you because someone else victimized you, better to find out sooner than later that that person just doesn't have the emotional maturity and sensitivity required not only to be with a survivor, but honestly, to have an intimate partnership with anyone. And if you have a gut feeling that you're with someone who you just could never tell about your assault, in my book, that's your intuition telling you that person just isn't a good choice of a partner. Trust your instincts: they rarely let us down. But just for the record? It's been my experience that people can really surprise you: a whole lot of people handle disclosures about rape and sexual abuse really well, have no problem giving latitude for extra time in which to build extra trust, and you can discover more support and comfort by speaking out than by staying silent.

So, I'd also really encourage you to consider breaking your silence. Silence about assault tends to feed shame, and you've no reason to be ashamed: after all, you didn't assault anyone. People who should be ashamed about rape and abuse are the people doing the raping and the abusing. I know that it's scary as hell to tell someone, especially for the first time, but staying silent makes it a lot harder to heal, and breaking silence can be deeply empowering. In terms of your family, how about you choose just one person for now to tell, a person who you feel is most likely to be supportive of you and to be able to emotionally handle the truth?

Even that person may react in ways that don't make you so comfortable: it's normal, for instance, for a person to be very angry when they learn someone they love has been assaulted, and even though that anger isn't at you, it can be tough to experience their anger when what you want is their comfort. You can preempt some of that by making clear what you need from the outset, before you disclose anything. For example, you might open up that conversation with something like, "I want to tell you something about me that's important for me to share, and it's something that you might have strong feelings about. But telling you is very scary for me, so for right now, what I need is just for you to listen to what I have to say, and manage your feelings about it as much as you can yourself, because I feel very vulnerable even talking about this. What I need most right now is your support." After you disclose, you can talk to that person about if you want their support in disclosing to other members of your family, too, or you can decide to go more slowly, and see how you feel with that first disclosure. Obviously, anyone in your family you tell is likely to have their own issues to work out, because since your rapists were family members, any member of your family is going to feel betrayed by them, and be upset that this went on in the family. At some point, some family counseling is probably going to be a good idea.

In addition, you might consider seeking out some counseling or professional support in healing from your abuse. It can be really tough to go on your own, or with only the support of one or two people when those people aren't well-versed in the issue and can't help you -- like a pro in surviving abuse can -- to develop tools for processing your feelings and moving forward with your life. I'm a big fan of RAINN, which has both a telephone and online hotline where you can get some one-on-one help, and RAINN can also help connect you with local resources for support groups and counseling.

I want to leave you just knowing that in my own experience, with every person you tell, it usually gets easier each time. People don't all react the same way, but the more times you tell, the easier it gets to come to that telling feeling strong and supported, and the more you tell, the harder it gets to fall into the traps of feeling ashamed or scared or humiliated. After a while, you'll be able to come to this simply knowing that this was something that happened to you in your life -- something traumatic, to be sure -- but what was bigger than the assault, and more important than the assault, was the courageous person you became in the face of it. When I say that it's often a pleasant surprise where you find support, some of why I say that is that most people have an awful lot of respect for someone who has worked their way through a trauma and is sitting before them, whole and brave. Having that mirrored -- having someone else show you what they see is a survivor, not a victim -- is an incredibly healing thing.

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