Sexual Assault: My Nuanced Understanding of what Survivorship Means - by Aude Langlois

TW: mentions of sexual assault

I’m a sexual assault survivor. For a long time, I did not believe this label applied to my situation: my life after the assault wasn’t ‘bad enough’ for it to be representative of the overwhelming trauma that is portrayed as being an essential part of survivorship. Because of this, it took me about five years to consider myself as a survivor, and an extra one before I could say it to anybody else.

For a while after, when I discussed this part of my life, or talked about my journey with survivorship, I felt like a fraud: who was I to claim this space, when my life was far from an ongoing battle with trauma and suffering? By adopting this label, was I undermining the experiences of those who were in much more pain than I was?

It is only over the past few months that I have been coming to terms with the fact that, although life after sexual assault is often presented to us as characterised by immense trauma, this isn’t an all-encompassing truth. Like all other individuals, survivors have their own stories and experiences, their own perspectives and ways of dealing with what life throws at them.

There cannot be a universally accurate representation of the survivor: our individuality remains after the abuse. Not all trauma looks the same, and not all survivors show symptoms of trauma. Not all survivors move through life in the same way.

As things stand now, though, the way survivorship is understood is generally quite black-and-white: survivors are often assumed to be broken individuals, whose behaviour can systematically be understood through the lens of trauma. Survivors, due to this, are seen as one-dimensional individuals, with little agency over their lives.

Denial is often used to “explain” why somebody who has been sexually victimised claims that they are doing okay. On several occasions, I have seen people assuming that they knew better than me, what I “needed” to recover, and how I was “supposed” to feel.

Such assumptions are not harmless, as they work to exclude, pathologize and stigmatise survivors. Once I disclosed this information to different people, I often found myself trying to balance their perceptions of me and the way I actually felt. To avoid being discredited, when asked about my abuse, I spoke about trauma and harm but rarely about the fact that I was actually fine most of the time.

This heightened my sense of being a fraud, and I often got caught up in feelings of guilt because I did not know how to talk genuinely about being a survivor without worrying about being faced with judgement and disbelief.

In reality, survivorship to me means many things: it’s flashbacks, panic attacks and worrying about people seeing me differently after I discuss this part of my life, but it’s also learning to inhabit my body in a more loving way, exploring my sexuality on my own terms, and drunkenly high-fiving a fellow survivor and close friend over how far we’ve come (yes, this happened, and it was a moment of beautiful bonding!).

There is a real need for more nuanced understandings of what survivorship means, so that people like me, who have been sexually abused but do not fit the “culturally approved” image of the survivor, get the chance to speak about, and make sense of, what happened to them and how their lives have been since.

Georgia Ovenden, from the School of Social Sciences and Psychology at the University of Western Sidney, argues that the development of indicators to affirm the commonalities of the trauma experience may also operate to simplify women’s response to sexual abuse as ‘one-and-the-same’. (…) the trauma model cannot account for the complexity of survivor experiences.”[1]

As Mary E. Gilfus, in her survivor-centered appraisal of trauma theory, points out: to truly empower survivors, we must “listen to them from within their worlds”. This, according to her, constitutes “the act of traveling to the world of the people we seek to understand and truly loving them for who they are, seeing them fully as subjects in their own worlds [2], instead of objects to be interpreted and studied. In my experience, this constitutes the attitude needed to allow survivors to speak their truth, a “loving perception” that shows real support and affection.

Survivorship can be a challenging journey as it is, and we must be careful with conceptions of it that can lead to stigmatisation and exclusions. Opening up a space in our relationships to speak about histories of abuse, with no judgement or pre-existing assumptions, is necessary for survivors to talk about their experiences in all of their complexity. Finding people who have done this for me has undoubtedly changed my journey, and I will forever be thankful for it.

- Aude Langlois


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 [1] Georgia Ovenden (2012) Young women's management of victim and survivor identities. In: Culture, Health & Sexuality, 14:8, 941-954, DOI: 10.1080/13691058.2012.710762

[2] Mary E. Gilfus (1999) The Price of the Ticket. A Survivor-Centered Appraisal of Trauma Theory. In: Violence Against Women, Vol. 5 No. 11 (Sage Publications)

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