She was a student at Drexel University. She went out on a Friday night, as any other college student does. She anticipated a good time, the only looming threat was her homework and her exams. But come morning, she woke up groggy and in denial. The unthinkable had happened. She’d been raped.
Now at 20 years old, Bucks student Jillian was brave enough to sit down with me and tell me the grueling details of what happened to her and how she learned to heal.
Since going viral in October of 2017, the hashtag "me too" has sparked a movement across the nation and around the globe. The hashtag, started by social activist Tarana Burke, gave women a platform to call out their abusers and harassers. It empowered those too scared to share what they’d been through. The hashtag gave way for women who feared that they would be shamed, blacklisted, fired, or mocked. The movement reminded us that the problem of sexual abuse and harassment will never go away unless we speak up.
Celebrities have endorsed the movement. Actresses like Jennifer Lawrence, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Salma Hayek have all shared stories of sexual violence and tweeted the hashtag from their twitter accounts. Actors and actresses wore all black to the golden globes to stand in solidarity against sexual harassment and abuse. Famous actresses spared no scorn in calling out scummy directors. Comedians and actors we once adored hung their heads in shame after this movement brought their disgusting habits into the light for all to see.
However in the wake of these victims confronting their abusers, we get too wrapped up in the glory. We get excited that we’re shifting from a hush-hush attitude about sexual abuse to a vocal society that’s working its way toward openly talking about it. In that excitement, we forget about the trauma these victims have went and continue to go through. We forget about the years of therapy, or painful silence they’ve had to endure before they could finally feel comfortable enough to say, "this happened to me."
We cheer the victims on from the sidelines, but we don’t put ourselves in their shoes. We forget that after suffering from abuse and harassment, these men and women don’t snap back from it like a rubber band. It takes time to heal, to feel comfortable in their own skin, to be intimate with another person in fear that it won’t be taken advantage of.
So how can victims of abuse learn to love themselves again? I can’t give a definitive answer, but I hope this article can help.
I spoke with Dr. Alexandra Milspaw, a sex therapist based out of Bethlehem, Pa. Dr. Milspaw works daily with clients who suffer from sexual pain and trauma. Dr. Milspaw broke down a three step process for how victims of sexual abuse and assault can take a step towards healing and feeling comfortable with themselves.
Step 1.- "Do trauma work to work through any PTSD you may be experiencing. Learn mind, body, and self regulation techniques." This is so any feelings of fear or uneasiness can’t linger anymore.
Step 2.- "Learn and give permission for healthy boundaries, do things like setting a drink limit for yourself if you go out so that you’re decreasing risk of falling back into a dangerous situation. And don’t just set them for yourself, set them with other people. If you’re not comfortable quite yet say with a partner, set boundaries with that person until you do."
Step 3.- "Strengthen your ego, learn how to be assertive so that if you’re ever in a situation where you’re uncomfortable, you say 'no I don’t like this.'"
And for any women who are afraid or refuse to use the hashtag to call out their abusers or just confront them in general, Dr. Milspaw assures that it’s not abnormal.
"Trust your intuition, maybe that’s not the best option to publicly confront someone who’s hurt you. Sometimes its better to share and release with someone you feel comfortable with rather than to confront."
Unfortunately for Jillian, her healing process wasn’t put into three simple steps.
Immediately after she’d been assaulted, Jillian was in denial, "I remember telling myself that it didn’t happen, that I was remembering something wrong…"
“Eventually I couldn’t deny it any longer, and had to admit it to myself, which was the hardest part of all.”
“When it had finally sunk in, I called my best friend and just started sobbing uncontrollably, trying to tell her what happened and just trying to make sense of it to her in between gasps.”
Jillian admitted that after the confession to her best friend, she closed herself off, keeping what had happened to her bottled up. That only lasted so long, before people started noticing a change.
“My dad started noticing a dip in my academics, he asked me what was wrong and of course I said nothing. Eventually the truth came out and he brought me home immediately.”
Little did Jillian know, going home was what she needed the most, “Being home saved me from it all. I was finally able to face everything head on, I was surrounded by people who loved me.”
When it came to feeling comfortable in her own skin once again, Jillian admitted it wasn’t an easy process.
“It took me almost a year to feel comfortable in my own skin again. For months after the accident I couldn’t watch anyone be intimate, whether it was in person or on TV I shied away from it all, it would make my skin crawl. It would just make me feel like that terrible night was happening all over again.”
“Eventually I made myself confront it so those feelings of uneasiness and discomfort would never come flooding back ever again. I made myself confront it so I never had to relive that night in my mind ever again, and eventually the memories became more distant everyday, and one day I just stopped thinking about it all together.”
Today, Jillian says she’s still aware of what happened to her, and she’s still sensitive about it, but what happened to her no longer controls her life.
In terms of intimate relationships, Jillian stayed away from any physical contact for about a year after the incident, but after some time, she grew more comfortable.
“Eventually I began to feel more and more comfortable with my body, and I no longer found being intimate an issue.”
“I definitely think it had to do with the amount of healing time I had.” Jillian said, “I also need a level of trust with my partner, if I weren’t so comfortable with them, then that level of intimacy wouldn’t even be up for discussion.”
When I asked Jillian how she learned to feel more comfortable with her body, she gave a surprising answer, social media, which in the past been under fire for setting unrealistic expectations about how women should look.
“Suddenly thicker girls were in demand and everyone wanted what I naturally had so it was then that I truly began to love every part of my body.”
“That person who took a part of me that night never made me think I was ugly, but they did challenge my feeling of self worth. I would look at myself and just cry, but now? Now I look in the mirror and snap a selfie. I find that I’m more confident in my body and my sexuality today than I was even before that night.”
While Jillian thinks the #metoo movement is a wonderful platform for those who’ve fallen victim to sexual assault, she also wants people to know that they have to find it within themselves to heal.
“The movement is awesome I’m not denying that. But at the end of the day tweeting #metoo isn’t going to help a young girl who’s been raped not flinch every time a man walks toward her.”
“As a victim you need to find the strength in yourself to get the help you deserve and take control of your life, acknowledging what happened to you is only half the battle.”
And for any victims struggling in the aftermath of their abuse or assault, Jillian would like you to know this, “At the end of the day, you can’t let your abuser have any more control over you. You have the power to take back your life and show them that they haven’t broken you. The healing process is about you, not them, so never let your healing rest in the palm of their hands.”