Content warning: This article discusses sexual violence.
About a year ago, Lily decided to publicly share her experience as a survivor of sexual violence. She began training at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) to join its Survivor Speakers Bureau (SSB).
“I thought it was a wonderful way to be able to give something positive out of such a negative experience in my life and hopefully be able to impact somebody else to get services, or to question their own behavior, to provide teaching to people about what consent is, and just really help other survivors,” says Lily, who requested a pseudonym be used in this article to protect her privacy.
The SSB was started in 2002 by survivors “who wanted to use their voices and their stories to bring awareness to sexual violence,” explains Sharon Imperato, clinical innovation projects and training director for BARCC.
A major reason people elect to join the bureau is a desire to connect with and support other survivors, according to Imperato, who has worked with BARCC for 18 years.
“One of the goals of the Survivor Speakers Bureau is that they really want to speak to other survivors, be seen by other survivors, and [show] that there’s hope, that there is resiliency, that healing is a thing and is ongoing,” Imperato says.
The bureau is made up of volunteers of all genders who have experienced sexual assault either as children or adults. They speak to a wide range of audiences, from high school and college students to medical professionals to lawmakers.
BARCC trains the volunteers in public speaking and teaches them how they can highlight different aspects of their experience to match each audience. Imperato underlines that the survivors’ stories are not limited to the assaults, but rather include all parts of their experiences.
“For someone who’s speaking to medical providers, it’s talking about the incident itself and whatever you want to share, but then talking about if you did receive medical care, what was helpful and not helpful, because we want the medical providers to understand the impacts that they have on survivors,” Imperato explains.
Part of the power of the SSB is to get away from generalities and statistics—which, Imperato is quick to point out, are under-representative because they only take into account people who report.
“Survivor Speakers is really about putting a face, a voice, a person to represent sexual violence—this person in front of you is telling their story,” Imperato says. “Look at them, see them, and hear them.”
The talks function through two-sided vulnerability: The survivor bravely takes the mic to share their experience, and then in a question-and-answer session audience members ask questions that may be uncomfortable, Imperato explains. This process is where education happens, which is one of the primary goals of the SSB.
Lily says the Q&A portion was what she was most nervous about going in, but that it’s been rewarding.
“People have asked some really surprising questions,” she says. “I spoke to a group where there were family members and significant others of survivors, and they had asked if the survivor blamed their partner or their parent, which I didn’t expect. [I told them] no, nobody blames you for what somebody else did.”
“People ask a lot how it’s affected my life, if it’s something that goes away after so long,” she adds.
“Why didn’t you tell anyone sooner?” is the most common question that’s asked during these Q&As. Part of the answer is the context of a society that tends to victim blame surrounding sexual assault, Imperato explains.
“Basically, it’s the reason why we’re here: It’s because there wasn’t a space to talk about it, people don’t know how to respond, the questions usually that they ask are questions that, for the survivor, feel very blaming, that the onus is on them,” she says.
BARCC has compiled a set of resources for anyone who is considering publicly disclosing their experience of sexual assault. The document (“Sharing Your Story: How to Think Through Your Options”) walks people through possible courses of action and aims to illuminate that there is no right or wrong answer to whether they should disclose. That point is especially relevant given the #MeToo movement, which may make people feel pressured to disclose, Imperato explains.
Another common question during the Q&As is how someone can respond if another person chooses to disclose to them. BARCC offers an entire training on how to most supportively reply, but the main points are to listen to them, believe them, and validate them, according to Imperato.
“I never would’ve sought help at BARCC or gone this far in my healing process if a person that I told didn’t believe me,” Lily says, echoing Imperato’s words. “Getting shut down by people you love, or dismissed, is such a roadblock. And it happens so frequently.”
In addition to being educational for audiences, the SSB can be part of the survivors’ journeys.
“It’s definitely been a nice addition to my healing process,” Lily says. “I went through three support groups at BARCC before I did the Survivor Speakers Bureau, and that was a huge process for me, to be able to get to the place where I could do it. But it really feels like the most positive part of my healing, because I can give back to people and hopefully create a little bit of change in the culture.”
To reach BARCC’s 24/7 crisis hotline, call 800-841-8371. For more information and resources, visit barcc.org.
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