Following the disgrace of many, many powerful men after revelations of their ongoing abuse came to light, conversations surrounding sexual misconduct has never been more prevalent. Suddenly, we are reassessing what we believe constitutes harassment, assault or general inappropriate behavior, we're reconsidering the consequences attached, and our female relatives and friends are coming forward with stories they've never before shared.
Most importantly, we're learning to put women first. Society is (we hope) shifting structurally to believe accusers and subsequently helping them heal. If you're a survivor, or know someone who has been abused, you'll understand that recovery isn't easy. While there are no short cuts or quick fixes to deal with the pain or confront your aggressor, there are ways that will make the process more tenable. PAPER spoke to survivor, author and founder of Women For One, an online community for women, Kelly McNelis, to share her advice on breaking the silence and making it through.
Whether or not you consider it worth it or not to come forward is entirely up to you
This is entirely dependent on the context. However, transparency, accountability, and truth are important values to live by, in which case there are seldom situations in which it isn't worth it to speak up to abuse, even when it might be really hard at first.
If you're nervous of professional blowback, make sure you know your allies
Women who are more advanced professionally should find the time to connect and mentor women who are not there yet in their own careers. We all have something to learn from one another as women, and we all benefit by having each other's backs and offering support and solidarity. We live in a changing time wherein the status quo and the old boy's club environment of the traditional workplace is changing. When we begin to share our stories with one another, we can gain tremendous support and have a huge impact. So just remember this when and if you feel powerless. Moreover, is it worth it to stay silent in an environment where your physical and emotional well-being are at risk? We need to connect with whatever will give us the courage to step up to abusive and inappropriate behavior.
While you can't physically guard yourself against abuse, you can speak up
Let's be real; "how do we protect ourselves" is kind of question that keeps us in a culture where abuse continues to be perpetuated, because it places the weight on women to be even more vigilant and careful. And if and when we don't succeed and are assaulted and harassed, we end up blaming ourselves. The greatest "protection" is speaking up louder about our experiences, offering solidarity to those who've also had the same experiences, and demanding that abusers take responsibility for their behavior.
Always remember harassment is not a matter of self-presentation
It's not uncommon for young women and men to experience it at a tender age—often, even in their own homes. Many perpetrators of abuse aren't strangers or people "out in the world," but those who are intimate and familiar with us already, such as family members. Harassment and abuse are often about power; people who harass and abuse are attempting to diminish the power of the people they target.
Healing is about acceptance rather than denial, because the only way out is through
When it comes to healing, timing is personal and it varies for everyone. I don't think that healing is linear, so I'm not the kind of person who encourages "speeding" anything up. It feels like when it comes to grief, many of us are looking for quick fixes, to our own detriment. However, we have to dive into the darkness, the messiness, and all the things that it's natural for us to want to avoid, only then can you discover your sense of purpose and passion, and connect with other women in all our realness and rawness. So in a big way, healing is about acceptance rather than denial. This is easier said than done, so again, consider working with a therapist who can help guide you through the trauma with compassion and skill.
Be compassionate towards yourself
First of all, be compassionate toward yourself. Nobody willingly chooses abuse. The great thing is that these difficult experiences are the ones that help us to build character, strength, and resilience. By diving into our experience and choosing to learn from our trauma, we can come out on the other side more powerful and in a position to stand up for others in similar situations. We can choose to claim our self-worth and recognize our courage — both in the moment of our experience and in the aftermath. We are always doing the best we can with whatever we have. Instead of dwelling on what you could've done "better," know that every moment in life gives you the opportunity to start over and to learn from whatever life has dealt you. No matter how painful your trauma was, you can get through it.