Should I Tell?
If you are under age 18, you should know that some people you may want to tell (such as teachers, coaches, or clergy) would be required to report to child protection or law enforcement. Learn more here.
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
-Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road
This is your story.
It’s not a nice story, not a pretty story, not a story you wanted.
You did not choose this to be your story. But now you have the choice to tell–or not to tell–your story.
That choice gives you power. But it also gives you a decision to make.
You can choose who to tell, when to tell, how to tell, and how much to tell.
You choose how to tell.
You can use any language you would like to describe what happened, how it felt to you, and what it means to you. You can tell by written letter, by text, by talking in person, by email, by voice phone or voice recording. You can start with a similar story or song and then pivot to your story.
You choose what to tell.
You can start small and tell more later. You can tell some pieces to some people and other pieces to other people. You can start by telling a little, then decide whether to tell more later based on your level of trust, your own needs, and the depth of the relationship. In the words of one survivor of intrafamilial sexual abuse with decades of life experience, “You can always tell them more later, but once you’ve told, you can’t take it back.”
You choose when to tell.
Once you decide to tell your story, finding a time and actually doing it is not easy. Carrying difficult words that you want to say can feel like a very heavy burden. If you wanted to tell in the past but found yourself unable to follow through, this is not a sign of weakness; it is normal. You may need to keep trying, many times and many ways. This is a sign of true courage.
You choose who to tell.
Especially when your sexual trauma was caused by a sibling, it may be helpful to tell your story for the first time in an anonymous setting, such as RAINN.org or 1in6.org. These can connect you with resources to support you if you choose to tell your story to someone in your family or anyone else in your life.
You need to choose people who you can trust to let your story remain your story–who will not tell anyone else without your permission. You need to choose people you can rely on to believe you and support you. There is definitely risk involved here–no one knows for sure how another person will react. You need to balance that risk with the risk of keeping your story hidden. If you are able, you may want to start the conversation or message exchange with words to this effect: “I want to tell you something that is going to sound strange, and it’s hard for me to tell. It’s really important to me that you take it seriously, and keep it confidential. Can I trust you to do that?”
Siblingstoo.com, a site and podcast created by a woman who is overcoming the effects of sibling sexual abuse, has a place specifically for survivors of sibling sexual trauma to share their stories anonymously.
Dealing with Others’ Reactions
Sibling sexual trauma is little known and little understood. The people you tell are likely to have no point of reference to understand your story. They are almost guaranteed to be caught off guard. You may encounter a great variety of unhelpful reactions: disgust, disbelief, making a joke, shock, dismissing your story or minimizing its significance. These initial reactions do not necessarily predict how the person will interact with you and your story long-term. It is an unfair reality that you may be the one to remain calm and remind them that this is real and important to you and you need their support.
Telling your story to family is especially complicated and courageous when it involves being sexually violated by a sibling. Your family will be reacting to the news that someone they know and love–you–was sexually violated, while also reacting to the news that someone else they know and love–your sibling–committed a sexual violation. You are likely to encounter shock, denial, rage, despair, disbelief, or any other strong emotion from parents, other siblings, and other family members. It is important that you have support in place--therapy or peer support--to deal with this.
Family members’ initial reactions may change over time. They may eventually regret or apologize for their initial reaction. Your family members will probably need to find support for themselves, and will have to go through their own healing process. This website might be a good place to refer them to start learning about sibling sexual trauma and to find the resources they need. It has a whole section especially for parents.
Dealing With Your Own Reactions
Many people who tell the story of their sexual trauma and find support feel relief, as if a great weight was lifted. Others find that after their words hit the air or appear on a screen, their story and their trauma becomes real in a new way.
Some survivors find that when they start to tell their story to others, it brings feelings and physical reactions of the past into the present. It may bring back memories that they had long forgotten, or didn’t even know they had. This is not a sign of mental illness; it is a normal reaction to trauma. If any of these experiences are disturbing, if they are disrupting your life or your sleep, seek help–there is relief available.
The process of telling your story to others in your life is often called disclosure. You may feel guilt or fear about the way your disclosure is affecting others in your family. This is the time to remind yourself of an important truth: You are not ultimately responsible, because you did not choose to be part of this story. It is not your fault. Your sibling’s actions are the cause of any turmoil or suffering you may see in your family and loved ones. You can find healing, your loved ones can find healing, even the sibling whose actions caused the suffering can find healing.
Telling someone what happened to you for the first time is a milestone. But it is not the end. You will have the chance to choose who to tell, what to tell, when to tell, and how to tell many times over the course of your life.
RAINN.org: Telling Loved Ones About Sexual Assault
RAINN.org: Jane's Story
1in6.org: Navigating Relationships - Male Sexual Abuse and Assault (click or scroll to “Telling Someone What Happened”)
Later-in-life disclosure: Non-recent abuse | NSPCC
The Bristlecone Project: Male Survivor Stories | 1in6
Karen E. Fennell, MSW, LISW-CP: Straying Towards Truth: A Therapist's Personal Story and Professional Guide to Healing After Sexual Abuse A memoir of a young man’s disclosure of sexual abuse by an uncle, in his words, alternating with the words of his mother as a mother and his mother as a therapist.