Life

What It’s Like to Tell Your Parents You’ve Been Sexually Assaulted

"When I used the word 'abuse', my mum burst into tears."
October 12, 2020, 2:41pm
woman standing in front of other people
Illustration by Titia Hoogendoorn 

CW: This article includes descriptions of sexual assault and child sexual abuse. This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

When you've experienced sexual assault, making the decision to speak to the police, your doctor or a psychologist can be very difficult. Telling someone – anyone – about what happened can feel overwhelming, but hardest of all might be speaking to the people closest to you, considering how common it is to feel shame, guilt and fear around the experience.

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So how do you decide on the right time and place to share your assault with parents and friends? And how does it feel in the moment? Eva, Daan and Franka* told us their stories.

Daan (22)

I was abused by a coworker when I was 20, after I had dinner at his house. I felt safe and comfortable with him, so I was really confused after it happened. It might sound weird, but I didn’t realise what had happened, and that it had been really bad, until the next day.

I didn't work up the courage to tell my parents until months later. I felt like I had to; it was such a major incident in my life, and I had to share it. Sitting in their living room, I was incredibly nervous. You could hear it in my voice. “I want to tell you something,” I stuttered. They knew immediately that something bad was coming. When I used the word “abuse”, my mum burst into tears. She panicked – she was overwhelmed by emotion and had no idea how to respond.

My dad was furious. Not at me, at the situation. He screamed that I had to go to the cops and that I couldn’t just let it slide. It was like he was about to drive to my coworker’s house to to beat him up. Meanwhile, I didn’t even want to file a police report – I simply didn’t have the energy for it. I wanted to put the whole thing behind me and move on with my life.

But the longer I sat there, the more I retreated into myself. I shut down completely and felt a sense of disgust coursing through me, while the assault kept flashing through my mind.

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Reliving the abuse was probably the hardest thing. On top of that, I felt really embarrassed in front of my parents, even though my relationship with them isn’t that close to begin with. I felt like I should have known better, or that I could have prevented it from happening.

From time to time, a few of my friends who know about it ask me well-intended, difficult questions. People want to know exactly what happened, and that’s really hard. I relive it every time I talk about it, the same way I did when I told my parents. I didn’t tell my girlfriend at the time what had happened until six weeks later.

I looked for professional help to lessen the impact of those flashbacks, and ended up having both physical therapy and psychological counselling. Thanks to EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) therapy, a specialised method for processing traumatic events, I’ve learned to cope with the images that kept popping up in my head. Aside from that, I did tantra and bodywork therapy, so I could rebuild my relationship to my own sexuality. It helped me a lot, but the abuse will always be a part of my life. That’s why I still tell new people I meet sometimes, but only if I feel truly safe around them.

I also want to tell people who have been through the same thing that it’s important to tell your story to people you love and who you feel comfortable with. By speaking up about it, the abuse ceases to be this big secret you have to carry alone. It can help you process it.

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My parents never brought it up again, although since that conversation my dad always asks me: “Are you going to be careful?” I’m looked at differently, like I can’t be trusted with my own safety. That only adds insult to injury. But talking to my partner at the time was a big relief, so it’s really important to be discerning about who you talk to. Some people can’t handle it, or understand it, but a professional will be able to.

Franka* (27)

When I was seven years old, I was forced to perform sex acts on my oldest half-brother. For example, he made me jerk him off with rubber gloves. He called it “playing doctor”.

Though he never told me to stay quiet, I knew that it wasn’t something I wanted to share with anyone. The abuse was my secret. I promised myself that I would take it to my grave, because I knew that talking about it would destroy my family.

While I thought my parents hadn’t noticed the abuse, they thought I couldn’t remember it. All those years we were going around each other in circles, driven by this bizarre misunderstanding. Until my mum asked my partner in this roundabout way, “Do you know about Franka and her half-brother?” It was her way of trying to find out if I still remembered. When I heard about my mum's question, I knew I couldn’t keep my secret any longer. I was constantly afraid she would bring it up again.

After we went shopping one day, my mum drove me home. Instead of dropping me off at my front door, she drove to a parking spot. She stopped the car and said, “I never knew if you remembered anything”.

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That was the definitive end of my secret. I tensed up, still scared to open up Pandora’s box. My breathing sped up and I was clenching my jaw. I said I did, and I wondered how open I should be about the details of the abuse. But my mum asked me point blank what had happened, how often, when, and if he did it while they were home, or away. I think, for her, this was a way of figuring out if she could have prevented it. With my whole body resisting, I answered her questions. She sat quietly and listened.

“Did we do something wrong?” she carefully asked. I heard a tremor in her voice and noticed she was crying. I could see she felt guilty, but also how mad she was at her stepson.

After sitting in that stifling car for 30 minutes, I was done. I ended by saying, “I don’t want you to blame yourself for anything.” I still wonder if she took it to heart. My mum gave me one of those awkward car hugs, where you’re both leaning over the gears. As soon as I stepped inside the house and saw my partner, I crumbled.

Despite my mum being very sweet and understanding, I started having recurring flashbacks – the past suddenly felt much closer to the present. When I smelled rubber, or saw a child sitting on an adult’s lap, it bubbled right back up to the surface. I wanted to fight the helplessness I felt during the flashbacks, or rather, confront it. I decided to talk to my half-brother about the abuse, to win back control over my life.

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His response wasn’t what I had hoped for – he acted kind of aloof and didn’t seem to be very sorry. Still, it felt like a weight had been lifted. I’m happy I can now live my life without any secrets.

Eva (26)

When I was backpacking in Australia, aged 19, I got separated from my best friend during a night out in Sydney. A DJ from the bar I was at offered to drive me home. When I got in his car and he locked the doors, I knew I was in trouble. An hour-and-a-half later I got out of the car, completely disoriented.

My first impulse was to call my mum, but I couldn’t tell her exactly what had happened. She could hear I was upset, though. We had a family member in Sydney and my mum suggested that I go to their place.

A day later, I got back in touch with my lost friend. I was still in shock and could only keep repeating, “He did something to me,” like some sort of damaged little bird. I was incredibly angry that my friend had left me that night. I yelled at her, saying that I never wanted to see her again. But what I really wanted was for her to stay close.

A few days later, when I started to realise what had actually happened, I decided to email my sister. It was a very emotional message – I detailed exactly what happened. But I didn’t want her to worry, so I ended the email with, “Everything will be OK, don’t worry about me.”

My sister called my parents immediately and they tried to get in touch with me, but I really didn’t want to talk about it. In the months that followed I felt so lonely in Australia. I hoped that I could start afresh when I got back to the Netherlands.

The rape really did a number on my parents. We sometimes discuss the topic itself, but we never talk about what happened to me specifically. When you have a daughter, an assault like this is probably your worst nightmare. That’s why I didn’t talk about it right away; I wanted to spare them that pain.

Though we still don’t really talk, they did help me a lot in a practical sense, like by finding me a psychologist. But mostly, I wish they would just initiate a conversation one night over a bottle of wine. We’re very close and we see each other a lot. That’s why I sometimes wonder why we never really discuss it. But I think it’s just too painful for my parents.

I’m still glad I talked about it. The abuse is like this big backpack that's too heavy for me to carry by myself. It’s changed me. I can tell by the way I think about things now, or the way I look at men. I don’t trust them as easily as I used to. It’s become a part of who I am, and I can’t stay silent about that.

If you've experienced sexual assault, rapecrisis.org can help.

*Name changed