Trigger Warning: There will be mentions of sexual assault and suicide. Sexual Assault Awareness Month is an annual campaign to help raise awareness about sexual assault and educate communities and individuals. For this year, GRIT wanted to hear from a student who has survived sexual assault and interview them about their experience.

Introduction and background:

My name is Emily and I am a junior Bible, Theology, and Ministry major here at Biola. On March 26, 2018, I was sexually assaulted. It was something I never thought could happen to me until it did. I was only 17. But it is so true that what the enemy meant for evil, God can use for good. He has so done in my life as the trauma I went through has shaped so much of who I am and has given me a passion for sexual violence survivors.

How did you deal with what happened immediately after and in the following months/years?

Immediately after the assault happened, I had suicidal thoughts and felt hopeless. I felt dirty and worthless. I thought what had happened was my fault. I told a few people in the months that followed and would always explain it saying, “I did this…”. I felt responsible. Six months after it happened, I was told for the very first time that what happened was not my fault. I was told that I could experience freedom from what was done to me. I was supported in telling my parents, who responded with broken hearts about what happened to their daughter. Hearing that it was not my fault brought so much relief. I was able to process what happened in therapy and a new group of friends surrounded me with gentle love and support. God has miraculously molded my heart and brought me to a place of forgiving the man who hurt me. The Lord provided me with the opportunity to share my testimony at my high school, which brought healing to me and allowed me to encourage other survivors who may have been listening.

What has the healing process looked like?

The healing process has been slow and has taken time, but full of so much of God’s grace. I have been blessed with the most wonderful support system who have been there for me in such deep lows. Therapy has been a huge help and something I cannot recommend enough. It has also been so healing to share my story with others and be open about what God has done through such a traumatic event. I have also experienced Jesus heal my mental health struggles and I have seen the frequency of panic attacks decrease drastically. Jesus has brought so much peace to my mind and has strengthened me and protected me from the pain of what happened. A while after the assault happened, I was able to think back to what happened and envision where Jesus was while it happened. I could see Him at the end of the bed crying. He was crying and weeping at the evil that was happening. He was heartbroken over what was happening to His daughter. Being able to picture Jesus present during such a traumatic experience was so powerful for me. He did not leave me. He was not unaware. I’m so thankful I serve a God who weeps and hurts for me. He wept for me and healed me. And there is more healing to come and ultimate healing in Heaven. What a hope we have!

How has it been navigating relationships after? What has been the impact on relationships?

Navigating relationships after such a traumatic event can be difficult but it is possible! I have been dating my boyfriend for over two years and he is a gift from above. He has been patient, gentle, understanding, and so kind. He stood by my side as I journeyed through the legal process. He has been understanding and so loving through panic attacks, flashbacks, triggers, and episodes of anxiety and PTSD. It has been so healing to be respected, cared for, and treated with such gentleness. Friendships with men have been difficult but I have such appreciation and love for the brothers in Christ who have surrounded me with gentleness and care. When out in public, my boyfriend and male friends intentionally look out for me and protect me, which also contributes to the healing process. I try to intentionally tell my guy friends that their care and respect for me and other women are seen and so appreciated.

To any survivors reading this- don’t be afraid to tell those around you about your triggers. It can help so much in navigating relationships after such a traumatic experience. Tell them and be honest about how you feel about hugs or other physical touches, what would help you going out in public, or any other things that can be triggering. To friends of survivors, make a point of looking out for them and contributing to how safe they feel. Listen and be patient. There is hope for survivors in relationships! God redeems!

What is your advice about the legal process?

Going through the legal process can be scary and intimidating. Though it is scary, it can also be incredibly healing and empowering, and even if a specific result one wants does not happen, it can provide justice in some way. There are advocates for sexual violence survivors who can provide emotional support throughout the whole process.

Practically, if you or someone you know has been assaulted, be sure to write down what happened in as much detail as possible. Keep clothing that was worn during the incident and anything else that could be used as evidence. If anyone would like to hear about my experience or needs a friend in their journey with this, please reach out to me on Instagram at @emily.hesler.

How can someone support a friend or someone they know who is a survivor?

I have mentioned a few ways one can support a friend or family member they know who have gone through sexual violence, but I will add more here. If a friend tells you about a traumatic event they have been through, listen intentionally and thank them for their bravery and vulnerability in sharing. I personally like to ask who they have shared that information and encourage them if it applies to telling an authority figure. Ask them how you can support them and ask if there are any triggers to be aware of or if there is anything you should know of to avoid making them uncomfortable. For example, after such a traumatic event, someone might not want to be hugged. It might be too much after such a violating experience. Be patient with them and let them know you believe them and are for them. Celebrate victories in their journey with them! Let them know they are safe and that they will get through this. Cover them in prayer and as much as you can, remind them that there is hope.

What are some safety tactics that you recommend?

After what I went through, I have been so passionate about keeping myself and others safe. I could go on and on about practical things and safety tactics I do each day, but here, I want to give a general encouragement. A general principle I have, though it may sound cliche, is that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Truly. Don’t be afraid to protect yourself. You are not being dramatic or over the top if you are simply trying to keep yourself safe. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you are leaving a store or work, etc. late at night, feel free to ask someone to walk you to your car. Be aware of your surroundings. There have been times out in public in an uncomfortable situation where I have thought, “I’m fine. I don’t want to make this bigger than it actually is. I can take care of myself.” While, yes, I am aware of ways I can keep myself safe on my own, there is also no shame at all in asking for help. Speak up for yourself and know that you are worth protecting! You are valuable, strong, capable, and you have the Spirit of God living within you!