Should I disclose a history of sexual abuse?
Talking to friends, family, or your boss about personal trauma is incredibly difficult, frightening, and even risky – but it can be an important part of the healing process
One of the biggest struggles when living with the aftermath of sexual abuse is disclosing the abuse to someone.
It requires a survivor to not only face their trauma, vocalise their experience, and risk re-traumatisation, but to also manage the consequences of the disclosure. These consequences can be vast. They can range from not being believed, managing the other person’s emotional reactions, or being ostracised from family or friends.
Disclosures can also be wildly different from one another. What works for one situation might not for another. Talking to police will feel different when compared to speaking to a parent. Disclosing to a parent will feel different compared to talking to a new sexual partner.
Sometimes, as survivors feel more empowered and in control of their lives, they can over-disclose, meaning they can regret telling some people, resulting in shameful feelings. Others can desperately want to tell someone, but the thought of doing it can feel paralysing.
I wish I could provide a step-by-step guide to disclosing in any situation. Sadly, this isn’t possible. Instead, I have created a list of questions to ask yourself. These will help you to decide how and if you should disclose.
Who do you want to tell? Are they likely to tell someone else (a partner, for example)? Are you OK with this? Can they be trusted with your story? Will you be glad you told them one month from now?
In addition, work out who you don’t want to know about this information. This can be particularly important if disclosing to a family member, or a member of a social group. People naturally want to share big information they have been told. Make clear what your boundaries are around your story.
You do not have to disclose everything. This sounds simple, but once we start talking, it may be difficult to safely censor ourselves. Sometimes, just telling a loved one that sexual abuse happened is enough. Decide what details you want to share, and what may be safer to keep private at that moment.
Get practical. Plan it out in detail. Will you do it in your own home, on a walk, or in a cafe? Think about the environment you need during the disclosure and afterwards – the time of day may be important as well. Allow time afterwards to process the experience, and do something completely different to decompress.
Even if your disclosure ends up completely different from how you planned it, having a plan in place can still help to manage the nervousness.
When is it best to tell someone? A busy public holiday or celebration, with lots of friends and family around, may be a terrible idea for some, but it may feel really supportive for others. Everyone will be different, and require different environments, so consider what would work best for you.
Consider why you are choosing to tell your story now, what will you gain, and what happens if you don’t get what you want from the disclosure? We cannot control other people’s reactions, nor are we responsible for them. You may end up disappointed that this moment doesn’t feel liberating, or the person we confide in may not respond in the way you want. By all means, hope for a positive experience, but consider what you need if it goes negatively.
If your life is still connected to the abuser, such as within a family or work/school environment, telling someone in that environment could be a risk. Making sure your physical safety is not compromised by disclosing is critical.
If you feel like you are still at risk, finding a professional to speak to is essential. This could be the police, but for some, the police may not be safe either. Communities who experience institutional prejudice or racism from the police often do not feel safe calling 999, as it can exacerbate an already dangerous situation.
Speaking to an Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) or an anonymous helpline can be a safe first step to getting more long-term support.
Ensuring your mental health is safe is important too. After the disclosure, have a safety plan, including experiences or objects you know make you feel safe.
Sexual abuse at any age, and for any gender, can break a person’s connection to the world. It ruptures one’s sense of self, and all that we are attached to. After a sexual trauma, survivors can encounter other experiences that further break that connection. This could be other abusive relationships, societal prejudice, or institutional racism, poverty, or additional traumatic experiences.
To disclose a sexual trauma can be an attempt to heal that disconnection. By telling another person about our trauma, we ask them to accept, believe, and respect us in a way we may not have experienced before. Building connections to people who make us feel safe, and can witness our trauma without further compounding it, can be incredibly reparative.
As a therapist who works a lot with trauma and complex PTSD, I believe in the power of knowing at least one other person out there has heard, believes, and acknowledges your story.
The charity I work with, SurvivorsUK, has a UK national database that includes qualified counsellors, psychotherapists, arts therapists, and psychologists who have undergone specific training with SurvivorsUK and other organisations offering support. For more information, visit survivorsuk.org
Jeremy Sachs is an integrative psychotherapist who specialises in working with trauma recovery, long-term conditions, adolescents, and young people. Find out more by visiting counselling-directory.org.uk