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20-year-old Erin McKelle was sexually and emotionally abused by her step sibling eight years ago in Cleveland, Ohio. Today she volunteers for the RAINN Speakers Bureau sharing her story to help spread the word about violence, survival and recovery. SABRE interviewed Erin as part of the Survivor Stories initiative.
SABRE: Was this a one-time assault or did this occur over any length of time?
EM: This was something that happened in terms of assault once but evolved into an abusive relationship.
SABRE: Was this someone you knew or was this a stranger?
EM: This happened with a step sibling – someone I knew.
SABRE: Was this something that you felt like you couldn’t talk about at all? Or were you feeling like you wanted to seek help right away? Either way, why did you feel that way?
EM: I knew it was something I couldn't talk about, if I wanted to be in good standing with my family. I tried to normalize the experience in order to sort through my feelings and never even thought about talking to someone or seeking support. I felt this way because of the messages about sexual violence I was receiving from both my family and the larger culture; I knew internally that what happened to me was considered to be shameful and thought I'd be blamed for it. I knew my family would never understand or probably even believe me, which is why I felt so isolated.
SABRE: If you had a chance to confront your attacker, what would you say to them and why? What do you want a person who hurts someone else to know about their actions?
EM: I honestly think that for my own sake, as well as the sake of everyone involved, I wouldn't confront them. But, I want them and everyone else to know that sexually assaulting someone is never an acceptable thing to do and that this type of vile action can affect someone's life forever.
SABRE: What can the rest of us do to make help more accessible, or to make people feel safer about coming forward to ask for help?
EM: Resources need to be given to everyone in school and people need to make themselves and available and let survivors know they're a safe person. Even saying something to the effect of "If you ever need to talk about anything, I'm here," can be reassuring. Also making it clear you don't tolerate sexual assault by perhaps talking about relevant news or even bringing up a conversation about SAAPM can be great. I think if you're a survivor, sharing your story with someone else is another great way to make help feel more accessible.
SABRE: What do you think needs to change to make that happen?
EM: Sexual violence needs to not be such a taboo subject. Since the issue is still filled with shame, people don't really discuss it openly, which can make it hard to come forward. The more we have these conversations and step up to the plate, the easier it will be for people to disclose and seek help and healing.
SABRE: How has this affected you in your life post-assault? Is there anything that you used to do that you don’t anymore? Or is there something you didn’t do pre-assault that you make a point to do now?
EM: It's definitely affected my sexuality; for a long time I was desperate to be with anyone because I was seeking this validation I had lost when I was assaulted. The relationship with my family has also changed and we've been through a lot with this issue. I make it a point to assert my boundaries with people, since it's something I still have a hard time doing.
SABRE: What do you think it the biggest misconception about sexual assault and violence right now?
EM: That sexual assault only happens to certain types of people in certain situations – usually white, cisgender and heterosexual women at college parties or in dark allies. The stories that we hear are still very one-noted and this keeps a lot of us with unconventional stories in silence. There is no face of sexual assault, as survivors come from all sorts of backgrounds, races, economic statuses and genders.
SABRE: What advice do you have for someone who was recently victimized? What do you wish someone would have told you when this happened?
EM: My advice would be to find hope and healing in some place, whatever that means for you. I wish someone had told me that what happened to me wasn't at all my fault and that someone not believing me doesn't reflect on me, but on them. So many survivors don't come forward because they are scared of not being believed and I wish every survivor was reassured about this, since coming forward while living in a society that treats sexual assault victims so poorly is very difficult.
SABRE: What are some resources that have helped you, and what are some that you want to make sure other people know about?
EM: I have found NSVRC and RAINN to be very helpful resources, especially in terms of acquiring information about sexual violence. Also, reading books on the subject like The Courage to Heal and Life, Reinvented have really helped me to heal and would recommend both titles to survivors. I've found contributing to I Will End Sexual Violence to be very cathartic and would love others to share their stories on the blog!
SABRE: How would you describe the place you’re at in life right now?
EM: I'm in a very good, happy place in my life now. I've done a lot of therapy and activist work, which have both allowed me to heal and find my voice. I now live in Columbus, Ohio and work as a freelance writer, blogger, and social media strategist after graduating with a BA in gender studies from Ohio University. You can learn more about me and my work at www.erinmckelle.com and read more about my story on the Huffington Post.