Shame: When it Happens to You, by Wendy Canova, LCSW, Clinical Director

Sexual assault is a form of abuse used to gain power and control over another person. Every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. 1 in 6 women are victims of sexual assault at some point in their lifetime. 1 in 33 men experience sexual assault ( These statistics from RAINN illustrate how vast of a problem sexual assault is. It happens across every race, socioeconomic status, religion, and background. It is frighteningly common.

But what about when it happens to YOU?

You may feel shame. Shame says things like:

 “How could I let this happen?”

“I’m not the kind of person that gets sexually assaulted.”

“This was someone I trusted—am I the one that’s wrong?”

“Am I overreacting?”

“I’m used and dirty now.”

“I should’ve fought them off.”

“I must’ve deserved it.”

“It was my fault.”

Shame is a normal reaction to experiencing sexual trauma. But that doesn’t mean your shame is telling you the truth. Shame is lying to you—it doesn’t belong to you. It was placed on you by someone else. You can choose not to accept it.

The shame belongs to the person that perpetrated the sexual assault. It is their fault because they chose to abuse you. It has nothing to do with who you are or anything you have done. Every human has a prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that allows us to make decisions and have logical thoughts. It is what makes us different from other animals. An individual that perpetrates sexual assault is using their prefrontal cortex to decide to assault someone sexually. It is not an instinct that takes them over. It is not an accident. It is a premeditated decision.

If you’ve been sexually assaulted, you have had your power forcibly taken from you and had it replaced with shame. Part of beginning to take your power back is to no longer accept the narrative that shame has written for you. Shame thrives in silence, but Brené Brown tells us that “shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.” So, share your story with someone you can trust and support you. Share with a friend, family member, or therapist. Take control of the narrative. Place the shame where it belongs.

But what if the person you tell reinforces your feelings of shame? Unfortunately, victim-blaming is also very common. It can sound like:

“Why didn’t you say no?”

“What were you wearing?”

“Were you drinking/doing drugs?”

“Don’t report it to the police.”

“You must’ve been asking for it.”

“What did you expect?”

“Don’t talk about this.”

“You’re lying.”

“You should just get over it.”

“You need to forgive them.”

These responses are not appropriate and can often make a survivor feel worse. These statements are dripping with shame, but it doesn’t have to land on and stain the survivor. You can choose to wipe it off because this shame doesn’t belong to you. It still belongs to the perpetrator and the person saying this. They are taking the shame that makes them uncomfortable and trying to put it on you. Don’t accept it, for it is not yours to carry.

Abuse of any kind is never the fault of the person being abused. It is always the fault of the abuser. If you have been sexually assaulted, it was not your fault. You are not used. You are not dirty. You are not broken.

A supportive person that you can share your story with will respond like this:

“I believe you.”

“I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“You did nothing wrong.”

“Your feelings and your pain are valid.”

“How can I help?”

“It’s your decision to report, but if you do decide to report, I will support you.”

“I am here for you.”

“I care about you.”

You don’t owe anyone your story. You can choose who you share with, and you can stop sharing at any time when you realize that someone is not going to be supportive in the way that you need. Sharing your story doesn’t mean that you must write a social media post or give a TED talk about it. It means getting help and support from people who care about you.

Brené Brown also says: “Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, yes. This is what happened. And I will choose how the story ends… Owning your story is the bravest thing you’ll ever do.”

Please reach out for help. You do not have to go through this alone. You don’t have to hold onto your abuser’s shame. You get to take back your power and control. Own your story. You are brave and so strong for doing so.