Joyful Heart in the News

Online Communities Help Sexual Assault Survivors Heal

April 28th, 2013
Cinnaminson Patch
Lauren Burgoon

Tara Laracuente felt trapped after years of sexual abuse at the hands of two relatives. She remained mired in fear, but also had a growing need to tell someone, anyone who would understand what she went through.

Laracuente turned where so many survivors of sexual abuse increasingly head to find support and recovery—the Internet.

“People have come to understand that there are a large number of survivors out there,” says Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). “It’s helped them recover by connecting them to a larger community.”

People flock to the Internet every day to find a community of people who get them. Whether your interests or experiences lie in new motherhood, dealing with a medical condition or an odd hobby, likeminded people forge their own online communities, finding encouragement from others who may live half a world away or the next block over.

The ready access and anonymity of the Internet can help sexual assault victims take the first step toward becoming survivors.

“One of the biggest challenges that I believe all survivors of sexual abuse face is carrying such pain and blame that they attach to themselves about the crimes committed against them by their attackers,” says Chris Anderson, executive director of Male Survivor, a site for men and boys who lived through sexual abuse.

“It makes it very difficult for somebody who has been victimized to come forward in more open ways and talk to friends or people in the real world about what happened to them.”

It’s not just that survivors are using the Internet, something that wouldn’t be unusual in a digital age. It’s that so many people begin, and sometimes completely carry out, their recovery with online-only resources.

“They visit the website and read resources there,” Berkowitz says. “They’re trying to understand as much as possible about what happened and what others have gone through and what the normal reactions are to sexual assault.”

A community of survivors

Laracuente, who had disclosed to only a few people offline, began her online search with the Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by actress Mariska Hargitay. The foundation describes its mission as creating a community that says, “We hear you. We believe you. We feel for you. You are not alone. And your healing is our priority.”

That’s what Laracuente, who lives in Gloucester County, found.

“What helped me with my recovery was finally speaking out about it online through all the survivors I meet through the Joyful Heart Foundation. They helped encourage me to continue to share my story and be free,” she says.

Disclosing online can help people not yet ready to tell family or friends about the sexual assault. Or, as in Laracuente’s case, it can ease the pain of people who don’t believe or act supportive of survivors. Laracuente’s sister disclosed sexual abuse to their mother, who didn’t believe it, she says, so she opted instead for online support.

Laracuente now uses a mix of Facebook groups, Twitter and her own blog in her recovery. While still getting support from others, she also shares her own experiences in an effort to help others know they’re not alone.

Survivors should tread carefully online

Online forums for sexual assault survivors are a mixed bag, though. Some are freewheeling discussions on sites not backed by a professional organization, while others run moderated discussions through noted support groups. Others couple information with online help, such as the anonymous instant messenger chat that RAINN runs.

Male Survivor uses the moderated approach

“We combine the anonymity of the Internet with a very, very well-skilled group of moderators, who are also survivors and who are monitoring the conversation. They keep an eye on things to make sure nobody is being taken advantage of,” Anderson says.

“It isn’t always the easiest thing to do because there are a lot of raw emotions people need to talk about. There’s a lot of pain and lot of anger.”

And when those emotions spill out, it can be detrimental to other participants. Sometimes talking about abuse or hearing others’ experiences can lead to flashbacks of one’s own abuse.

“When I first started speaking out, I was so overwhelmed with all the emotions I hid for years and the flashbacks kept coming back every night, where most nights I couldn't sleep and I would cry myself to sleep,” Laracuente, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, recalls. “I also began cutting myself because I was so hurt and ashamed.”

It’s important for survivors to know what they’re getting into on online forums, Anderson cautions.

“We’re not specifically a professional resource—we’re a community,” he says.

Some organizations, such as RAINN, offer trained online help as well. The anonymous “online hotline” uses trained crisis support volunteers to counsel victims.

“It’s had a great impact. We started finding years ago that victims, younger ones in particular, were reluctant to call a hotline, so we created an online version that provides the same kind of one-on-one support,” Berkowitz says. “That’s experiencing record demand, up 19 percent over last year.”

A stepping stone

People choose to heal from traumas in all sorts of ways. But, several experts and survivors agree, online help should usually just act as a start to healing from sexual assault.

“Online is great because it primes the pipe. (Survivors) need to speak it out loud and speak it to somebody. It’s kind of like lighting the fuse,” says Rhett Hackett, an abuse survivor turned activist who lives in Camden County. “But you have to take it to the next step by finding someone who’s qualified.”

Offline help for sexual assault survivors is a highly personal decision, experts acknowledge, and no one heals from trauma in the same way. Recovery also isn’t usually a linear process. Where online resources may have been enough for some people in years past, any reemergence of issues could benefit from face-to-face help.

“While on the one hand, there are a lot of advantages of being able to talk about these issues on the Internet, there’s a downside in that sometimes when you have that wall of anonymity, you don’t have the immediate feedback that you get when you’re in the same room as somebody,” Anderson says. “It’s always up to the survivor, ultimately, to go into therapy. We also encourage people to find skilled professionals to work with.

“You’ll see a lot of people who come on to the site, participate in the forums and find they can get support from people in an amazingly compassionate way. That gives them the courage and confidence to start looking for resources closer to home.”

Hackett, a moderator for Male Survivor, participated in face-to-face therapy, as well as a Male Survivor weekend retreat. Laracuente, meanwhile, is finding healing through online-only resources.

“The first few months that I spoke out were very hard. My emotions went crazy,” she remembers. “But that no matter how it happened or what anyone says, it’s not your fault. We can’t keep blaming ourselves. We did nothing wrong. That’s something that I learned throughout my healing process.”

This is the final part of Patch’s series during National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. For the complete series, including where to find help, visit our Out of the Shadows: National Sexual Assault Awareness Month page.

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