Talking about sexual abuse or rape can feel like exposing a deep dark secret. It feels hella shameful. We’re taught, explicitly or implicitly, not to talk about it openly and by keeping quiet, our unhealed wounds always feel ready to be ripped open and bleed anew at any moment.
Here’s what shame does: it tells you you ain’t shit, you don’t deserve shit, you don’t deserve love, you don’t deserve respect. We’ve become so numb to the trauma we hide in our bodies, not even realizing how it damages our self-worth and affects everything from the type of relationships we attract to the abundance we believe we deserve.
Check out these numbers:
Source: Yoshihama M, Bybee D, Dabby C, Blazevski J. Lifecourse Experiences of Intimate Partner Violence and Help-Seeking among Filipina, Indian, and Pakistani Women: Implications for Justice System Responses. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice; 2010. Via the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence factsheet on Domestic & Sexual Violence in Filipino Communities.
And these are just the numbers that were reported across a tiny cross-section of the population who were surveyed. How many people have never told another person? It might even be someone you know. According to the #MeToo Movement website, every 98 seconds, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. Imagine that.
If I knew there were more people like me when I was young, if it were talked about more openly and compassionately, I know that my life would have been different.
I remember being young and in pain and trying to tell people close to me about what had happened, but I just didn’t have the tools. In isolation, you feel like it’s your fault, you don’t want people to know, you don’t wanna have to press charges and relive that trauma publicly or face your abuser again.
As a survivor, I always felt like I had to prove something, to prove the validity of my experiences and my feelings. Culturally, we’re told that talking about this shit is nakakahiya—privately, publicly, or in any way.
I didn’t want to break my mom’s heart. I was being raised by a single immigrant parent who was working so hard to just keep the lights on and put food on the table. I wasn’t going to tell her when she already had so much other shit going on, and no one to turn to for her own support.
I’ve spoken with so many sisters in our community, strong ass women, and through them I’ve come to see what a common experience getting raped really is. The saddest part to me is how we just shrug it off like yup, ain’t nothing new. But—what the fuck?!
Our culture has taught us that we don’t want to burden anyone with our problems. We bury everything deep inside. How could I even consider joining something like the #MeToo movement when it would mean probing questions and judgment that may be more triggering than healing? Shit, what if my family sees this?
For so much of my life I would disembody and separate myself from my feelings and my heart. I Iearned to joke about how “disassociation is my superpower”—using humor as a defense mechanism. I was too scared to connect to anyone intimately or be vulnerable.
All through my teens and twenties, I treated my body like trash. I engaged in classic risky behavior—cutting, eating disorders, drinking, promiscuity, excess — to numb the pain, to help me feel, to not feel. My body was a war zone and I couldn’t even face the reality of all that I had survived.
For most of my sexual experiences, I was never present, consensual or not. When someone was inside me, I would detach and curl up into this secret space inside myself, going through the motions but unable to look in my partner’s eyes or let myself feel anything beyond physical sensation.
I didn’t understand what I was doing at the time, but I know now that I wasn’t allowing myself to receive love. It makes me hella sad to realize how much I missed out on, and how many of us actually do the exact same thing like, all the time.
I really believe that if we talked about sexual abuse more openly, if being raped didn’t carry such deep shame, if we had easier access to resources, or felt like we could talk to someone who would really know how to listen, we wouldn’t need to carry this trauma alone.
As complicated and nuanced as this issue is, I feel like culturally sensitive sex ed could really help to educate families and people of all genders who all have a part to play in why sexual abuse happens and why we’re still shamed for this. What would it look like to live in a society where instead of being met with interrogation, ignorance, and shaming, we’re listened to and held?
Honestly, healing is painful AF. It’s not pretty. So, how do we heal after? How can we teach people how to love themselves and allow themselves to be loved after rape? How might someone reclaim their sexual power? How might we look at pleasure or desire for those who are healing?
For me, dropping the shame was the first step. I’ve found a lot of healing through facing my trauma and opening up about it. It’s saying, “Yeah, that shit really happened”—first to myself, and then with a few people I trust, and now with everyone who’s reading my words in this moment.
Now, I treat my body and my heart like the sacred spaces that they are, where only the most deserving are allowed to enter. Honestly, meditation has saved my life.
Learning to speak my truth and set clear boundaries have also been critical, as has been forgiveness. Forgiving my abusers, but also forgiving myself for carrying that trauma with me, for being “difficult” or “too much” in intimate relationships because my experiences still make me scared sometimes and unwittingly test my partners’ love and commitment. Forgiving myself for not being able to be fully present for people who really loved me and wanted to be close to me.
Once I faced those memories about what had happened to me, I had to deal with the fallout. There were times I almost wanted to kill myself; it was that overwhelming. I left a long-term relationship during the beginning of my healing process, partly because it was too triggering to be intimate with them anymore. I wondered if I would ever really enjoy sex. I still feel ugly and unworthy sometimes, and I still have a really hard time accepting love. But I’ve also never been happier than I am in this moment. Because I faced that trauma and because I’m taking steps to heal myself, I have a capacity for joy I never had before, I have a capacity for love I never had before. I hope that sharing my story encourages other survivors to find healing too.
So drop the shame, sis. You are the whole universe. You deserve to feel good, you deserve love. Although your experience is something you’ll always carry, it doesn’t have to become your whole story. Know that healing isn’t a linear process. Sometimes it’ll feel like one step forward, 20 steps back. Try not to beat yourself up about it. Congratulate yourself for every small bit of progress. You’re alive in this moment; you’ve survived. Thank yourself for being here and having made it this far.
Get the resources and the support you need. Talk to your partners (if you choose to have them) and let them know what safety and being loved looks like for you. Learn to recognize your triggers and what helps reground you.
It’s an uphill battle, but once you start the process and learn to free yourself from all the stigma there’s so much love and happiness out there waiting for you.
More than anything, always remember: Stop Carrying Trauma Alone; We Need To Talk More About Sexual Abuse and you’re never alone. Believe that.
Born and raised in the Bay and currently based in Oakland, Stephanie Gancayco is a creative director, designer, and event curator whose work is rooted in bridge-building, healing, and community. She’s the founder and editor-in-chief of Hella Pinay, a media platform which seeks to create a space for positive representation of the diversity and complexity of Filipina womxn and to facilitate dialogue between Pinays in the Philippines and throughout the diaspora.
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