From The Straits Times    |

Credit: Getty

After Jo* survived a brutal rape in 2021, she did something unpredictable, and perhaps even shocking: She began seeking out sexual encounters to re-enact what had happened to her. “It was self-sabotage”, says Jo, 26, a student. “It was like, maybe if I consent to it this time, it will change what happened to me.”

It was also a type of response that people who have not experienced similar trauma would struggle to understand – a pattern of behaviour known as repetition compulsion, where a person seeks to re-enact a traumatic memory to regain a sense of control. Then, earlier this year, Jo found herself in a room full of people who not only understood exactly what she was going through, but had also responded to their trauma in a similar way.

The women were all there for the same reason: They’re part of a support group for women who had survived sexual violence, who meet monthly during sessions facilitated by Dr Sara Delia Menon, a clinical psychologist at Alliance Counselling.

Generally, sexual violence or misconduct refers to sexual acts done by force, intimidation or manipulation, without the victim’s consent. These include unwanted touches, penetration without consent, harassment, unwanted text or social media messages, and voyeurism.

Jo had found the group in a desperate bid to come to terms with what happened to her. Therapy was helping, but only to a certain extent, while her friends and family were at a loss as to how to show support. “Everyone thinks what happened was just a one-time thing. But I’m stuck in this moment of assault forever,” she says.

Before her first meeting earlier this year, Jo was worried that her experience “wasn’t serious enough”. Her case had been closed by the police after a year of investigations as there wasn’t enough evidence to charge the perpetrator, and the outcome had left her wondering if she was “overreacting”.

“It’s like, no one really believed me, and nobody really saw how truly horrible and extreme it was,” recalls Jo, who had tried to end her life after her case was closed. “I was worried I didn’t have the right to be there [at the support group].”

But the support group turned out to be exactly what she needed – a safe space where Jo did not have to explain or justify herself; she was among women who had gone through similar experiences, and who listened without judgement. “It was saying [to me] that my experience was real. My story was being heard and acknowledged,” she shares.

“It was saying [to me] that my experience was real. My story was being heard and acknowledged.”

– Jo, student and sexual assault survivor

A pillar of support

On the last Wednesday evening of each month, a group of women – usually seven to eight in total – gather in a cosy, relaxed room, each prepared to hold space for others, and explore how sexual violence had affected their lives. No group is ever the same – some attend monthly, others occasionally, and some may join only once. The sessions are free-flowing: Participants can choose whether they want to speak, and what they want to share, or they may choose to just listen for the whole 90-minute session.

“Having been assaulted, your right to safety and consent has been taken from you. So it is very important that participants experience that autonomy, to speak if they want to, or not,” explains Dr Menon.

Although trauma-informed care and mental health services have become increasingly prominent over the years, finding a support group for sexual violence survivors wasn’t easy – the group run by Dr Menon is the only one Jo could find after months of searching. “There’s really nothing like this, and I was in a very dark place that I think few people could relate to,” she says.

Each session begins with a simple icebreaker question (for example, “What flavour of ice cream best describes you today?”), before Dr Menon opens the floor to the women to ask questions or share what’s on their mind, be it how to find love after assault or abuse, or why some people freeze during a traumatic event while others fight.

For Hannah, an American student studying in Singapore, the diversity of women at her first session left a deep impression: Some were decades older, others were still in school. She was also struck by the fact that there are people who have been struggling with what happened for a long time.

“People sometimes feel like they should be ‘over it’ by now, especially after a few years,” says Hannah. “When you see other people still dealing with it, it is validating. It takes a long time.”

At 16, when she was still a minor, Hannah was groomed by a man eight years older. The relationship, which happened in the US, was an abusive one and, on at least one occasion, he forced her to continue having non-consensual sex with him. “I tried to convince myself that it was nothing,” says Hannah, now 23 and studying in Singapore.

Even after she sought therapy, it took her a long time to realise that what happened to her was not just emotional abuse, it was also sexual assault. “When I started going to the support group, I wasn’t sure if I had been ‘assaulted enough’, shares Hannah. “After going to the group, I felt more confident.”

Dr Menon started the support group in 2020 together with The Whitehatters, an NGO that facilitates dialogue on social issues. Together, they wanted to support women living with domestic violence, and who were facing increased risk of abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic. When the initial run came to an end after a year, Dr Menon decided to continue holding the sessions.

“Survivors are surviving every single day. They have been left with the burden of dealing with this terrible situation,” she says. “I wanted to keep the community going.”

Rape myths and “victim-blaming” make dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault a lonely, sometimes traumatic, experience in itself. According to the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), only three in 10 sexual violence survivors at their Sexual Assault Care Centre report their assault to the police.

In addition, a vast majority of reported sexual assault cases do not result in charges. From 2017 to 2019, 6,988 reports were made, of which 1,368 were prosecuted, leading to 931 convictions. Investigating sexual crimes can be a challenge. In an interview with Channel NewsAsia in 2021, a police officer noted that it is not uncommon for there to be no direct evidence, witnesses or CCTV footage in such cases.

Even though support groups are not therapy, going to one has a therapeutic effect. “They connect with people in a way that could restore that faith in humanity that assault and abuse takes away,” says Dr Menon.

Beth*, a communications professional, says that being sexually abused by a relative when she was eight years old “completely changed the trajectory of my life”.

“I did not understand what happened to me, and I kept blaming myself. I kept feeling I was wrong, bad and flawed,” says Beth, who is now in her 40s. “I was angry, depressed and anxious. It ruined my ability to form healthy relationships with people.”

Beth did not connect her mental health and relationship issues with what happened to her decades earlier, until she confided in a friend, who told her, “Beth, that’s trauma. You should get help.” The revelation motivated her to dive deep into the world of trauma research and literature, where she learnt that what happened to her as a child had left lasting repercussions on her physical and mental health.

“I learnt that (one form of ) trauma response… is that it makes you disconnected from others. I experience people as frightening and threatening. I don’t fully understand it yet, but I think it’s why I have this impulse to keep other people out,” shares Beth.

Joining the support group proved to be helpful. “To have different people sharing about their experience, I felt that I wasn’t alone… It gave me context for what happened to me,” she says.

After her first session in 2020, Beth went to bed that night feeling different: “I remember it was like a tension leaving my body as I slept. I slept so deeply that night, like I never had before.”

Photo: Getty Images

Showing up for one another

During one meeting, a participant shared that she was thinking about reporting her abuser to the police, but feared that he would be labelled a rapist because of her.

“We said to her: It isn’t because of you that he will be called a rapist; he will be called a rapist because he is one,” says Marina*, a naturopathic doctor and member of the support group. “Sometimes, we can’t arrive at these truths on our own.”

The group dynamic of these meetings is why members continue to return – they get to hold space for each other, and take a break from working on themselves.

“Therapy is a lot of active processing, and looking for the tools [to heal],” explains Hannah. “I have all the tools I need, but sometimes I just need to be upset about something. Or joke about something that only someone who is a survivor would get.”

Dr Menon finds special joy in being able to tap the collective empathy and wisdom of the group, even though she is on hand to guide the conversation when needed. “I see who is more mature, who can counterbalance this, and I ask them for their thoughts,” she says. “I want the women to lead it.”

The process of listening and supporting others can be a step forward in the journey of living with trauma. “I could see my experiences reflected in the stories I was hearing… and I had a big change in how I saw myself,” explains Beth. “I had more compassion for myself.”

Jo remembers how during one support group meeting, she felt anger as she listened to others’ stories. “I started feeling angry at how horrible abusers have been to everyone in the room, and also angry about how I had been hurt.

“When I told my therapist I felt violently angry, she was like, ‘I’m so happy you are feeling anger’. She said that my anger [until then] was self-directed, and now it was finally directed at the person who did it to me.”

“I could see my experiences reflected in the stories I was hearing… and I had a big change in how I saw myself.”

– Beth, communications professional and sexual assault survivor

A call for empathy

When Jo spoke about her experience on online forums, people dismissed her account and called her a “slut”. Hannah was once told by a therapist that what happened to her “doesn’t sound so bad”.

And Marina recalled how once, she was contacted by her former employer, which was looking into workplace culture issues. She agreed, thinking they would address the sexual harassment she faced at work, only to have the conversation be so poorly handled that she had a meltdown afterwards – a lawyer was present, while a company representative grilled her, even though she had already made comprehensive complaints to its human resources department years earlier: “It was like I relived [the trauma], and was invalidated all over again.”

It can feel as though Singaporeans are still not used to talking about sex and intimacy, and when it comes to sexual crimes, the narrative of “Are you sure?” is always there, notes Dr Menon.

“But if someone stole your car, would anyone really question whether you should report it? As a society, we need to move away from that… and signal to victims that it is well within their rights to report a crime.”

Jo believes that TV shows and films have created the idea that sexual assault and abuse involves “lots of evidence” of women fighting back, but this isn’t always the case – people can freeze in an attack out of fear, while direct evidence can be hard to find when it comes to a crime that happens in secrecy.

“The burden of proof is so high, but what proof can we give? That’s why a lot of people don’t believe us, because the system doesn’t believe us too,” she states.

Conversations about sexual violence can be difficult, even for well-intentioned loved ones who want to show support, but a good way to start is to simply let the survivor know that you are there for them. “I like to use this metaphor: We don’t need to upsize the meal, but we don’t need to downsize it either. You don’t need to overreact, but don’t minimise what someone is telling you,” says Dr Menon.

Marina agrees: “Just be kind… you don’t need to provide solutions, just listen with your heart and not your head. People are not expecting you to solve their problems; they just want to be heard.”

The journey of coming to terms with sexual violence is a long one, but processing it as a community – and within a compassionate society at large – can go a long way.

Says Marina: “We are humans, and we have evolved to be part of communities… when we don’t feel isolated and we belong, and we are held, supported and respected by our people, we heal so much better.”

*At their request, names have been changed to protect the privacy of the interviewees.