Sexual Assault Survivors Find Comfort and Community in Facebook Group Helping Break Silence-Enforcing Stigma

Hollie Peters (Handout)
Hollie Peters (Handout)

Hollie Peters, 23, started a Facebook page for survivors in hopes she'd start a conversation around what many have been silent about, sexual assault.

When Hollie Peters started a Facebook page a few years ago, she was looking to start conversations surrounding sexual trauma. It was a discussion she’d been missing in her own life as a sexual assault survivor. 

“Nobody wanted to talk about it,” Peters told Inside Edition Digital. “Everybody was really uncomfortable when I brought it up, so I wanted to create a space where I could have those conversations and other people who cared about those conversations could come and have them with me.”

A Facebook Group for Sexual Assault Survivors by Sexual Assault Survivors

Peters, 23, who lives in Florida, was only 18 when she started the page, “Rape/Sexual Assault/Abuse Awareness” in 2017. The page has grown to 12,000 followers, with another private page for individuals who may not feel comfortable sharing their stories with the public. 

Peters said she was sexually assaulted by a neighbor first when she was 13, and the abuse continued until she was 15. She said the abuse was eventually reported to police and the case went to trial, but he was ultimately found not guilty

When Peters was 17, she said she was raped by a coworker, an assault which she did not report. It is believed that only 15.8% to 35% of sexual assaults are reported to police, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Survivors cite an array of reasons for not reporting their assaults, including fear, belief that police won’t do anything to help, not wanting to get the offender in trouble, or believing they don't have enough proof. 

Due to low reporting rates, only 9% of all rapists get prosecuted. Only 3% of rapists will spend a day in prison, according the Maryland Coalition of Sexual Assault. 

Finding Comfort in a Community Created Through Social Media  

Peters believes people are often surprised when they follow the Facebook support group and see how many other survivors are out there.

“When I started the page, I felt alone, myself… I didn't really know how many there were and neither did my family or my friends,” Peters said. “And so when they started seeing how much the page is growing, I could see that they were surprised.”

A member of the group, Celia H., 51, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used so she can maintain her privacy, said the page changed her life. There, she read how many people out there had experiences similar to hers. Before finding the group, Celia struggled with suicidal ideation and flashbacks caused by her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Celia, who lives in Florida, is a survivor of repeated sexual assaults carried out by multiple people. She was first assaulted when she was 5. 

When she was 9, she said a family member began watching pornographic movies with her, and she was later molested by another family member and two other people close to the family on different occasions.

She developed a drinking problem as a preteen to cope with the pain, she said. In all, she said she was assaulted by eight different people in her lifetime. Studies show that victims of childhood sexual assault are at an increased risk for sexual victimization in adulthood. Childhood abuse can interfere with normal development of interpersonal relatedness and affect regulation, which in turn can decrease abuse victims’ awareness of danger, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Victims also may attempt to cope or avoid negative states, but that emotional avoidance can create challenges in recognizing they might be in danger. 

Celia did get therapy in her twenties and stopped drinking, but recently her anxiety and depression were significantly worsening. That’s when she started searching for an online group that she thought may help.

“I found the group and reading the stories of all these other people that had similar experiences, I've heard a lot of people that have been abused throughout my life, but I've never met or really heard of many people that have had that happen so many different times,” Celia said. “It's a very humbling thing to just feel like you're finally understood.”

Celia said Peters recently reached out to her to ask if she wanted to create drawings for the page for a survivor’s gallery in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. She described the opportunity as therapeutic in a way she’s never felt. 

One of Celia H.'s drawing for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. - Celia H.

“I'm not artistic. I've never really drawn anything in my life, but I sat down and I tried and I did a dozen drawings in just a few days. After I had done them, the flashbacks I had been having for months, they stopped,” Celia said. “That was just such a relief. I'm not thinking about suicide all the time.”

Celia also said the group has been an essential educational tool. There, she's learned new coping skills and made connections between what happened to her and her life experiences that she never had before. 

By Getting Help for Themselves, Sexual Assault Survivors Are Helping Others

Keyanna Harpaul, 19, who lives in Canada, is also a survivor of childhood sexual assault, having been violently raped at 13. She subsequently attempted suicide and began cutting herself to cope. Harpaul, who spent some of her childhood in the foster care system, said she also began sleeping with older men in order to feel cared for, all while she was still underage, she said. 

Before the group, she said she’d never really told her story. 

“It's something that I kept to myself, mostly out of fear and embarrassment,” Harpaul said. "It's been very hard, it's been a difficult journey. It was very hard to sort of process it.”

She is currently working with a mental health team, but when she found Peter's group, Harpaul said she was looking for people who had experienced similar things to her. 

“I felt alone, I felt lost, I felt broken, I felt empty and I didn't want to feel that way. I literally did not know what to do with myself,” Harpaul said. “It made me feel not so alone. Holly shared what she had been through, and knowing how she overcame it and knowing that things can possibly get better it really hit me because it's what I need.”

Harpaul said she shared her story on the page and received a plethora of positive responses. She said other survivors messaged her about their own assaults, so not only was she able to find support, but offer her support to others. 

“We are like family and we don't even know each other, but it's just the fact that we connect on such a personal level and not everyone can do that. We feel so at home there, because we've all been through similar things. We're all in different stages of healing,” Harpaul said. 

The group's popularity and the positive ripple effect connection has had within it highlights the need for such conversations like those happening in the group. Nearly one in five women and and one in 71 men having been raped in their lifetime, according the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

“Life is hard and everyone has a battle, everyone has a mountain to climb. Some people have higher mountains to climb than others,” Harpaul said. “The group makes me feel like I'm capable of climbing that mountain."

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