Writing About Surviving and Being an Expert on Sexual Assault

Written by
Katie Guest Pryal

Apr 2, 2019

Apr 2, 2019 • by Katie Guest Pryal

For over 10 years, I was a professor of writing and law. I'm now a professional writer who writes, a lot, about the law—especially the law of sexual assault, harassment and rape. This is important and not easy work. It's also work that can change the world. One of the ways I try to do this is by writing about tough topics like sexual assault.

That part really isn't easy.

One of the first pieces I ever wrote for the public was in a magazine named The Toast in 2014. To write the piece, I went through the process of reporting being raped in graduate school to the university where it happened—five years later. I documented every detail of the reporting process, and then wrote a long‐form essay about the experience.

As an insider to higher education—a professor at the time—I had a unique perspective. In fact, the entire time I went through the reporting process, the people I ran into along the way kept asking me, “And … you're a professor?” as if such a thing were unbelievable. Perhaps, it was, but I know I couldn't possibly be the only one with this experience. As a professor, writing about my personal experience of sexual assault and reporting it gave the “typical” campus assault story a different angle.

After I published the piece, I suddenly had a voice in the campus rape movement. Then, I wrote a second piece—on how student medical records are not adequately protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act—that also gained attention. It was picked up by Jezebel and Deadspin. Suddenly, I was in the spotlight while I wanted to hide in a closet. More important, that piece helped change the law and protect the rights of survivors on campus.

For years, I've been writing about sexual assault. Here are my suggestions for you if you want to start writing on the subject too, especially if you are also a survivor. If you want to engage publicly on the subject, you have to take care of yourself. Because this work is important.

You Can Be a Survivor and an Expert

I'm a rape survivor, but I'm also a legal expert on campus rape. Some media outlets, editors and journalists who interview you will want you to be one or the other, not both. They're wrong. You can be both.

Don't let them push you around.

Once, I was a media expert for a reporter doing a piece on campus rape. Remember: I'm a former law professor, an attorney and a legal expert in addition to being a survivor. But when the piece came out, I was simply “survivor Katie Pryal.” None of my expert authority made it into the piece. That wasn't OK. It still bothers me to this day. At the time, I did nothing. I should have. You have the right to call the reporter and demand a correction.

You Can Choose to Not Come Out as a Survivor

Sexual assault survivors are under incredible pressure. We're pressured to share our stories, especially right now in our era of #MeToo. But at the same time, we are pressured to keep our stories secret for a host of other reasons: shame, embarrassment or even the fear that no one will believe you.

Then, if you want to write about sexual assault, you might feel like you have to hide your experience as a survivor in order to maintain your credibility as an expert.

That's understandable. Like I said, sometimes others try to shoehorn you into either “expert” or “survivor.”

Do what you feel is necessary, and don't feel ashamed about it. You don't owe the world your story.

Your Story Belongs to You, and You Aren't Only Your Story

I've written personal essays for different outlets, and then pulled those essays (even from big outlets!) because the editor wanted me to write things I wasn't willing to. An editor has said I wasn't sharing enough or wasn't digging deeply enough because she wanted me to write something that would get more clicks for her site.

The point is, editors will want you to dump your entire soul on the internet for $25. Don't do that. You have a story to tell? Tell it your way, on your terms. There will be an outlet that will fit you better.

And remember: The story of sexual assault doesn't fit into any neat narrative structure of redemption or survival, no matter how much readers may want it to. Your story is your story. It doesn't have to make sense to everyone. You'll find your audience.

You Need a Community

Whether you are writing about sexual assault as a survivor or not, you are going to catch trolls. You will need community on both the internet and in real life. You will need social media because if you are writing for public venues, they will expect you to publicize your work on social media. But if you are on Twitter and you are a woman, you will likely be harassed. A community makes it easier to weather and manage. We help one another out. We learn from one another.

Never Underestimate How Hard It Is

I always underestimate how hard it is to write about sexual assault—even when I'm not writing about my own story. Always. Don't do what I do. Instead, build in time to recover from writing about hard things. After I wrote that first piece for The Toast, I needed days to recover. I wasn't ready for that. I'd never done it before. Then, when the piece went live, I needed days again.

Build in time for yourself. If you have to keep working on your regular job on those days, build in more breaks, and don't schedule anything hard. And cut yourself a lot of slack. Writing about brutal things is, in itself, brutal. So, be gentle with yourself. And never forget: You are changing the world, and that's never easy.



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