Alicia Sewell knows something about what it must have been like for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to reveal in an hour-and-a-half-long Instagram Live video on Monday night that she is a survivor of sexual assault.
Last October, Sewell — who works as an instructional technology specialist for Tuscaloosa City Schools in Alabama — shared in a Facebook Live video viewed by 2,000 people that she was raped as a teenager.
“It’s frightening,” the 34-year-old said of going public. “The thing about it is you want to be believed — you don’t want people to think that you’re lying or you’re doing it for attention.”
But Sewell pushed past her fears in an effort to destigmatize conversations about the struggles that survivors experience in the aftermath of assault, she said.
“I was just trying to bring awareness to mental health, and social and emotional learning is one of the things I’m passionate about as an educator,” she added.
Ocasio-Cortez had similar aims: In her video — which garnered more than 3 million views in less than a day — the congresswoman said she was sharing her experiences to show how survivors can be harmed by both their experiences of abuse and others’ denials of them.
“These folks who tell us to move on, that it’s not a big deal, that we should forget what’s happened, or even telling us to apologize — these are the same tactics of abusers,” she said. “I’m a survivor of sexual assault, and I haven’t told many people that in my life. But when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other.”
She drew parallels to Republican members of Congress who have downplayed the impact of the attempted insurrection on Jan. 6, when a mob made up of mainly White men stormed the U.S. Capitol to overthrow the electoral-college certification of President Biden and Vice President Harris’s victory. Echoing her Democratic colleagues in the Senate, Ocasio-Cortez specifically called out Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rep. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), saying that they incited the violence by stoking anger about President Donald Trump’s unfounded allegations of election fraud.
She went on to encourage other members of Congress to talk about their experiences from that day — and other survivors to share their stories. “It’s a cognitively important thing to do, to tell the story of what happened to you … and that can be a tool for helping a person with healing, in all traumas,” she said.
Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez, with her uniquely large social media following, could spark a sea change for fellow survivors — and particularly for those who are women of color — according to a half-dozen sexual assault survivors and trauma experts.
For survivors like Sewell, who is Black, Ocasio-Cortez’s revelations as a Puerto Rican woman made them all the more powerful. Other House members who are women of color have also spoken out about feeling uniquely targeted on the day of the attempted insurrection because of their gender and race.
“If you do speak out, you’re the ‘angry Black woman,’ or you’re trying to get attention, or you’re making everything about race,” Sewell said. “For her to speak out about it really shows a lot of strength.”
The conversation around speaking up about trauma was also ignited earlier Monday, when actress Evan Rachel Wood was one of at least five women to say they had been mentally and physically abused by the musician Marilyn Manson. (The musician, whose real name is Brian Warner, denied the allegations in an Instagram post. He was dropped by his label, Loma Vista Recordings, on Monday night.)
These stories — which are part of the legacy of the #MeToo movement — continue to be impactful, experts said. And Ocasio-Cortez’s explicit language around trauma and how it compounds could be especially helpful in facilitating other survivors’ journeys to long-term healing.
“As a clinician, as someone who specializes in trauma, as a person who is a survivor of trauma, I thought [Ocasio-Cortez coming forward] was so amazing, because it provided a face to what’s going on, it provides a face to say, ‘This happened, but you can also overcome this,’” said Tarra Bates-Duford, who is a therapist and chief executive and founder of Family Matters Counseling Group.
“It was so empowering to people that are victims that haven’t made the translation or transformation to survivor,” continued Bates-Duford, who is Black. “As a woman of color, for her to get there, she has opened up a lot of doors for us.”
By drawing parallels between her experiences as a survivor of both sexual assault and the attempted insurrection, Ocasio-Cortez also distilled the essence of what constitutes abuse, said Jennifer Gómez, a trauma psychologist and assistant professor at Wayne State University.
“If you’re thinking about what is trauma, what makes certain events traumatic, it’s having this power over people,” Gómez said. “In the [attempted] insurrection, the same thing is happening: Power is being taken away, as AOC is saying, in a disproportionate and discriminatory manner.”
In her video, Ocasio-Cortez described in detail her experiences being threatened in the days leading up to Jan. 6.
During the riot, the representative said, she hid in a bathroom in her office and feared she was going to die when a White man — who was allegedly a Capitol police officer, although Ocasio-Cortez claimed he didn’t have identification — entered her office yelling, “Where is she?" She subsequently ran through the Capitol with her legislative director to get to safety, eventually sheltering in Rep. Katie Porter’s (D-Calif.) office for several hours, she said.
She described being occupied by the uniquely racialized and gendered impacts of her terror, wondering if she would be safest by seeking shelter with a White and/or male representative.
Bates-Duford said the congresswoman’s fears speak to the awareness women of color live with in terms of the compounded threats they face as a result of both their gender and race.
“The fact that she contemplated, ‘Should I shelter in place with a woman not of color?’ speaks profoundly,” Bates-Duford said. “In that moment, she was aware that her life may not be viewed in the same context as another woman’s life, simply because that was a woman not of color.”
Native Americans are at the greatest risk of sexual violence, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. And the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that more than four in 10 Black women experience physical violence from an intimate partner during their lifetimes, while White women, Latinas and Asian/Pacific Islander women report lower rates. LGBTQ women also report higher rates of intimate partner violence than straight women do, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
Ocasio-Cortez said it wasn’t until later in the day on Jan. 6, when she spoke to her friend, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), that she realized the gravity of her experience. That the Massachusetts congresswoman affirmed her experience as “traumatizing” was key in helping her move forward, Ocasio-Cortez said, adding that it’s crucial that survivors find people who will believe them so they can share their stories.
“There’s the trauma of going through what you went through and then there’s the trauma afterwards of people not believing you, or trying to publicly humiliate you … and that gets internalized too,” she said in the video.
Before saying she was a survivor of sexual assault, Ocasio-Cortez also said that she wanted to “apologize” to “friends and loved ones close to me” whom she may not have told before. Keeping these kinds of experiences private from loved ones, no matter how close they are, is also a normal response, according to experts.
For Susan Custer, a 55-year-old former creative director who said she was raped by two boys when she was 13, keeping quiet about her assaults led to a decades-long struggle with alcoholism, she said.
“I didn’t have the tools to process it — I bottled it up for so long,” said Custer, who lives in Branford, Conn.
After starting therapy about seven years ago, she finally told her mother and sisters about the assaults, she said.
And after Ocasio-Cortez spoke on Monday night, Custer tweeted two words that she hadn’t said publicly before: #MeToo.
“I would’ve never said anything, but it pushed something in me to say, ‘You know what — #MeToo,’” she said. “It’s part of who I am — it’s not all of me, but I’ve carried that bag with me, and I won’t be able to ever shed that luggage.”
Trauma experts said that having a “positive disclosure” experience — with someone who affirms and listens to your experience — is crucial for survivors.
“If you have just one person who believes you and supports you, that can make all the difference,” said Joan Cook, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who has studied trauma and sexual assault. “People don’t tell because they don’t think they’ll be believed, they don’t tell because they think their experiences will be minimized. … When we validate people’s experiences and pain, it actually helps them move forward and grow — not the opposite.”
And for survivors who have a “negative disclosure” experience — with someone who denies their experience — it’s crucial that they try not to internalize it, Gómez added.
“Another person’s negative response is not your fault — that’s an important one to remember,” she said.
Gómez added that survivors who have not yet shared their stories could start by journaling: “You don’t have to worry if the response is going to be negative, and you get to have some of the healing mechanisms of sharing.”
When it comes to deciding to share stories with other people, survivors may also opt to “sprinkle in smaller disclosures” before revealing their own experiences to determine if they can trust who they’re thinking of opening up to.
As Gómez put it: “Don’t give the full big doozy if you’re not sure — maybe tell a story about Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo, giving a talk about what she experienced, and see how that person responds.”
For those on the other side of the equation — the people survivors come to with their stories — both Gómez and Cook pointed to guidelines for “compassionate listening” compiled by Jennifer Freyd, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon. These guidelines recommend that listeners make consistent eye contact with survivors, don’t change the subject and don’t pass judgment, among other measures.
It’s hard to overstate how impactful someone like Ocasio-Cortez coming forward can be for some survivors, experts said.
“There are people struggling and suffering in silence, and sometimes when you have that one person to come forward, that one person who is visible, it gives strength to the rest,” Bates-Duford said.
Alicia, who works for the city of New York and did not want to be identified by her last name for fear of professional retribution, said she “had to watch AOC’s video twice” to absorb it.
“Seeing her come out on video, I felt with her the deeply vulnerable pain of telling someone what happened to you,” she said, adding that she waited nine years to tell her family after being raped as a college freshman and was told by male friends she was being “dramatic” about it in the aftermath.
“When she speaks, she speaks for me and the countless survivors of assault who are told we are a nuisance, too loud, too open about what makes others uncomfortable,” she said.