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If any good has come out of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it may be the sense of relief felt by the dozens of actresses who have accused the powerful producer of sexually harassing and assaulting them.
Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, and the Italian actress Asia Argento are among a growing list of female celebrities who have shared damning personal stories about Weinstein in investigative reports by both the New York Times and The New Yorker.
The actresses, who are being cheered on by their Hollywood peers, allege the Weinstein Company mogul has for decades sexually assaulted and harassed female employees and clients — in some cases, as with Argento, forcibly performing sex acts on them.
A representative for the producer, who was subsequently fired by the Weinstein Company, denied the allegations of "non-consensual sex" in a statement to several media outlets.
The power in speaking out
Sharing their personal stories is a powerful step for survivors of any kind of sexual violence and harassment. When survivors reveal their stories, "there is often a sense of a relief," Kathryn Stamoulis, Ph.D, a licensed mental health counselor in New York City told TODAY. "Now you have someone else kind of holding this with you, holding your hand through this. Now it’s out there, and someone heard you."
Talking about the experience, particularly with a licensed counselor or therapist, can also help those who struggle with feelings of shame. In many cases — as with Paltrow, who called Weinstein "Uncle Harvey" before he made aggressive sexual overtures to her when she was 22 — survivors struggle with feelings of self-blame because they know their perpetrators.
"Often, these are people that you like, that you respect, and that makes it so much more complicated," said Stamoulis.
Reliving the pain
Unfortunately, revealing their experiences can sometimes "re-traumatize" survivors, says Brooke Axtell, founder and director of She Is Rising, a global healing community that helps survivors of gender violence and sex trafficking pursue leadership opportunities.
"The experience of revealing your history of harassment or abuse is contingent on the reactions that you receive," said Axtell, herself a survivor of sex trafficking and sexual assault. "If you’re met with compassion and support, it helps to create a sense of safety, relief and healing. But, if you’re subjected to victim blaming and scrutiny and questions about whether your story is valid or why you haven’t come forward sooner, it can re-traumatize a survivor."
Those who hear survivors' stories — which are often painful and humiliating to recount — have an important role to play, said Axtell, particularly when survivors, like the Hollywood actresses, share their stories publicly.
"We have to stand in solidarity, to meet them with compassion and understanding, and to acknowledge that this is an incredibly courageous and difficult act," said Axtell.
Changing the culture
But the benefits of speaking out extend far beyond the personal. Survivors often find that talking about what happened to them helps others, too — and also sparks much-needed awareness and conversation, as is happening in Hollywood right now.
"When you share your story, you are changing the culture. Harassment and sexual assault thrive in a culture of silence and secrecy, so what these Hollywood women are doing right now is they’re smashing that, little by little, and that's so important," said Stamoulis.
Taking care of yourself
Those recovering from sexual violence and harassment should take steps to care for themselves, the experts say. Consider the following:
- Find a support system, whether that's friends, family members, a counselor or a survivor group. "Find your tribe," says Stamoulis.
- Get creative. "The arts are a way we can speak the unspeakable through story and metaphor and performance," says Axtell.
- Tap into your own power by exploring leadership opportunities in your community or by engaging in social justice causes that matter to you, says Axtell.
- Cultivate self-compassion. "Do whatever feels nurturing and life-giving," whether that's engaging in spiritual practice, creative expression or nature walks, says Axtell.
- Let it go, if you're ready. "You may feel like moving on is what’s best for you, and that's okay," says Stamoulis. "What happened in the past doesn’t have to be anything that’s defining you now."