Sexual assault survivor shares 3 things she wants victims to know

In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a survivor shares her story.

Abby Honold, 23, is a sexual assault survivor and activist who is fighting for legislation that would require more training for authorities who interview sexual assault victims to incorporate a trauma-informed approach. The "Abby Honold Act" was introduced into Congress in Dec. 2017 and is in the first stage of the legislative process.

To mark Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Honold is sharing her story with "GMA" and the three things she wishes someone told her before she was assaulted and wants other victims of sexual assault to know.

My name is Abby, and I was sexually assaulted when I was 19 years old at the University of Minnesota. I am one of the few victims of sexual assault whose assailant is in prison. However, getting there wasn’t easy. Law enforcement didn’t help me at first, and I was nearly harassed off my college campus. I had to fight for nearly two years to put a fellow student and serial rapist behind bars, but I finally saw it happen in August of 2016.

After my own legal ordeal was over, I realized that I couldn’t just go back to my normal life and act like nothing had happened. Not only did I still suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but I was fully aware that I wouldn’t be the last person to go through something like this. I decided to start working to make a change for other sexual assault survivors.

Right now, my biggest effort is to establish a pilot program that would train law enforcement in the United States on trauma-informed interviewing techniques. One of the biggest hurdles that I ran into was only hours after I was raped. When I was being interviewed by police, I had difficulty recalling a lot of details about my sexual assault, and the information I gave to them was very incomplete. When I was interviewed by a forensic nurse trained in the FETI technique (Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview), I gave near-complete information about my assault which eventually helped put my attacker in prison. I want to make sure that every victim of sexual assault can be interviewed in a way that’s both healing for them and helpful for law enforcement.

Since coming forward with my story about a year and a half ago, I've talked to well over a thousand fellow survivors of sexual assault. All of our journeys are different, but we all share a similar level of trauma and loss of control. There are a lot of things I didn’t know before I was sexually assaulted that I wish someone had told me; these are some of those things.

1. The sexual assault was not your fault.

It doesn’t matter how you were dressed, what you were doing at the time or what your relationship with the person who hurt you was.

Nothing excuses sexual assault.

Sexual assault happens to people of all genders, races, ages and sexual orientations. Nothing about who you are or what you did caused your assault.

I promise that healing is ahead of you; it might get worse before it gets better, but it will get better.

There are national and local resources that can help you with the many types of issues you may experience after your assault. Support and services are out there, and you are worthy of receiving them.

You can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

2. You have rights.

They may not be explained to you, but they exist. You have the right to decide how you respond to what happened. You might want to report to law enforcement, or you might not. You might want to have a forensic sexual assault exam completed, or you might not.

If you choose to have a forensic sexual assault exam completed, or if you want to receive other medical care in the aftermath of your assault, you will be able to receive treatment and prevention for STIs, HIV and pregnancy.

You always have the right to have a lawyer or advocate assisting you. Beyond all of the technicalities of medical care and reporting to law enforcement, you have the right to be respected.

Advocacy centers and legal assistance are often the best ways to ensure that you have someone looking out for you throughout this process; they will often be able to go much more in-depth with you into your rights and how to access your local resources than I can here.

3. If you do decide to report to law enforcement, keep evidence secure and create a support network for yourself.

No matter how embarrassing or difficult it may feel keeping evidence secure is really important if you're considering reporting to law enforcement. Evidence is more than DNA; it could be screenshots, witnesses or your own written testimony. Holding on to evidence is not only important if you plan on pressing charges through the police, but also if you are planning on reporting to another institution such as a school, church or workplace.

And make sure you confide in others whether that’s an advocate, a trusted family member or friend, or a legal representative. You don’t have to endure this alone.

This is only the beginning of the information you deserve.

Remember above all else that no matter what you might be struggling with, the support you need is out there, even if it feels difficult to find.

You can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

In Honold's case, the man who raped her pleaded guilty to two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct and was sentenced in 2016 to six years in prison for the 2014 assault. The sentence required him to register as a sexual offender.