Are You a Survivor Who Wants to Speak Out? This Toolkit Can Help.

Content warning: sexual assault, domestic violence. 

“If you come after me, I’ll come after you.”  

This was the threat that Jane Doe, a college student survivor of sex-based harassment, faced from her abuser: If she reported the abuse, he would sue her for defamation.  

This chilling experience that Jane faced has become all too common. In recent years, defamation lawsuits have been increasingly weaponized against victims of sex-based harassment, including sexual assault and domestic violence.  

In most cases, harassers and abusers do not even expect to win their defamation lawsuit. But they sue their victims to prevent them from speaking out, to retaliate against them after they have spoken out, or to further harass them in the wake of an ended abusive relationship. Even the threat of a defamation lawsuit can be enough to inhibit a survivor from coming forward. After all, defamation cases can be deeply invasive, expensive, and time-consuming—and that’s on top of the steep emotional and financial costs that the underlying harassment can inflict upon survivors. 

Understandably, many survivors also worry about facing potential backlash or unfair legal procedures if they speak out. When ordinary people see celebrities who have reported abuse, like Amber Heard and Kesha, suffering vitriolic backlash or being carved out of legal protections from defamation, the idea of speaking out can feel all the more intimidating. 

On top of that, survivors often worry they will face retaliation, including from their school or employer, if they share that they were harassed or assaulted. For instance, many schools suspend or expel survivors who come forward, and many employers fire or demote them. Schools and employers alike regularly tell survivors that they will be punished if they speak publicly about the abuse they faced. In some cases, abusers file baseless cross-complaints against their victims with their school or employer, claiming that the victim is in fact the “real” abuser in the situation. 

Given these many risks, it can be difficult and overwhelming for survivors to decide whether they should speak out.  

That’s why we and our partners created Survivors Speaking Out: A Toolkit About Defamation Lawsuits and Other Retaliation by and for People Speaking Out About Sex-Based Harassment. As the title suggests, our toolkit was written by students, survivors, and advocates, including lawyers. Many of the authors spoke out about sex-based harassment and then faced a defamation lawsuit or other retaliation. So, we started with the questions many of us had back then, and then answered them with what we know now.  

We know firsthand that survivors have many, many reasons for wanting to speak out: to name their experience, to reclaim their power, to protect their communities, to advance their healing process, and more. And we know that when we understand what our rights, risks, and options are, then we are empowered to decide for ourselves whether to speak out and, if so, how to do it as safely as possible. 

If you have faced sex-based harassment at school, work, or anywhere else, and you are thinking about speaking out (or already have spoken out), then this toolkit is for you.  

We are forever in solidarity with you. 

“What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day…? […] Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other [people] to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.”  

Audre Lorde