Pandora’s Aquarium and the Benefits to Survivors of Sexual Assault
If you are a counselor or other professional working to assist survivors of sexual assault, welcome to this page. In this age of the internet and online interaction, rape and sexual abuse survivor message boards are a commonly-used feature of the healing process for many survivors. Although membership at Pandora’s Aquarium is open only to survivors and secondary survivors (i.e. spouses and close friends) we would certainly like to share with you about what we do and the benefit to survivors.
Please click the following links for to view sections of this article:
A Brief History of Pandora’s Aquarium
The Pandora's Aquarium message board began in 1999, as an off-shoot of Welcome to Barbados, a Tori Amos inspired website for rape and sexual abuse survivors. Our founder, Shannon Lambert, was featured on ABC's 20/20 in February of that year. As a result, many survivors visited her site. Due to the influx of emails, Shannon decided to create a message forum so that survivors could support each other. There was nothing like Pandy’s (as Pandora’s Aquarium became affectionately known) online at the time. It began as a small bulletin-board style message board. Since then, it has never stopped growing. Pandy's is the largest and most active message board of its kind on the internet, serving rape and sexual abuse survivors 24 hours a day.
Pandy's became Pandora's Project in 2009, and received 501(c)(3) tax exempt status in 2008. Being incorporated as a non-profit organization has enabled us to reach our goal of supporting survivors both online and offline. Since 2001, we estimate that more than 18,000 survivors have registered on the message board & chat room. Numbers like that are bittersweet. How wonderful that we can find and help each other heal; how horrible that so many women and men are victims of rape.
Pandora’s Aquarium Staff
It is important to note that none of our staff provide professional services to survivors, and we do not provide counseling services. However, we have several levels of dedicated staff at Pandora’s Aquarium:
- The Moderators and Administrators of Pandora’s Aquarium have several levels of training and expertise in the issue of sexual assault. You may learn more about us here.
- Section Moderators are comprised of two board moderators plus two members of the board who have expertise or particular sensitivity in certain areas. These moderate specific healing forums.
- The Chatterators are our Chat team leaders.
- Chat Moderators are a team of wonderful members who give up their time to help keep the chatroom a safe space.
- Team Welcome are members who work hard to ensure that new members feel welcomed and settle in comfortably.
We acknowledge that some professionals have seen the use of message-forums by traumatized populations as problematic, and we understand that this is not without some validity. Be assured that we share your concerns. Below, we’ll look at commonly-perceived problems and how the staff of Pandora’s Aquarium addresses these (Note: We make no claim for general safety of online forums):
Online message forums put unhealed or dangerous people in charge of vulnerable communities:
It’s certainly true that anyone can open a message-forum, but not everyone should. The moderators of Pandora’s Aquarium are women and men selected for their compassion, sensitivity to the needs of survivors and, importantly, commitment to and responsibility for our own healing. As mentioned above, several of us have professional backgrounds and levels of training, and while we make it clear we are not moderating the board in that capacity, that knowledge has proven to be extremely valuable in creating the safest and most nurturing climate possible for our members. We do understand that being a survivor alone may not necessarily equip one with the skills to assist others. But we are in a position to bring some special qualities to the task!
We must add that we are aware that there is a stigma in some corners of the professional community about survivors helping other survivors. Although we understand the basis of these concerns, we believe that they can constitute an unfair and inaccurate generalization. It is true that in any caring role, including a therapeutic one, there are those whose influence on vulnerable people is not always for the best. We do not believe anybody - ourselves included - can claim infallibility. However, survivors assisting other survivors to overthrow the forces that have harmed them is acknowledged by writers such as Judith Herman (Trauma and Recovery: From domestic abuse to political terror, Basicbooks, USA, 1992) as a crucial force for personal and social transformation. Survivors are not necessarily well-intentioned time-bombs but strong, intelligent people who frequently do wonderful things in the service of other survivors. We are proud of the efforts our staff and members make to support others who are struggling!
Online message forums damage people without accountability:
We’ve also heard horror-stories about people damaged by online forums, who then have no redress. We know that the distress and setback to recovery can be major. Member issues are always managed at Pandora’s Aquarium by the entire team of moderators, who are careful to discuss each issue thoroughly before taking action. We always make decisions with respect for the feelings and safety of each individual member as well as the community as a whole. We have a firm commitment to promoting mutual respect amongst our members. However, we have to say that this is usually not an issue as we are constantly impressed and moved by the kindness, empathy and respect our members display to each other. Occasionally of course, issues cannot be resolved and members leave feeling that we did not do the best by them. Again, we take into consideration the needs of the community as a whole, and we do encourage people to make the best choice for themselves.
Please see our guidelines. We would add that we also have moderator guidelines for ourselves and our other staff.
Online Message-forums encourage “wallowing” instead of growth:
We think this can be a problem, too, but we have not found it to be true in general. Many survivors experience times when they feel consumed by sexual assault. As a professional, you already know that it is part of the healing process to occasionally feel “stuck”. It’s also important to just be heard if you are sad. We don’t believe that anybody should be pressured to heal at the rate that somebody else thinks is appropriate. Most of our members do know when it’s time to take a step forward and often members will offer one another a gentle challenge to move forward towards the full life they so richly deserve. Both the moderating team and members of Pandora's Aquarium actively promote the message that people can heal and move on and are more than just survivors of sexual assault. This is often reflected in our humor forum, parenting forum, and other forums where different life-issues are celebrated and ideas shared. Members frequently ask for and receive suggestions from other members about what has worked for them and are free to take what is right for them. The fact that members do move on is reflected in the lovely notes we get telling us that they feel ready to leave after receiving so much from the forums. Please see the discussion of benefits below for some members’ testimonies on how membership has aided their healing.
We understand that our message-forum is not a panacea. For example, we have had a small number of members say that the board was in fact detrimental to their healing. If this is the case, we encourage them to be responsible for putting their healing first and seeking out resources better suited to them.
Online message forums are no substitute for professional and crisis care:
We agree! Please refer to our crisis page for more on this. At the same time, we believe that peer-support can be an important adjunct to professional care, and we’ll say more about that below.
Survivors should reach out to “real” people instead of swapping war-stories on a message-forum:
In a recent survey we conducted on our membership and board improvement, 63% of 443 responses indicated that they were in therapy. We are always happy to know that members have “real-life” resources beyond the forum, and we encourage members to seek them out. However, the reality for some people is that they are geographically isolated and/or cannot afford professional care (we maintain a database of free services). Having the forum is a great comfort and help to them. Not everybody needs therapy; many people have successfully passed through counseling and just like to give and receive peer-support.
About trauma sharing: We do believe that survivors can benefit from having counselors, friends and family in real life with whom they can break the silence. However, it’s also true that some members find the courage to speak to others through sharing their stories on the board first – the initial anonymity found here allows them to feel safe enough to open up. Here are just a few survey responses from members on how our forum has helped them break their silence offline:
- “I found that it was easier to seek outside support once I had been given the opportunity to talk about what happened online. It helped me build up the courage to speak about what happened in real life.”
- “Pandy's has given me the strength to face my sexual abuse and talk about it openly with my counselor and friends. Knowing that there are so many people in the same situation gives me hope and the courage to speak out.”
- “Pandy's helped to encourage me to go to a sexual assault centre for help. Previously, I hadn't even thought that there might be such a thing, and certainly, I didn't think that I "deserved" to seek that level of help.”
- “Everyone was talking about their T's....made me feel like maybe needing a therapist didn't make me psychotic.”
- “Everyone was so encouraging at Pandy's and really advocated seeing a therapist, so I really thought it over and eventually I did go ahead with it. Best decision of my life!!!”
- In finding consolation and support in a group of strangers, it showed that others in my life are probably capable of empathy as well”.
- “Before joining, I could barely talk about any of the trauma at all with my therapist. Joining Pandy’s has helped tremendously in giving me support and courage to talk about things with my therapy mainly because I learn that I’m not the only one struggling with an issue”
- “I know that if I’m coming to Pandy’s a lot, then I might want to go to counseling again, and it has helped me decide when to tell a friend.”
The content of online message-forums triggers/re-traumatizes people.
This is certainly a risk. Please be aware that in order to increase the safety of our board, members label triggering content, which in turn allows others in vulnerable spots to avoid being triggered by such content.
What about perpetrators gaining admission to message-forums?
Because this is the internet, we acknowledge that there is the risk of predators joining our community, and this is something we take very seriously. First, joining is subject to a three-step-process in which the member must register, validate an email link and then be manually approved by a moderator. We have found a lessened tendency for predators to be bothered with these steps than when membership requirements were less stringent and more automated. All members must make five substantial posts before entering the Survivor Stories Forum and Chatroom. By that time we usually have an understanding of the member’s motive for joining our community. We also take on board members’ reports about “trolls” or other inappropriate behavior. Very occasionally, we have banned such people, and we log their IP addresses to ensure they cannot rejoin the board. If necessary we report them to their ISP and in rare cases, the police.
We believe that members also need to be responsible for their safety, and in the interest of this, we have guidelines against sharing personal information. We also provide a guide on concealing internet activity from abusers who may share the same computer.
The Benefits of Peer-Support for Survivors of Sexual Assault
Aphrodite Matsakis writes, “There is increased recognition today that trauma survivors can benefit greatly from participation in a survivor group (I Can’t Get Over It: A Handbook for Trauma Survivors, New Harbinger Publications Inc. CA, 1992).” It is immensely gratifying to watch members grow and heal through membership at Pandora’s Aquarium. Just some of the ways in which this happens are:
Comfort through commonality: We have many survivors with a range of experiences of, and responses to, sexual assault. Every survivor knows the terror and pain of feeling that his or her experiences and reactions are unique or too bizarre for anybody else to understand. It’s incredibly moving to view the many posts in which members express their relief that they’ve found people who at last, do seem to understand.
The lessening of shame: Survivors who are carrying shame see and interact with other survivors whose healing has brought them to the understanding that being raped is nothing to be ashamed of. When they share on our forum, survivors often learn that what they felt was too shameful for anybody else to hear is in fact okay to tell. Our members are fantastic at affirming that despite the sense of personal ugliness and shame a survivor feels, he/she is a beautiful and worthy person. We go beyond telling survivors that it wasn’t their fault; we articulate for each other why sexual assault is the responsibility of perpetrators, and that “why” is so important because it’s only when survivors understand why they are not to blame that it begins to make a real difference.
The other area of shame that we see broken down on a daily basis is the reticence many survivors feel about asking for help. This is often due to such factors as being shamed or punished for seeking help in the past, feeling as if they don’t deserve support; believing that their problems are not “serious” enough to merit support, or being hard on themselves for not being “over it.” The warmth and encouragement of their survivor-peers is a very real factor in lessening this shame. And, as we saw above, this can lead to a greater willingness to seek help from relatives, friends or therapists in “real-life.”
Positive role-modeling: Members interact with and are inspired by survivors who have overcome some of the worst ravages of sexual assault. They see people no longer ashamed of rape, who lead full and enriched lives that include emotional and sexual intimacy and who have transcended self-destructive coping mechanisms. This can give them hope in their own journeys.
Practical assistance: Members frequently swap tips for other alternatives to self-injury, and on parenting, sleep, coping with nightmares, financial hardship, self-care and the myriad other issues that beset survivors.
Words of members on the benefits of membership at Pandora’s Aquarium:
- “I felt stronger and validated, and realized that I have a right to speak about my experiences.”
- “Everyone helped me see that my rape was not my doing and that I could get help. That by doing so I wasn’t weak or making a big deal out of nothing; I was justified in seeking help.”
- “It made me aware that my thoughts and feelings were valid. That I was a valid person and deserved to be treated with respect and kindness.”
An Overview of Our Forums
We have several categories under which our forums come. These are:
The Main Area
- My Voice -The main forum where members post about general healing challenges and issues
- My Story –Survivors share their stories and receive support in this forum
- My Life -A forum to celebrate and discuss our trials and tribulations unrelated to healing
- Reclaiming Our Lives – Survivors participate in organized healing discussions. The discussions are mostly suggested by members, who share about what has been useful to them. A subforum is Our Healing Journeys in which we discuss key points in our personal healing.
- Healing Together – Although most forums are open to survivors only, we do offer a forum for secondary survivors. A secondary survivor is a friend, relative or partner of a survivor.
- Survivor Communities –We recognize that specific groups of survivors have special issues, so we have forums for them. Examples include LGBTQ, Older survivors; Survivors and education for students or teachers who are survivors, and password-protected men's and women's forums for those who feel comfortable sharing certain aspects of healing only with their own gender.
- Survivor Creativity – A forum for poetry, artwork and writings by survivors.
- Research, Activism, and Speaking Out – A forum where survivors share about their involvement in initiatives and campaigns for fighting sexual assault. They can also contact other survivors for books, papers and research.
- Types of Sexual Assault discussions – Survivors often express the need to discuss specific acts or contexts of sexual assault with others who have had similar experiences. In this forum, we have many threads about different issues such as Child sexual abuse, Sex workers and sexual assault, Anal Rape, Oral Rape, sexual assault in same-sex relationships, and sexual assault by clergy
- Self-Injury - Self-injury and self-care issues
- Spirituality and Healing - for survivors to discuss spirituality and faith as it pertains to healing
- Mental Wellness – PTSD, addictions, mental health, therapy, meds, disassociation
- Eating Disorders – Recovery from anorexia, bulimia, compulsive overeating, and EDNOS.
- Sex & Intimacy - Physical issues, working towards healthy sexual relationships, reclaiming sexuality
- Relationships – The impact of survivorship on family, partners and friends. Because many of our members were sexually assaulted in the context of intimate relationships, we also have a relationship violence subforum
- Pregnancy and Parenting – Rape-related or other pregnancy and parenting issues Subforums: Pregnancy loss, relinquishment, termination, and infertility
- Well and Whole - Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness. (Note: We do not permit the exchange of medical advice) Subforums: Body and fitness
- Pursuing legal action - Sharing experiences with the legal system and seeking support while pressing charges and going to court.
Current world events, swap jokes, recipes, hobbies, and talk about pets. We also have entertainment section for the discussion of movies, books and music.
(Since these forums are public we’ve provided links - feel free to visit them!)
- Wonderful Threads - Meaningful healing threads representing a small portion of what is available on Pandora's Aquarium.
- Resources - Hotlines, crisis centers, and other resources organized by location.
- Essays & Articles - Read informative essays & articles on many topics relating to sexual violence, most authored by Pandy's members.
- Members can troubleshoot and ask questions about the board and chat, as well as offer suggestions.
- You may be interested in viewing our Rules, guidelines, and terms of service forum
The Chat Room
We have a terrific team of chat-moderators devoted to keeping our chatroom safe. Often, we have moderated chats about aspects of healing. At this time, we are implementing having paid guest speakers, and to date we've had a hugely successful guest chat with Wendy Maltz, author of The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse.
We hope that you will consider suggesting Pandora’s Project as an extra resource for your clients. If you have any further questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us.