Guest Post: This is the powerful story of my childhood friend, Sarah. Sarah is a social worker in Washington D.C. and a graduate of Baylor University in my hometown of Waco, TX. April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month and President Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation declaring this week the National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. I don’t normally ask you to do this but would you please share this story? Email it, Facebook it, Tweet it, print it out and mail it, etc. Sarah has displayed an immense amount of courage in sharing her story with my readers. Please honor that courage by passing it along to the millions of other victims of sexual abuse.
Several months ago I joined many sexual violence survivors and took part in a project called “Project Unbreakable.” Project Unbreakable invites survivors of sexual violence to put quotes from their attacker on posters and take a picture holding the quotes. This allows survivors to reclaim the abusive words once used against them.
Like most survivors of sexual violence, rebuilding my life has been wrought with periods of highs and lows. Months pass that seem despairingly difficult and others come that bring joy and triumph.
I have found that my greatest joy and healing has come when I share my story with others and examine my desire for more meaningful, genuine relationships.
I first identified as a survivor of sexual violence in February 2013. I was sexually assaulted after a date in late January 2013. At the time of the attack I had been living in DC for just 2 weeks. It was my first time to ever move outside of my hometown and I had little social support in the DC area. I sought counseling a month after the attack because I realized the experience wasn’t something I could wish away or forget.
The greatest thing that sticks out in my mind from that time was the urgent need to speak about my attack. Everyone responds differently to trauma and at this time I desperately needed people to process my feelings with out loud. I remember two poignant experiences in the months after the attack. The first took place when a coworker sent out an email about his son having tests done for cancer and asking people to pray for the outcome. I was struck by his request and how it related to my own present grief. Here was a colleague going through uncertain and challenging days and he was able to seek the support of those he worked with. I thought to myself, “I’ve been assaulted; I need support, why can’t I send out an email in the same fashion explaining my circumstance and asking for prayer?”
At that moment I recognized the choking silence bestowed upon survivors of sexual violence.
Another experience came weeks later when I was in my online virtual classroom with other students who were interning at field placements outside of Waco, Texas. Everyone was briefly sharing about their week. One classmate shared that she had just been in a minor car accident. Another classmate exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, you are so brave!” The words stung my heart. “So brave.” I immediately turned off the camera and began crying. I had never felt so alone in my life. I thought to myself, “I’M brave! Why can’t I openly share about my experience with my classmates?”
I was filled with anger and resentment for the unspoken norms about disclosure and the silence surrounding sexual violence.
I began to look more into sexual violence statistics and was horrified by what I found. According to RAINN, the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, only 2 out of every 100 rapists will every spend even a day in prison. Only 3 out of 100 rapes are referred to prosecutors, 7 lead to an arrest and only 32 out of 100 are ever reported. An average of 68% of assaults in the last 5 years are never reported-this according to the Justice Department’s “National Crime and Victimization Survey” from 2008-2012. These numbers are staggering but as I considered my own experience it was not completely surprised.
When I moved back to Waco in April 2013 I continued counseling at The Advocacy Center. I worked with an amazing counselor there and began to heal my mind and heart. I realized a lot of things about my personal relationships that were damaging my sense of self-worth and dominating my identity. It was during this process that I recognized I had been raped and assaulted by 2 men 5 years earlier. I had never acknowledged the attack because I felt I played a large role in what happened since I left a bar with 2 men I met that night.
As I began to recognize my rights as a person I realized I had done nothing to influence my attack that night.
Since that time I have slowly processed the event and brought myself into awareness with the emotions tied to that attack. It has not been an easy process. Last fall I joined a group for sexual assault adult survivors and it has been very helpful for my healing. I realized there are other women with almost identical experiences and emotions. It reinforced the fact that sexual violence is a horribly stigmatizing event that our culture doesn’t understand. It makes us uncomfortable to talk about or hear someone describe therefore we are unable to create a healthy and safe place for survivors to heal.
If a victim does not feel comfortable speaking out, they are not only unable to begin the healing process, but they are also inadvertently protecting their attacker.
If our social norms prohibit speaking about sexual violence we are hurting survivors and helping abusers.
When and why did we begin to blame victims for their trauma rather than punishing and preventing violence? I soon realized that speaking about my experience would be one of the greatest ways for me to heal and triumph over my attackers.
Last summer while attending my church in Waco, I worked with a friend to establish a women’s group for persons who have experienced abuse. I announced the group one morning at church and invited women to join. I also said that as a survivor of sexual violence I knew how important it was to connect with others about our experiences. Handfuls of people thanked me after the service for my transparency and genuineness. Sharing my life with others, in all of its joys and heartaches gave me the greatest sense of purpose I have ever experienced.
Since last summer, I moved to DC and have been adjusting to a life in a relatively new environment. I am still yearning for those “real” connections that brought me overwhelming peace. I strive to remind myself that I am on a journey and some legs may be easy and others perhaps treacherous.
I think the greatest thing we can do to support survivors is to create a society that is mobilized to support and love persons who have experienced sexual violence. If a survivor is brave enough to share their experience or story with you, show them with your words and body language that you accept them and support them. Also remember that you aren’t expected to have the “right” words to say.
Sexual trauma is a senseless and devastating event that cannot be rationalized.
Researcher Brene Brown reminds us that there is rarely a response that can make a situation better. Supporting survivors doesn’t mean you’re expected to say something to make things better or to rationalize their experience. Tell them with your words and body language that you are so glad they felt they could speak to you about it and offer to support them in any way they need.