What now, in the real world

What now?  That is the question you ask yourself after you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted.  The terms sexual assault, molestation and rape include a range of abuses that begin with subtle coercion continuing through child molestation and encompass everything up to violent attacks.  The first thing to consider is what exactly happened regardless of the words you use to label it.  For a victim this can be a confusing thing to set straight in their own mind, let alone verbalize.  If someone is trying to share this experience with you, separate yourself from what has happened to them.  Do not put your own fears, outrage, anger or perception of how you would have experienced these events on the victim.

I put forward the thought that we should not force a standardized set of opinions on how a person is expected to feel or act when recovering from sexual abuse.  I believe we must allow them the freedom to choose their own feelings and actions, in their own time.

I was, of course, the victim in a very high profile sex scandal.  What has been added to my own experience is a lifetime of friends and acquaintances sharing their own experiences and those of friends and family members as well.  Perhaps they know I will not judge, perhaps since I refused to remain damaged and bitter they think I will have some helpful words.  I think that I have learned much about the different ways people process and recover from sexual abuse and how to support someone who is struggling.

First do away with your judgment, the initial reaction of “how could this have been prevented” is useless, it has already happened.  You may feel like if you just would have done something different, you could have avoided this.  Maybe it’s true, but the fault lies with the person who assaulted you, no matter what you did or didn’t do.  It is natural to feel some guilt or some shame, but that does not mean you are guilty or shameful.  These are feelings that you need to work through.  In supporting someone, understand this, do not deny or dismiss these doubts in a victim.  You can’t make them go away by saying these feeling are wrong, you have to understand that it is a common reaction, and validate that although the victim feels somehow responsible, what happened is not their fault.  You have to be allowed to express the feelings of guilt, shame or responsibility in order to work through them and not carry them with you into the future.

If the assault has just happened the first decision is who do your report it to, and will you report it?  If you have been violently attacked or the victim is a child, no matter how difficult, you should call the police.  Violent sexual predators and child molesters are likely to hurt someone else, if you don’t report it, they may continue abusing others.  Having said that, if you just can’t do it, then you can’t, you have to survive.  The moral obligation not to harm someone lies with the predator, not with you.  Victims do not cause rape, rapists do. 

When it comes to more subtle forms of sexual abuse, you may be even less likely to call the authorities.  You may feel that there is no evidence to prove what has happened to you, or prove that it was not consensual.  I think everyone understands that what you will go through in coming forward can be intimidating and may be a very bad experience, perhaps as in my case, worse than the event itself.

In 36 years I have learned many things and I am still learning.  It took me all this time and the recent revelations in the very public battle between Mia and Dylan Farrow vs. Woody Allen to finally “really” understand why my mother called the police when she found out what Roman had done to me.  As a sexually active teenager, I thought I was fine, after all it was just sex, I wasn’t injured and I was home safe and sound.   I had not been taught to have feelings of guilt and shame about sex, so I wondered how could the public shaming  we had to go through be worth it.  I was angry with her, but I eventually came to terms with it.  I’ve said I understood why she had to do it, but it was more of an intellectual understanding.  While I still like to believe I would have been fine if she didn’t, I now see what can happen when you don’t pursue charges.  However terrible it all was, I am now grateful that my mother refused to let Roman use me in such a disrespectful way and betray my family’s trust.  Her strength in standing up for me taught me a valuable lesson.  In the end I think what I went through made me a stronger person.  Consider that when you make your own choice, 20 years later will you still struggle to recover, feeling that you never go the justice you deserved?

The most important thing is for the victim to heal and recover under whatever circumstances exist.  If you choose to do this privately without involving the authorities, you will have to live with and accept that decision.  You can’t go back in time and change it any more than you can undo what happened to you.  So your fear at the moment, may override your ability to come forward.  You can make that choice, you are not obligated to anyone but yourself and your own recovery is the most important thing.  There are many reasons to encourage a victim to come forward, but if encouragement doesn’t change their mind, then you must respect their choice. 

When you do come forward you are likely to experience some of the judgment that I spoke of earlier.  What could you have done differently?  It is not fair but it seems that some have a very hard time not thinking that if you would have behaved differently, you could have avoided the assault.  It is hurtful, but you may be thinking some of these very things yourself.  You must know that whatever the circumstances, it is never okay to sexually assault someone and the responsibility lies entirely with the person who did it. 

My experience with these conflicting emotions, I think is shared by others.  I didn’t like being told I was responsible for nothing, it made me feel helpless and powerless.  In my own mind I could take responsibility for the bad choices I made, learn from them, and still put the blame entirely on the person who raped me.  I believe that you can live with that contradiction, you are not powerless.  You may wish you had made different choices, but the fault of what happened does not lie with you.

In the real world, not the world of high profile cases being tried in the court of public opinion, fueled by our “newsertainment” industry, things are handled differently.   A victim may tell no one, they may tell a family member or close friend immediately or years later, they may only tell part of the truth being ashamed to share it fully.   I think the most important thing to do when someone confides in you is to listen.  Refrain from judgment, don’t force your own emotions onto the victim.   Perhaps they are devastated, perhaps angry or ashamed, perhaps they feel that they will be okay and just want to share and talk it out.   However they feel it is valid.  My experience is that most people are kind and understanding, if you tell them what happened to you they will listen.  Often they will share that something similar has happened to them or to someone they know and tell you that they’re okay and you will be okay eventually too.  Behind closed doors survivors share and support, they include themselves in the collective and do not stay silent or isolated.  When things become public it’s more difficult.

As society we seem to need to force damage upon victims of sexual assault.  They are treated as if they are marked for life, injured, changed, unable to recover.  In part it seems that this is required to prove the perpetrators of these crimes have done a terrible thing.  The level of injury to a victim or their ability to recover from, it does not change the fact that sexual assault is a crime.  We should not demand that victims be unable to recover to prove that what happened to them is wrong.

Peoples’ feelings about sex play into this dynamic.  If you believe that sex is a dirty and shameful thing, you will project that onto victims of sexual assault.  If you have been taught that sexual activity is a sinful or ugly thing, you will project that onto yourself if you have been victimized. A healthy attitude towards sexual activity, knowing that sex is a normal natural part of a healthy life and not a shameful thing goes a long way towards recovery if you have been assaulted.  I believe it can help prevent sexual assault, if we teach our young people that sex is an ugly shameful thing, than what do we tell them rape is?  And as a society our need to place our own negative feelings about sexual activities on victims only pressures them further.

If you or someone you know has been assaulted remember this.  Whatever happened, whether you were dragged into a car and taken, assaulted by a stranger or an acquaintance on a walk home, if a family member, teacher or neighbor did something inappropriate with you when you were younger, or someone got you intoxicated and forced themselves on you, you can recover.  You are not damaged beyond repair.  However you choose to deal with it, it’s okay, it is your choice.  Whether you called the police or you chose not to.  Even if you didn’t and later wished you had, it is okay, you did the best you could.  If you never told anyone, if you repaired the relationship with family member privately, or if you told only a close friend what happened.  Whatever you did or not did not do, it was your choice.  You can heal, you can move on, you can find a place to fit this awful experience into your life and move on as a healthy person.  We can never undo what has happened.  Do not wait for circumstances beyond your control to change, so you can begin to heal.  If you still feel angry or afraid, that’s okay.  Forgive yourself, tomorrow is a new day, try again.  Just keep doing the best you can to find peace from within yourself that is the only place you will find it.

The proof is all around you.  My personal experience with survivors leads me to believe that the statistics estimating the incidence of sexual assault are much lower than the true figure.  I am here as proof.  My friends and family members are here as proof.  People you work with, strangers on the street, we are all here as proof to you that you can recover. Whatever happened, whether you received justice or not, whether you were believed or not, you can heal, you can recover, you can thrive.  There is no changing the past, there is only making a better future, for yourself, for those you care about, for those you will never meet.  Be proud that you have survived, support others who are recovering, you do not have to feel shame for being victimized.  The shame is for the person that assaulted you.

We all have our own unique experiences and paths, we do not have to accept being cast aside as a group of damaged objects. We can come together and use our success and our pride in surviving to shine a light into the darkness forced upon us by those who wish to close the door and look away.  The shame and stigma of sexual assault can be removed as easily as it was place upon us.  Refuse to carry the burden, refuse to place it on others, stand against those who try to make victims carry it with them.

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