Note: This blog contains some very personal information about sexual violence that might trigger some people and that is not appropriate for young children. Please proceed with caution if you are in the presence of young ones and/or don’t feel able to cope with a discussion on sexual assault. I won’t be offended.
By now, most of you have heard the news that the President’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, has been accused of attempted rape when he was 17. Dr. Catherine Blasey Ford, who was 15 at the time, has had to go into hiding because of the death threats against her.
Let me say that again. The accuser, the victim, has received death threats. She has been slut shamed, called a liar, and denigrated to no end.
The accused, on the other hand, continues to be lauded by both the Republican politicians and conservative media as the savior of the Supreme Court, a “family man” and a “changed man” even if he is guilty of the crime. Oh, and according to the above (mostly white, mostly male, mostly privileged) personalities, it’s not actually a crime to attempt rape when you are white, privileged, male, and drunk. (And as we already know, it’s also not a crime for the President of the United States to grope women’s genitals against their will and then brag about it.)
Today, Dr. Ford is being questioned by a lawyer in the Senate to determine the fate of Mr. Kavanaugh, who refuses any responsibility in the matter.
In another case last week, a judge in Alaska gave a white man ZERO jail time for kidnapping a woman, threatening to kill her, choking her until she passed out, and then masturbating on her while she was unconscious. Both the white male judge and the white male assistant district attorney decided to accept the guilty plea deal with ZERO jail time because the sexual predator seemed “amenable to rehabilitation.” The 25 year old Native American victim had no say in the matter. They didn’t ask her about her recovery or her rehabilitation.
And then they wonder why people don’t report sexual violence.
I’m not gonna lie. If you can’t already tell, this whole thing has triggered me at all levels — emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Hearing people say things like “Why didn’t she report it?” or “This is typical teenage boy behavior” or “We don’t want this to affect his future” has pushed my buttons and ripped open wounds that I had thought were healed.
And the thing is, I’m not the only one feeling triggered. There are literally billions of men and women in the world who carry the shame and wounding of sexual violence against them and who feel that wound every time someone makes an excuse for the perpetrator.
I was assaulted both as a teenager, when my boyfriend would often take out his rage on me, and twice as an adult, when I entered the horrific world of “dating in my 40s” after my divorce.
Up until now, I have shared my personal experiences of sexual violence with only a few people in my life, but dammit, I have had enough. It is time for us all to speak the hell up and stop feeling so damned ashamed of our experiences, when it is the perpetrators who should be feeling ashamed, not the victims.
As has been reported in the media, most people like me — both men and women — do not come forward to report the crime(s) against them for fear of the repercussions, judgment, shame, denial, etc. I was actually encouraged by a male friend not to go to the authorities one foggy Thanksgiving evening, because it would be my word versus the guy who drugged me and tried to rape me. (Luckily I was able to find my shoes and my keys and escape to my car with him chasing after me before he was able to rape me.)
In my friend’s eyes, the odds were stacked against me, and it wasn’t worth it.
If my friend wouldn’t believe me, why would the police? I bandaged my wound silently and prayed to God that the predator wouldn’t try to hurt anyone else. I live with the shame of it every single day.
The Physical and Economic Costs of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence takes a huge toll on one’s health and well-being and also places a major burden on our health care system. This burden is not sustainable, and it’s time for each of us to stand up and put a stop to it. Even if you’ve been lucky enough not to have been a victim in your life, look around you. Just because you don’t know everyone’s history or herstory, you know countless people who have been assaulted in their lifetimes, both male and female.
On the physical level, victims of sexual violence are more prone to digestive issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), depression, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD, drug use, suicide attempts, interstitial cystitis in women and sexual dysfunction.
Financially, according to a 2017 study by the CDC called, “Lifetime Economic Burden of Rape Among U.S. Adults,” the average lifetime cost of rape per victim is $122,461, with a “population economic burden…exceeding $3.1 trillion” for the United States alone.
And those are only the measurable costs, and only for rape. They include neither the costs associated with other forms of sexual violence such as molestation or attempted rape — like what happened to Dr. Ford or to the woman in Alaska — nor do they account for the immeasurable emotional and spiritual costs to each and every victim.
At least 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men (usually before the age of 18) report being sexually assaulted during their lifetime. There’s a reason the military calls sexual assault “trauma.” What does this do to us as a culture and community when so many people are living with the emotional and potentially physical pain of a sexual trauma? Over 25% of women of childbearing age are prescribed anti-depressants. How much of this is due to the trauma of assault and living in silence?
This is not a sustainable model.
Healing the Wounds
In our culture, we treat physical wounds with so much more honor and importance than the emotional and spiritual ones. While the physical wounds of sexual violence might heal quickly, the emotional ones last a lifetime. The trauma of sexual assault never goes away. It is imprinted on your soul. You can take steps to help heal it, but like the scar I got on my lip from my cat when I was 9, it never completely goes away.
Worse, you never know when that wound will be ripped open, when something will trigger you. For some, it could be a smell, a noise, a sight, or the similar experience of another. Over a third of women who are raped before the 18 are raped again as an adult, which means reliving the trauma at a deeper level.
And yet, because of the way our society tends to blame victims for being assaulted (if people even believe the victim at all), most people live with their secret in silence.
As my beloved colleague Dr. Maya Shetreat, MD, says,
“Secrets are toxic. They are toxic for the secret-keepers and the families of the secret-keepers. Part of the familial and ancestral trauma we each hold comes from these festering secrets. For a wound to heal, it has to be exposed, cleaned out and tended to with deeply loving care. We each need tender loving care to navigate grief and loss and pain. It starts with sharing.”
Dr. Shetreat’s analogy with a physical wound resonates deeply with me. I’ve seen some nasty Stage III and Stage IV pressure injuries, many of which go all the way to an infected bone. The only way they will ever have a chance to heal is if we love and attend to them with diligence and oxygen every single day. The worst chronic wounds are the ones that seem to be healed on the outside with a thin layer of granulation, or new tissue, on top, but with a little probing, you realize it’s just a veil, that the wound is actually tunneled deep and festering. You have to have the courage to probe the wound, drain the pus, remove the dead tissue, and do whatever it takes to heal the wound.
In the same vein, we need to respect victims for coming forward and give them all the tools they need to heal their wounds. And we need to change the way we approach sexual violence, against both women and men.
Healing our Society: Sexual Violence is Preventable
It is time for us to take responsibility as a society and as individuals so that people are held accountable for their actions — for the Brock Turners (and their fathers) to recognize that they are causing irreparable harm every single time they commit an act of sexual violence and to pay a price beyond a wrist slap or a few months in jail.
We also have to hold our criminal justice system accountable and make sure that our laws are enforced with strict penalties and jail time for those who commit acts of sexual violence — white and Caucasian perpetrators need to be held as accountable as those of other races, ethnicities and colors, just as Bill Cosby, a black man, was sent to jail. We need to be more concerned about the future and well-being of the victims than we are of the predators committing these crimes. The voters of California spoke loudly when we recalled Judge Aaron Persky in June. If he would not hold Brock Turner accountable, then we would hold him accountable.
We need to use our system of democracy to vote in politicians who act responsibly and who are willing to hold others accountable, even those of their own political leanings.
Most importantly, we need to change how we educate our children and adolescents. We need to teach that sexual violence of any kind is always wrong, no exceptions and no excuses. Alcohol, drugs, intoxication, clothing and wealth do not negate or lessen the crime.
And when someone comes to you and tells you they have been assaulted, believe them. Don’t demonize them, don’t ask what they did to deserve it, don’t shame them, don’t tell them to keep it secret.
Telling you is perhaps the most courageous act of their lifetime.
Love them, support them, help them get the help they need, hold their hand when they cry, drive them to the hospital or police station to report the crime. Give them the oxygen they need to heal. And if you can’t do that, find someone who can.
Sexual violence of any kind is not sustainable. Together, we can stop it, but it is going to take each and every one of us to speak up and speak out.
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The drawing of the eye is by Tatiana Schmid. Used with permission.