Several months have passed since our nation was captivated by events involving the hearings for then Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Like many of us, I was riveted by the testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh. Fascinating, too, was the reaction of those elected to represent us. But most of all, I was deeply moved by the sound and fury of the women protesting. Women pleading their cases for the suffering they had in common with Ford and with each other. MeToo, indeed. In the Capitol offices, in the hallways, in the streets, and in every venue of social media, there they were with their stories: raw, emotional, ragged and angry stories from women who would no longer be put off, shamed or quieted.
I read story after story online from the women and some also from men. For women who had been too ashamed, humiliated, fearful, intimidated or guilty to tell anyone and who found it impossible to go to authorities for 20, 30, 50 years––there were no words strong enough to heal the scabs of these soul-deep wounds. These women experienced the triggering of long-held memories that could no longer be denied. With power in numbers and support of a sisterhood, women who had kept their shame to themselves, minimized and rationalized their wounds and guarded their secrets were emboldened to share with the world the truth of their rapes, assaults and terrors.
Setting political persuasions aside, with new awareness of the number of women affected, how should we proceed?
There are some estimates that one in three women will be assaulted in their lifetime. How can we, as friends and family, help? What should we know or want others to know, if our mother, wife, sister or daughter reveals her story? What if the victim is a male? It is estimated that one in six men have experienced sexual assault.
First of all, and most importantly, when a person discloses a sexual assault to you, listen respectfully and nonjudgmentally. Do not ask ”why” questions; those are for law enforcement or others to ask. It’s important to remember that only about 30 percent of assaults are reported, and of that number it is estimated fewer than 10 percent are false reports. Simply believe your person, offer affirmations of their bravery and your support for them. Be present for them as a witness to their pain. Being able to tell their stories is one of the most effective ways of helping victims regain control of their lives, allowing some of the intense emotions to subside.
Taking in these stories can be very difficult for the listener. You may feel angry for your person, guilty that you were not aware or able to help, confused or anxious about the circumstances, or have trouble believing the person reporting. You may feel sad, worried or powerless. It’s normal to have difficulty processing the hard stories of someone you care about. The National Sexual Assault hotline at 800-656-4673 (HOPE) is available for anyone to talk to someone professionally trained to help deal with these emotions and thoughts.
“Sexual assault is a unique form of trauma,” said Emily Dworkin, a senior fellow at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. “It is highly stigmatized, and when people go to seek help for it, unlike in a car accident—well, the police are not going to ask you if you’ve really been in a car accident.” Dworkin’s work as a researcher leads her to encourage survivors to seek the help of a therapist and to continue to tell their stories.
Sexual assault is a gut-wrenching topic for everyone; it is hard to hear about, hard to talk about, and hard to accept its frequent and unwelcome intrusions into the lives of our families. Can we possibly imagine what our grandmother, cousin, mother or uncle endured in silent suffering? Will we be able to find it in ourselves to help end the stigma of sexual assault and offer comfort to all those who want and need our support?
Learn more from the National Sexual Assault hotline, or www.rainn.org.
Vicki Husted Biggs is a longtime social worker who lives in Home.