Centering Survivors: Sexual Assault

Women's Health | | Natasha Weiss
5 min read

Trigger Warning:

This article discusses sexual violence and assault, as well as societal approaches to these issues. Please keep this in mind if you may be triggered by these subjects.

In the post #MeToo era, there has been a growing awareness on the widespread prevalence of sexual violence and assault across the board. It’s reassuring to see the general public have an awakening as to just how common sexual abuse is, and with that – consequences for the actions of perpetrators.

But many of these conversations are missing a huge piece of the puzzle.

For people who have experienced sexual abuse, which is an estimated 433,648 annually in the U.S., this information is not new.

Not only that, it can be incredibly triggering to see cases brought into the public eye, and watch people have to fight for their dignity and justice, while their character and morals are being questioned.

Notable cases like Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, have shown this play out on national television. Even for people whose cases never make it to court, they are often the subject of further harassment after surviving a traumatic event at the hands of someone else. 

Survivors of sexual abuse are consistently ignored, minimized, and oftentimes retraumatized in their efforts to seek justice. If they get as far as to go to the police, then possibly in rare cases to go to court, they are still often left high and dry when they need the most support.

Well, guess what? Sexual violence and abuse still occur at an alarming rate, oftentimes at the hands of police and border enforcement agencies, as well as in institutions like prisons and within the military.

Meaning whatever systems are in place in the U.S., and other countries not only don’t work, but actively harms survivors. 

This Needs to Change

In changing the way we relate to sexual abuse as a society, the lens needs to shift from perpetration and criminalization to individualizing the approach offered to survivors, as well as changing the social environments that encourage sexual violence in the first place. 

This is Real Life

To offer my personal lens – I’m not just a robot at a computer typing this out, I am a real human who has had very real personal experiences that have led me to examine these issues at such length. 

When I was fourteen years old, I was raped by a classmate while I was severely intoxicated. This was the first time I ever had sex, or at least that someone had had sex with me. Following the incident, I was emotionally wrecked, as you can imagine, and chose to stay silent.

Somehow my school’s administrators caught wind of it and became involved.

When speaking with our school police officers, I was repeatedly -for lack of a better word- ‘slut-shamed’ by this officer. I was made to feel guilty, shameful like I did something wrong. When the whole school found out, the rhetoric was much the same. The slut-shaming language, the lies, and misrepresentation of my character.

I ended up developing further trauma because instead of support, I was ridiculed and harassed. 

I tell you this not for your sympathy or support, but to let you know that I understand. That unfortunately my story is all too common. 

While some level of trauma may have been unavoidable, I can’t help but imagine how different my healing process would have been if the community around me had reacted in a supportive way, rather than causing further harm.

Centering Survivors

The first steps that need to be taken after someone experiences sexual assault is to make sure their basic physical, emotional, and mental needs are being provided for. Seemingly simple things like eating, showering, and socializing can be overlooked when someone experiences trauma. 

While it may seem like common sense to file a police report like I mentioned oftentimes these reports lead to nothing but harm. Finding ways to seek justice, while still protecting the emotional wellbeing is critical towards their healing.

This means much more trauma-informed approaches from those in the criminal justice system, or to find better ways to navigate it that feel supportive rather than harmful.

Survivors of sexual assault need people who can help support them on their healing journey. This could be trained professionals like social workers and therapists, or community members like friends, family, and mentors.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always accessible for many reasons. This is where the role of greater institutions needs to step up and make that a priority by funneling resources into long term healing, which in turn creates a healthier society overall. 

Giving survivors a variety of tools to work with to navigate their healing, while setting up long term goals to help them to continue to move forward, is critical to centering survivors of sexual assault. 

The Big Picture

Contrary to popular belief, sexual violence is not usually committed by random strangers on the street. More often than not, survivors are harmed by people they know like a family member or spouse, or someone who is an authority figure – like we mentioned earlier. 

By understanding this, we can see how the societal approach to sexual violence perpetuates these acts, instead of trying to prevent the root causes of them. 

It’s imperative that societies develop ways to systemically address the harmful attitudes that lead to such widespread prevalence of sexual assault and violence. This starts with thorough sexual education, with creating cultures that allow for empathy and understanding, rather than dissociation and dehumanization. 

To center survivors of sexual assault is to take an active approach in changing a system that too often harms rather than helps. This involves deep systemic change and a shifting of the zeitgeist, but it is possible and absolutely necessary.

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