shamed-femaleWith all the allegations coming to light about sexual abuse perpetrated by celebrities, including Harvey Weinstein (no relation to the author of this article), Roy Moore, Louie CK and Kevin Spacey, it seems timely to write an article, about supporting survivors, how to avoid victim shaming, even if it took years to speak up, ways to prevent abuse, as well as means to deal with disillusionment when our icons commit such crimes.

First and foremost is the acknowledgment that sexual assault, whether it comes in the form of words or touch, is about power and control. Sex is merely the vehicle of transmission. It dehumanizes. It steals sovereignty. It robs a person of their sense of safety in their own environment and their own skin. There is no ability to consent when someone has power over another, whether it is economic, legal or by virtue of having given birth to the victim.

In a world in which women are objectified and vilified, boys and men are taught negative messages about those with XX chromosomes. When a boy is told that his stereotypically feminine behaviors and interests make him weak or somehow not appropriately masculine, all genders across the spectrum are de-valued. When a girl is hypersexualized (think the pageants in which little girls are made up, dressed up and coiffed as if they are Las Vegas showgirls), she runs the risk of believing that her value is measured in how she can attract a man. Paradoxically, it puts her at risk since, if attacked, the inevitable question is, “What did you do to bring that upon yourself?”

Consider a perfect counter to that inquiry: Someone buys an expensive sports car, takes good care of it, keeps it in fine repair and drives it in public. While it is parked in the driveway, it is stolen. Does anyone ask what that person did to become the victim of theft? When did it become acceptable to shame them for having to report the robbery to the police?

Victims of sexual assault are given no such latitude and support.

One of the most important things to consider is how much courage it takes to admit what violations were perpetrated upon someone’s body and mind. There could be numerous reasons why a person would hesitate to report the crime; fear of exposure, loss of status or career, coming into regular contact with the perpetrator, close scrutiny of personal life and habits, denial that it occurred, and re-traumatization, among them.

How can we support those who have been victimized to move from that status to one of survivorship? If someone confides in you that they have been assaulted,

  • Let them know that you believe them.
  • Remind them that they are not alone and that you will help them get through this.
  • Ask them what they need.
  • Don’t report it unless they give you permission to do so.
  • Find appropriate resources for them (legally and physically and psychologically).
  • Remember that the impact of sexual assault lasts far longer than the physical violation. The aftermath of emotional scars can be lifelong. As psychotherapist Laurence Miller writes in his 2013 survey of rape causality: “No other physical encounter between human beings carries such a disparate potential for good or evil.” One rationale for that observation is that ideally, sex is meant to be a pleasurable experience, a means of expressing love and connection. When that sense of enjoyment is made to be something dehumanizing, it may render the victim unable to fully engage with partners and potentially lead to dissociation from one’s own body.

What contributes to rape culture?

  • The “boys will be boys” attitude.
  • Prominent figures making inflammatory and defamatory statements about women and the opportunity to marginalize them.
  • Acceptance of “locker room talk”.
  • Making women responsible for policing their activities and the behavior of men who perpetrate.
  • Myths abound about sexual assault. There is a belief that only women/girls get raped. Men are sexual assault survivors as well and the impact on them is as devastating as it is for women.
  • There is a contention that survivors falsely report assault. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “To date, much of the research conducted on the prevalence of false allegations of sexual assaults is unreliable because of inconsistencies with definitions and methods employed to evaluate data (Archambault, n.d.). A review of research finds that the prevalence of false reporting is between 2 percent and 10 percent. The following studies support these findings: A multi-site study of eight U.S. communities including 2,059 cases of sexual assault found a 7.1 percent rate of false reports (Lonsway, Archambault, & Lisak, 2009). A study of 136 sexual assault cases in Boston from 1998-2007 found a 5.9 percent rate of false reports (Lisak et al., 2010). Using qualitative and quantitative analysis, researchers studied 812 reports of sexual assault from 2000-2003 and found a 2.1 percent rate of false reports (Heenan & Murray 2006).”

Like most people I know, I feel a sense of shock and revulsion at all the revelations of sexual abuse perpetrated by notables. It is just scratching the surface, I’m sure. What piggybacks on this is the reality that there are so many who knew what was going on and did nothing. Think about the people you know who may be subtly or consciously supporting those who take advantage of others and knowingly exposing people to perpetrators. I recently called it out when I heard about it happening with those in my life. Bystander Effect runs rampant and prevents people from taking responsibility. If you see something, say something. You would want that for yourself.

I teach touch by consent. Not only does no mean no, but only a full and conscious and not coerced yes means yes. If someone says no, get it. Don’t continue to persuade. Back off. When in doubt, don’t touch. I ask before I hug, even those I know.

This is so regardless of gender. I know people of all orientations and identities who can sadly say #metoo, including me too.