A myth is a belief that cannot be proven, it is a belief that is being used to justify a society’s actions. Sexual Violence has been described in many instances as actions that a victim brings on themselves. These myths that exist about sexual violence have been created as a way of further blaming the victim for the crimes committed against them. These myths have given society the option of ignoring the crimes being committed, they have also given perpetrators of these crimes an excuse for their behavior. Myths about sexual violence insinuate that an individual wants to be raped because of their dress code, or their behavior or level of intoxication. They insinuate that once an individual starts engaging in sexual acts, they can’t change their mind; that they started and as a result must finish. The myths say that sexual assault is about sex, that a wife can’t be raped by her husband, that men can’t be raped, that most rapes are committed by strangers, that many survivors of sexual assault report the crime. These myths say that men are unable to control their actions where women are concerned, especially if these women are dressed fully or scantily, if they are sober or drunk, if they are alone or with someone, if they are in or out doors, if they are old or young, if they are family, friend or stranger. These myths place the accountability of a sexually violent act on the victim regardless of the situation. I have only mentioned a few of the myths surrounding sexual assault, but the pattern is evident.
We ask survivors why they didn’t feel comfortable coming forward and speaking about their abuse. But the real questions are why you don’t do more when they do come forward? Why aren’t you more eager to ensure their abuser/abusers are brought to justice? Why aren’t you more eager to believe their stories, their truths? Why do we continue to protect people who commits these crimes? What are we ashamed of? Why does your shame, why are your feelings more important than that of those who have been and are being abused? Why do you find it easier to accept that someone sharing their sexual assault story must be lying, looking for attention, blowing the situation out of context, hiding the fact that in someway they either wanted to be sexually assaulted or did something to provoke their sexual assault than to believe that men and women are capable of forcing themselves on others? We all see the subtle ways it happens in everyday interactions, we have all had an experience where someone disregarded or boundaries and made us feel uncomfortable. Yet we prefer to send the message that suffering in silence is the best solution to an act of sexual violence. We all prefer to pretend it doesn’t happen. We prefer to berate victims and survivors for not coming forward and shunning them when they do. We prefer to look the other way, to demand their silence them and allow their abusers the freedom of speech, the freedom to choose what happens to their bodies and ultimately, the freedom to continue to abuse many, many, many others.
We live in a country that has been unable to effectively address issues of sexual violence. So many aren’t educated on the various aspects of sexual violence, so many more aren’t educated on the laws that are in place to protect them; the laws that dictate age of consent. Many don’t know what agencies are out there, or what help they can provide. Too many of our young boys and girls are being broken by their experiences with sexual violence. I speak about statutory rape because we tend to turn a blind eye when we see an older man/woman sleeping with a younger girl/boy. We don’t question what is taking place, we don’t acknowledge the crime taking place. For some it may seem a normal occurrence. But how can it be, how can we think nothing of an older man/woman taking advantage of a younger girl/boy? If he/she is UNDER the legal age,IT’S A CRIME. The legal age of consent in St.Lucia is 16. Intercourse with children under the age of 16 is a crime, it is statutory rape. We all know of the cases of men and women engaging in sexual relationships with children, at what point do we acknowledge it is a crime. We don’t need the law to set an age for us to understand and accept that sexual intercourse of any kind, sexual interaction of any kind with a child is wrong. When did we become a society willing to accept, overlook, ignore, that adults are taking advantage of our children, they are effectively ruining their lives before they even get a chance to truly start living.
I was having a “kitchen table” conversation recently with family and the topic eventually shifted to the news of the latest actress speaking out as part of the “Me Too” movement about being sexually assaulted some decades ago by a prominent figure in the film industry.
Being a survivor of sexual assault leaves an individual with many scars, there are constant reminders of what one went through. Sexual assault affects the victim/survivor in many ways, physically, psychologically and emotionally. Many survivors/victims don’t realize how deeply they have been affected until in some cases, it is too late. Being sexually assaulted affects how the individual understands themselves, how they treat themselves and how much love, respect, self-care is dedicated to themselves. There is a break in reality and in how they view everything. Many look in the mirror and can’t marry the image of who they see, how they feel and who they used to be. Many mourn the loss of what and who they could have been. Sexual assault leaves many survivors feeling separated from everyone, unsure of who they are and how they should proceed. Many, who have been sexually assaulted, will say that they picked up and did what they had to, to move on. They convince themselves that they have dealt with what was done to them.
How can she still be complaining about this? Why hasn’t she moved on? He didn’t really hurt her. Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand what happened? It can’t be sexual assault if it was your husband/wife. Too often these phrases are uttered to survivors of sexual violence, making them question what they went through and where they are in their healing journey. Do we need to see a physical scar to believe that one suffered and is still suffering? Will the visible physical scar give them permission to be angry, depressed, resentful, hurt? We treat sexual assault and the victims/survivors like they are only allowed to react past the point of the assault if we can see the scars, if we have a reason to pity them. The absence of a scar means that you should be over it, that you should move on, that it should no longer be affecting you. Our society doesn’t allow survivors of sexual violence to be in pain, it doesn’t give them time to heal. It is easier to accept that one would still be hurting if we can see something left behind after the attack, otherwise one is expected to put it behind them, forgive, move on. We fail to connect with the pain of the individual who has been assaulted because we don’t understand, because we don’t try to understand. There is a lack of education on the issues that arise out of sexual violence, which leads to a great lack in sensitivity. Many survivors absorb what is told to them making their healing and their pain greater. They are made to feel weak if they are still suffering, if the arbitrary time frame society places on recovery from sexual assault has passed.
The sexual assault of women is an issue faced by many worldwide. Many focus on the heinous sexual assault crimes, and ignore the cases they believe aren’t shocking enough by their standards. I speak to all survivors when I say that any story you have to tell is valid and important. It is your story. Every story is significant and powerful as a survivor/victim/(your words to describe where you are) of sexual violence, your story has impacted your life in ways you will take time to fully understand. Sexual assault changed your life. To the rest of you who have not fallen victim to this crime, sexual assault is not something to be trivialized or sensationalized; it is a very real and damaging thing that has happened and is happening to many children, women and men around the world. Your reactions and comments to those who have been assaulted can be the difference between them seeking help early versus the decision to keep their suffering to themselves.
Many survivors struggle with whether or not things can get better. Many wonder whether things will get better, whether they will actually be able to face what they have been through, they wonder how hard it will be to begin healing, whether they will be supported and validated. They worry what their families, friends and society will think of them. They wonder what they did to cause this, what they could have done differently. Making the decision to begin the healing journey is not an easy one. Many recognize that it means opening the wounds that have been sealed shut for many years, it means opening yourself up to the fact that your flashbacks and triggers will become more rampant, that all the thoughts, feelings and memories will come rushing back. The thoughts and feelings you may have fought so desperately to suppress. Too be quite honest, it gets worse before it gets better and while I know this is not comforting, it is the truth. Beginning your healing is a necessary step. Don’t let your fear paralyze you into accepting that things will not or cannot get better. Don’t be willing to accept that there will be nothing other than the current pain you are feeling. Beginning to heal is scary, but it is the first step to reclaiming you, to taking you life back, to being in control of what happens next. I will not for one minute pretend this has been an easy journey for me, it has been and still is very difficult, but going back isn’t an option. The time will come when you feel ready to begin the journey, don’t rush or pressure yourself. You are a SURVIVOR, a VICTIM, a THRIVER, or whatever word you chose to describe where you are right now. Always remember that, this is your journey, that you get to decide, when you are ready, what happens, when it happens and who you allow by your side while on this journey. When you feel weak and out of control, remember that you survived, that it took tremendous strength, but you did it. As victims/survivors/thrivers/etc. we are hardest on ourselves, but you have to learn and actively practice being kind to yourself. You are worthy.
How many times have you sat back and wondered whether you had just been sexually assaulted? For many, the question of what happened and whether you were in part to blame leaves you feeling very confused about where the blame should fall. So let’s clarify a few things; (1) you never cause anyone to assault you, (2) by saying NO, no matter whether you shout it or mutter it, if he/she continues, then it’s rape, (3) fighting back or failing to, doesn’t mean that you wanted it or consented to doing it, (4) having gone out with the individual and having them foot the bill doesn’t make him/her entitled to your body, (5) participating in any sexual act prior to a rape or sexual assault doesn’t mean that you gave consent to anything occurring after. Many survivors have been told by their abusers that they were in some way culpable in the act, they someone brought this upon themselves and ultimately wanted to be sexually assaulted. Understand that when your abuser or some ignorant individual tries to place the blame on you, they are giving your abuser an excuse. Know that these phrases and comments are disclaimers aimed at diminishing your memory and feelings of what happened, of what was done to you.
If I were to ask how many of us understood what one goes through when they have been sexually assaulted, I may find myself in a room where we could hear a pin drop. I know however, that if I could read the minds of everyone in that room, there would be an overwhelming “Me, I know, I get it, I have lived it, I am still trying to cope”. The sad reality is that many more of us are survivors of some form of sexual violence and that many of us aren’t ready to share that with someone else. Many of us are afraid to remember, afraid to begin healing. While we think we are alone in this pain, we are not, there are too many of us walking on this journey to healing, understanding, accepting, self-love, etc. As survivors/victims of sexual violence we rarely have support, we rarely have validation, and more often than not, everyone is concerned with the embarrassment or pain of our abuser/s. A survivor/victim is expected to live through the rape, she is maybe allowed to let it affect her for say a couple months before those who “supported” begin saying that she should be over it by now, that she needs to move on, that she is doing herself more harm, etc. No one takes the time to understand how a survivor/victim feels, or what really happens to them after. We rate their experience and their pain based on how horrific or severe it all turns out to be by our standards. A victim of a surprise gang rape is allowed more time to process than the victim of a gang rape who was too intoxicated to know what was happening. The abusers of the surprised gang rape we want hanged but again, only if by society’s standards, she was a “good” girl. If she was a prostitute then what did she expect. The girl who was raped and was too intoxicated to say anything we feel sorry for her abusers because clearly her inebriation was a sign of consent, clearly she is not the victim here but the young men who decided that intoxication is a substitute for a verbal Yes, well they deserve our pity. And so she like the prostitute is burned at the stake for their so-called actions that brought this sexual assault on themselves. We sympathize, not empathize with those who have been attacked sexually. We rate every assault and use that to dictate how a survivor should act, react, feel and for what length of time. What it was only an attempt, oh well nothing actually happened so get over it, oh wait, he was your boyfriend, well I’m sure you liked it rough, oh wait it was 2 guys well better than it being 5 so I’ll give you 2 months to get over it all. What about the young woman/man who is assaulted by someone in the family? We tell them that it was innocent sibling/family playing, that they are blowing things out of proportion, that they hold the family’s reputation in their hands.
There seems at times to be mixed feelings on whether a crime falls into the bracket of child sexual abuse/molestation. We query whether the child was too sexual or seductive, whether she/he played a part in the crime committed against them. We question whether the perpetrator should be punished, “it could have been a one time thing” we say, “he will not do it again, let’s not ruin his life.” Although, we never mention how the life of the child has been irrevocably changed. We don’t dwell on how he/she has been affected, how this has changed how they feel about themselves and everyone in their lives. Rarely do we have the child’s best interest solely at heart, we consider ourselves, the abuser and society before the betterment of the child.
So many survivors want to begin their healing journey. So many know they need to begin to address what was done to them so they can begin to take back their lives. That first step is often a daunting one. It means that you have to accept that at some point you were a victim of sexual violence. Accepting this doesn’t mean that you condone what was done to you, nor does it mean that you have to forgive your perpetrator. What it means is that you acknowledge that an act of sexual violence was perpetrated against you, you acknowledge that this is a horrible part of your life but you also recognize that this does not define the path that your life will or has to take. Many survivors of sexual violence don’t believe that are worth very much, they don’t believe they deserve to be happy or successful which is part of the struggle to begin healing. A large part of beginning your healing journey is (1) convincing yourself that you are not to blame, (2) recognizing that there is hope and that you are worthy of a happier life and (3) acknowledging that what you are about to undertake isn’t easy but that it is definitely possible and necessary. Making the first step is very hard, but sticking with the healing journey is even harder.
There is pressure to heal from sexual violence not to long after the crime has been committed. The pressure comes from all avenues; your family, society, your friends and from you. You want it to be over and want to be over it, many times convincing yourself that you are better, whole, healed, a survivor. But the truth is, survivors of sexual violence very often carry their secrets with them for a lifetime, they carry the pain of what they went through for a long time. Too often they have tried, at one point or another to seek support, to begin their healing by sharing their stories whether they come right out and admit that the story they are sharing is their own, or whether they say it is a friend’s story, they try. Too often the responses they get either blame them out right, or preach about how you, their friends and family would not have fallen victim to the crime of sexual violence. We speak about the crime of sexual violence like the victim/survivor was given the chance to accept or turn down the assault. They were not consulted, they were assaulted against their will, through no fault of their own. The responses survivors get send out the message that 1) they can’t and won’t get support from you, 2) that they somehow did something to bring this on themselves and 3) they should be over it by now. We instill over and over a sense of isolation and shame in survivors of sexual assault, so much so, that many never try seeking help or support ever again.
Silence has been part of the lives of victims/survivors for far too long. They have been coached, intimidated and coerced into keeping secrets of crimes committed against you, against themselves. Their freedom of speech has been stripped from them; in a failed attempt to “protect” you, the “actual victims of the crime.”. The victim/survivor was sexually assaulted; raped, molested, dealt with attempted rape, fondled; in most cases by someone they knew and trusted; a friend, boyfriend, husband, coach, teacher, priest, doctor, lawyer, police-officer etc. The victim/survivor may have been taken against their will and left alone to suffer. They tried to share, hoping someone would see their pain, hoping someone would understand but instead they were told to forgive and forget. The victim/survivor was asked not to ruin the life of the individual who sexually assaulted them. They were asked to protect the family, to refrain from shaming the family. Effectively, the victim/survivor was told that they didn’t matter and what was done to them was in some-way their fault. Their feelings of shame, isolation and fear were intensified when they were left to stand-alone. These are the cards that many, most, if not all survivors are dealt. This course of affects victims/survivors tremendously. It often leaves them feeling that they are being judged and blamed for crimes they did nothing to create. A survivors/victims sense of self-wroth, self-esteem, trust and innocence is ripped from them. The scars that are created are painful, they may not be visible but that doesn’t mean that a survivor doesn’t have them, or isn’t aware of them. We are all very aware of every scar that developed as a result of the sexual assault we suffered.
Melinda Gates said “A woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman. But the search to find that voice can be remarkably difficult.” As women, as survivors, finding our voices can be difficult, it has been difficult. As women, over the years our voices have been stolen from us, we have been told that what we have to say is not important, not worthy of contribution. As women, we have had our bodies used and abused, we have been bargaining chips, our bodies have been used as battle grounds, as sales pitches, as merchandise. As women very often we have been reduced to/ valued for our physical attributes. Throughout history women, have been told that their voices need to be silenced to protect everyone else, their countries, the men who have abused them, the systems that have let them down and betrayed them, the families that have been embarrassed or shamed by the abuse inflicted on them. As women, finding and using our voices has been difficult because more often than not, you are instructed not to use your voice. To be quiet for the sake of everyone else, to hide your pain, suffering, to be quiet about your accomplishments and the dreams that have been realized.
There is an extremely long list of excuses used to explain away the crimes of sexual violence. We have in many ways become immune to the real damage this crime causes. We have learnt to look the other way when we are uncomfortable speaking out about crimes we see occurring, we have learnt to interrogate and judge the victim about what she/he did to cause someone to sexually violate her, we have learnt to excuse the men and women who rape by justifying their actions in one way or another. We have told sexual violators that their crimes are not their fault. We have told victims that they caused their sexual assault. We have ensured that victims feel guilt and shame and that they shoulder the majority of the blame for what was done to them.
So many find solace in the fact that they have been one of the untouched where sexual violence is concerned. So many fool themselves into believing it will never happen to them, or those they love. They convince themselves that sexual violence doesn’t/couldn’t happen in their family. Unfortunately, when the topic of sexual violence is discussed, too often the common belief is that sexual violence happens to a certain type of male/female, that many women will somehow be spared. We seem able to place ourselves in a bubble where we assume we are immune to the atrocities in life, especially where sexual violence is concerned. But no-one is immune to sexual violence, perpetrators of this crime don’t pick their victims based on social class, race, economic status, gender, age, etc. Instead, crimes of sexual violence are perpetrated to feel power and control, sex is the tool they choose to use. We refuse to acknowledge the problem of sexual violence in St.Lucia because we believe that this will never happen to us, to our children, to our friends. When the truth is that it happens everyday to the same people we assume it will never happen to. Not knowing doesn’t mean it doesn’t or didn’t happen, it means that they are unable to tell you what is happening or has happened to them. They are unable to tell you because you believe that it can’t happen or doesn’t happen. So telling you seems out of the question.
For many victims of forced sexual assault figuring out what to do causes an entire range of emotions, most commonly anxiety. Do I tell someone? Whom do I tell? What will they think? Where do I go for help? What help do I need? Is this sexual assault or am I overreacting? These are a few of the questions that run through a survivor’s mind. At this point, many of you have chosen a path that would help you best cope. For many that path also entailed being silent. Being silent is never an easy decision, it is done out of necessity. It is done because survivors are keenly aware of how their stories will be received, about how they will be shamed and blamed for the violence perpetrated against them.
We are able to accept that sexual violence happens, but only on our terms. He had to have been a stranger and she/he had to have done something to bring this on herself. But THE TRUTH is that, the majority of survivors of sexual violence were victimized by someone they knew, someone they trusted, someone who ended up betraying their trust and violating their boundaries. In cases of child sexual abuse, we ask the child to forgive the individual. We coerce and threaten them into protecting the family image, we foolishly ask them to protect the individual who raped, or molested them, or attempted to rape or molest them. We try to convince them that silence is better and easier than speaking out. THE TRUTH is that, what you have done is re-victimize your child. You have told her/him that they should be ashamed, that they are alone and that on some level what was done to them is their fault. You have given their abuser free reign to abuse them again and any other child he/she may get their hands on. I’ll take a minute TO EXPLAIN to you what SILENCE does to a SURVIVOR of Child Sexual Abuse; it’s like a cancerous sore that remains softly scabbed. It begins with the initial assault but them it spreads to how they see themselves, how much they think they are worth, how they trust and react to people, how they cope with all they have been through, how they grow & develop. The soft scab doesn’t harden and begin to heal until they are able to find help, but even then the scar always remains. So every-time their abuser is around, every-time he smirks when looking at them, every-time he/she passes and makes lewd comments or places a hand in a private place, that scab is ripped and the wound is made larger and more painful. The SAD TRUTH is now they know they can no longer come to you because the last time they did you did nothing, you failed to protect them.
To many, those two words don’t carry much weight. We hear them and ascribe the normal meanings to them. Trust defined as being able to place confidence in or rely on someone, a belief in someone or something. Abandonment the relinquishing, withdrawal, discarding, disowning of someone or something. These two words may not conjure up any images or feelings for the typical individual. For survivors/victims of sexual violence; these words do the opposite; they bring back painful memories, emotions and thoughts.
Survivors of Sexual Violence struggle with a range of emotions that often result in self-blame and guilt. They blame themselves for what they believe they caused, what they believed they could have prevented or stopped. There is an extreme guilt that survivors carry around with them, a guilt that is made more difficult by the way in which their sexual assault is received and treated by society. Guilt, Self-Blame, Anger, Fear, Loneliness; these are intense emotions survivors grapple with on a daily basis. They fear how they will be treated should they decide to say “Me Too”, that fear causes anger and loneliness. Anger because of what was done to them, because they are being blamed for being violated, because when they need support but instead are faced with questions and accusations about how they could have prevented someone else’s decision to violate them. The loneliness comes when they are alone, when they share their story but feel like those sitting and listening don’t understand, that they somehow blame the survivor for an action that they could not have known was coming, for an action that they did not want. Survivors feel the blame, they hear the accusations in the questions that are being asked. These emotions are only a few of what survivors deal with on a daily basis. These emotions are long lasting leaving survivors wondering what next, who do I turn to for help, who understands what I am going through, was this truly somehow my fault. The damage that occurs when one has been sexually violated doesn’t only happen in that moment, the emotions that continue to course through leave them constantly questioning their lives, themselves and their futures.