Finding your voice: Overcoming sexual assault - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Finding your voice: Overcoming sexual assault

Professionals say seeking help is key to overcoming assault. (Photo source: file) Professionals say seeking help is key to overcoming assault. (Photo source: file)
WLOX -

Each year, an average of 321,500 people 12 and older are sexually assaulted in America. 

In the wake of high-profile celebrities being accused of sexual harassment, the list has grown to more than a dozen: Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., George Takei, and Jeffrey Tambor; just to name a few. 

Using the hashtag #MeToo, survivors are taking to social media to indicate that they have victimized at some point in life. And, as many people learned, women are not the only ones who suffer in silence.

Actor Terry Crews made headlines when he shared via Twitter that he was once sexually assaulted by a Hollywood agent. 

AWARENESS

Although it initially seemed as though actress Alyssa Milano gave life to the viral moment, its roots actually go back more than a decade. Tarana Burke founded the MeToo campaign in 2006 to give a voice to victims of sexual assault.

"I was living in Alabama and I was working with young people in Selma. In that community, the rape crisis center and some other resources in the community weren't reaching out to serve young people that were dealing with, like young women of color, said Burke. "As a survivor myself, I started thinking about what it was I needed when I was trying to start a journey toward healing and trying to process what I experienced. For me, it had been peak empathy from other survivors."

More than a hashtag or moment, #MeToo is a short and powerful way for survivors to let each other know they aren't alone. 

Some victims of assault come forward immediately; many say nothing at all. Either way, Burke says finding support is key.

"I think it's courageous that women are speaking out via the hashtag, but I also say be gentle with yourself. People, I think, underestimate what it takes to publicly reveal yourself as a survivor of sexual violence, so even though it's just writing me too on social media for some people, for other people it's a huge step in their life, it's a big courageous jump," said Burke. "I want people to seek support wherever they can find it. I want you to find people who understand and who you can connect with, and I want you to be gentle with yourself." 

THEIR STORIES

For many, #MeToo is an opportunity to be vocal about their experiences. Two women decided to share their story with WLOX News Now. Although the names have been changed, the details of their assault are real. 

How old were you when you were sexually assaulted?

Kathy: I was about 22. It's fuzzy now.
Dana: 24

Did you know your attacker?

Kathy: Yes. We had gone out a couple of times.
Dana: Yes. We were in a relationship for about four years shortly prior.

Within your comfort levels, please describe your assault.

Kathy: We were at his house making out, clothes (not that it matters). Then all of a sudden he got very aggressive, in a way that frightened me. It was like a light switch came on. I'm thinking how did we get from kissing to THIS. I didn't know what to do except try to remain calm as he was forcing himself on (and in) me. I was crying but I said please, please just go get a condom at least. He obliged. By the time he got back, I was on my way out of the door. He followed me to my car. The dark cloud over him was back. I was hoping he didn't really hurt me. He didn't but he grabbed my arm and said, please please don't leave me. I need you. I stayed in calm mommy mode and said, it's ok. I have to go now but I will call you later OK? The light switched back off, poof. Just like that he was back to "normal," though I don't think the normal is quite right. And the crazy thing is, that his mom was there at the house during all of this. Pretty sure she was enabling this behavior.

Dana: It took me six months after college to find a job, but when I did it was in another state. I had already been in a relationship for a few years, but the new place was only a few hours away, so I drove back and forth. After a while, maybe a year into the new job, I told him we should take a break. I did it over the phone. He didn't want to take a break. He kept calling and I kept answering (and mostly listening). At some point, I stopped answering the calls. One day out of the blue there was a knock on my door. I looked through the peephole but didn't see anyone. When I opened the door he was standing to the side. He looked sweaty and tired. I felt bad for him and he had driven a long way so I didn't try to prevent him from coming in. He ended up bringing pillowcases in a couple of other items. I worked from 2 to 10 at that time so I went to work. When I came back he was still sitting in the chair unmoved. He ended up being over a couple of days. He kept making advances, but I would rebuff them each time over the few days. The next to the last time he tried he was more physical with his advances and I had to physically push him away/take his hands off pretty hard. At that point, he left and went into the bedroom. The whole time he was there we'd been in the front room (I have a futon). When he came back he had a handgun, which he had pointed at the floor. I knew he had a shotgun and handgun when we dated, but I didn't realize he'd brought them. He told me to take off my pants. I complied and at some point, during the entire act I told him he didn't have use the gun. He had it in his hand the entire time. Afterward, he had a weird look on his face and went into the back room to get his things. (The guns apparently had been in a pillowcase.) I helped him take his things to the car because that meant he'd leave faster. I was afraid to turn my back and walk back into the house until he left. I remember thinking that I was supposed to be getting ready to go to work around the time it happened and wondered if I still should/would be able to go in.

I want to mention that I worked for a newspaper and they wrote about the incident. The police media contact called the office and let my editors know it was me as a heads up, concern thing, I guess. Not only was the crime/courts reporter and the alternate reporter at the time told, but the entire office, even the ones that would have never have to write about it. People were nice to me, but I felt like they looked at me differently after that. Like I was fragile.

My ex's sister, who I'd never met and lived across the country, emailed me at work (I figured she'd gotten my email from an article he'd sent her of mine at some point) and asked me to call her. I didn't. I got a call from his house phone at work at some point too that was unanswered. I assume it was his dad.

For a long time, I was afraid of seeing cars that looked like one of the two my ex drove when I was out. I would turn a different way. If any type of car followed me too long I'd drive evasively/wouldn't drive home.

Did you tell anyone/report the incident to the police? If so, what was the outcome? If not, why?

Kathy: I never said a word except to my best friend. In fact, I hadn't given it too much thought until I mentioned it on someone's social media post. I wasn't going to let that own or define me. At the time, I also felt that I got lucky because wasn't too violent and I got away fairly unscathed. I would not have reported it to the police because he was a basketball star and I was no virgin. It wouldn't have mattered if I had 1 lover or 100 lovers, I would have been the skank whore trying to derail his career or get money. I googled him one day and somebody finally got him. He was arrested for sexual assault or aggravated rape or something. That made me feel vindicated. I knew I wasn't the first or the last. I don't know what I would do or how I would handle it now. I hope I never have to and that my daughter is safe from men like this.

Dana: Yes, the person I called after said I'd be "crazy" if I didn't. My ex was arrested about 45 minutes after he left my house. The police came over, took my statement, took evidence, and I had a kit done at the hospital. I didn't have to testify because my ex agreed to cooperate with the prosecution, I guess, so I wouldn't have to testify. I was also told by another friend I should tell my parents/family, so I did. Doing it all over again, I wouldn't have. I felt like they looked at me as more "fragile" after that point. My best friend at the time cried. Another close friend blamed the attack on "the devil." We haven't been as close since then. My ex is presently incarcerated still.

Have you ever received counseling to discuss how the violence has affected you over the years?

Kathy: No. But I did discuss it in therapy recently. I sent my daughter to the Grizzlies basketball camp. This one coach looked familiar and I said, God I hope this isn't him. I sat in my car shaking and about to burst into tears until the google machine got me together. I hadn't seen him in years so I got a photo of him from the internet. I was so relieved! I was about to have all kinds of fits up in that place. Seriously, mama bear on the rampage. I cycled through all of those emotions in about 5 minutes or so, sitting in my car. I wasn't leaving that camp without knowing for sure. So that let me know that I was indeed NOT alright. At all. For it to affect me like this all these years later was eye-opening.

Dana: Yes. I used the local rape crisis/child advocacy center for a whole year's worth of sessions, which included some yoga and art therapy.

What advice do you have to others who have been assaulted/harassed in any way?

Kathy: Talk, talk , talk. Talk to a professional, talk to family or friends that you trust. Even if you don't report the person, talk it out. Don't allow that person did control how you move through life and how you regard yourself. Again, this doesn't define you. Don't allow something like this to change who you are, how you dress, where you go, how you date. Don't do it! But bigger than that, I can't stress enough that people should talk to their sons. Teach them how not to be rapey or make women uncomfortable. The conversation is always centered around women. But what messages are boys and young men getting?

Dana: Whether or not you decide to report is a personal decision, but you definitely should get counseling.

FINDING HELP

The minutes, hours, days - and even years - following an assault can be an emotional rollercoaster for victims.

Jocelyn Lane, MPH and CEO of Premier Professional Counseling Services, says the stigma surrounding sexual assault is often the reason victims remain silent. 

"Usually people blame the victim: 'Why was she drinking that much...Why was she there.' Women are afraid they'll be scrutinized more than the perpetrator," said Lane.

After first seeking medical attention and reporting the attack, Lane says those who have been sexually assaulted should also seek professional help.  

"We all process trauma differently. What may take someone 10 years to overcome may take someone else a week," she said. "No matter how long it may take for a victim - man or woman - to discuss trauma, there should always be a discussion. As a society, it's something that we don't often do." 

Because resources vary from city to city, Lane suggests a simple internet search to start the healing process.

"Get out there and research what therapist will be best for your situation. Reach out to resources at work like EAP (Employee Assistant Program), where you can get private counseling for free," added Lane. " Also, many therapists offer self-pay options for those who do not want to file therapy sessions on insurance.  

The burden of trauma caused by sexual violence isn't one anyone should bear.

"The healing process is not one you can do alone. Trauma can manifest in other areas: relationships, jobs, etc. Get the help you need so they don't become an issue later," noted Lane. 

FINDING YOUR VOICE

No matter someone is victimized, two simple words can lead to the path of healing: Me, too. 

MeToo.Support
Mississippi Coalition Against Sexual Assault
Premiere Professional Counseling Services, LLC
Current MS Rape Crisis Centers

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