This article describes sexual violence and assault and societal approaches to these issues. Please keep this in mind if these topics trigger you.
In the post-#MeToo era, awareness of the widespread prevalence of sexual violence and assault has increased across the board. It’s comforting to see the public have an awakening to how common sexual abuse is, and with it ramifications for the perpetrators’ actions.
However, many of these conversations are missing a large piece of the puzzle.
For people who have experienced sexual abuse, which is appreciated 433,648 annually in the USThis information is not new.
Additionally, bringing cases out in public and watching people fight for their dignity and justice while their characters and morals are being questioned can be incredibly triggering.
Notable cases like Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, showed this piece on national television. Even people whose cases never make it to court are often the subject of further harassment after surviving a traumatic event from someone else.
Sexual abuse survivors are consistently ignored, minimized, and often retraumatized in their efforts to achieve justice. When they get to the point where they go to the police and, on rare occasions, go to court, they often stay high and dry when they need the most assistance.
Guess what? Sexual violence and abuse still occur at an alarming frequency, often by police and border guards as well as in Institutions like prisons and within the military.
This means that all the systems in the US and other countries not only do not work, but are actively harming survivors.
That needs to change
In changing the way we deal with sexual abuse as a society, the lens needs to shift from perpetrator and criminalization to an individualization of the survivor approach as well as a change in the social environment that primarily promotes sexual violence.
This is the real life
To offer my personal lens – I’m not just a robot on a computer typing this out, I’m a real human who has had very real personal experiences that made me investigate these issues in such depth.
When I was fourteen years old, I was raped by a classmate while I was heavily intoxicated. This was the first time I’d had sex, or at least someone had sex with me. After the incident, as you can imagine, I was emotionally devastated and decided to keep quiet.
Somehow the administrators at my school got wind of it and got involved.
When I spoke to our school police officers, I was repeatedly “shamed” by this officer for lack of a better word. I felt guilty, shameful, like I did something wrong. When the whole school found out, the rhetoric was similar. The slut-shaming language, the lies and the misrepresentation of my character.
I ended up developing another trauma from being mocked and molested instead of being supported.
I am not telling you this for your compassion or support, but to let you know that I understand. That my story is unfortunately all too common.
While some level of trauma may have been inevitable, I can only imagine how different my healing process would have been if the community around me had been supportive rather than causing further harm.
The first steps to take after experiencing sexual assault are to make sure that their basic physical, emotional, and mental needs are met. Seemingly simple things like eating, showering, and socializing can be overlooked when someone experiences trauma.
While filing a police report seems prudent, as I have mentioned many times, those reports only cause harm. Finding ways to seek justice while protecting emotional wellbeing is critical to their healing.
This means far more trauma-related approaches from criminal justice staff or better navigational methods that feel supportive rather than harmful.
Sexual assault survivors need people who can support them on their healing path. These can be trained professionals such as social workers and therapists or community members such as friends, family, and mentors.
Unfortunately, this is not always accessible for many reasons. Here, the role of larger institutions needs to be reinforced and made a priority by pouring resources into long-term healing, which in turn creates an overall healthier society.
Providing survivors with a variety of tools to work with to direct their healing, while setting long-term goals to help them move forward, is critical to centering sexual assault survivors.
The big picture
Contrary to popular belief, sexual violence is usually not committed by random strangers on the street. In most cases, survivors are injured by people they know as a family member or spouse, or by someone who is a figure of authority – as mentioned earlier.
When we understand this, we can see how society’s approach to sexual violence perpetuates these acts rather than trying to prevent the root causes of them.
It is imperative that societies develop ways to systematically address the harmful attitudes that lead to such widespread sexual assault and violence. This starts with thorough sexual education, with the creation of cultures that allow empathy and understanding rather than dissociation and dehumanization.
Putting sexual assault survivors at the center means taking an active approach to changing a system that too often does more harm than good. This includes profound systemic changes and a shift in the zeitgeist, but it is possible and absolutely necessary.
Natasha’s passion for reproductive health began at the age of fourteen when she was present at the birth of her youngest sister. Her incredible experiences as a birthing doula gave her insights into the magical realm of childbirth, pregnancy and everything in between. Your role as an obstetrician is her way of serving as an activist. She uses writing as an important educational tool to bring about changes in our view of reproductive health as a whole.