“It is time for a healthy national and local dialogue on sexual violence.”
Susan Bursztynsky, executive director of Streator-based A Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Service, gave me that response in October 2016, to an inquiry about the ongoing national conversation about sexual abuse. In the many months since the conversation has only grown louder and more prominent.
To that end, ADV & SAS late last year named Amy Brandon its sexual violence program director. We traded emails throughout December as I sought a way to further the discussion locally without writing something that might inadvertently be harmful to those who have suffered and continue to struggle with the aftermath of such an experience.
“It is important to understand that anybody can be a victim of sexual violence,” Brandon said, “Sexual violence is traumatic. People who experience trauma can and do have a myriad of responses to that trauma. There is no one right way to behave if you have been a victim of trauma. There is no such thing as a perfect victim. This belief that all victims should behave in certain ways is what leads people to believe that it is OK to doubt the testimonies of victims.”
Another reason not to dismiss victims, Brandon offered, is because people who “commit these acts are not doing so randomly or without consideration. They are predators. Whether the acts they commit are sexual harassing or assaultive, they are all the acts of sexual predators who would use their power to damage, violate and control their victims.”
She provided statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. Among the sobering facts are that one in four girls and one in six boys will be abused before their 18th birthday. One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their life. These figures are even more stark held against data showing 63 percent of sexual assaults aren’t reported to police and only 12 percent of child sexual abuse is reported to authorities.
When people are traumatized by these acts, it can and often does affect their mental health in perpetuity. And while we shouldn’t expect our acquaintances or even good friends to share these personal stories, those lucky enough to remain unscathed ought to realize survivors walk among us and therefore treat this serious issue with the respect it deserves.
It’s tough enough to live with the memories of sexual abuse or a violent crime, now in the last few months these incidents have become almost water cooler conversation as allegations dominate headlines and television news — including some stories about the on-camera personalities who talked about the issues until it was their turn to face accusations.
“Don't speak for survivors,” Brandon said. “If there is an opportunity for survivors to speak for themselves, let them. If however, there is no opportunity or they are unable to for whatever reason, do not presume to be their voice if you have never been in their shoes. There are lots of ways to advocate for survivors that do not presume to know their personal experiences.
“Don't allow either yourself or those around you to trivialize sexual violence or question the veracity of victims when they do report,” she continued. “It is incredibly uncommon for people to lie about being a victim of sexual violence.
“Don’t turn a blind eye to the behaviors of those around you that might be a perpetrator. Speak up. Recognize the problem. Respond appropriately. Refer those that need help to ADV & SAS, law enforcement, the hospital or whatever choice feels safe for them.”
The 24-hour ADV & SAS crisis hotline is 800-892-3375. Extensively trained advocates are always on hand to answer and offer help.
At the dawn of each new year, it’s traditional to commit to self improvement. That wasn’t on Brandon’s mind when she offered these suggestions, but I’m taking them as such:
“Do be mindful of the media you consume. ... Do educate yourself about issues related to sexual violence.”
And one that works for all situations: “Do be respectful to all people regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, race, ethnicity, disability status, etc. If you know that you treat all people with kindness, respect and dignity, then you can be sure that you are never part of the problem.”
We’ve got a long way to go, but it’s the perfect time to commit to heading that direction together.