On Behalf of Sexual Assault Survivors
We have just witnessed the most courageous and shameful senate testimony by two witnesses. While Dr. Ford bravely shared the details of that life altering evening, she was unable to tell the rest of the story. The harm didn’t end that night when she was 15. It was just beginning. And that’s what makes all the white men’s responses double and triple awful. They have no clue what happens to women in the moment and long afterwards.
I spent years treating adults who survived childhood sexual abuse. I supervised other therapists and wrote a book (Integrating the Shattered Self, 1993) about how to heal from the unthinkable. I speak with some authority here when I lay out several facts.
· Children who are sexually harmed are traumatized on every level. “Normal” for them is always being consumed with “how do I keep myself safe?”. The moments of joy or undefended interactions are few and far between.
· This trauma is lodged in the body and mind in unshakeable ways forever. Details may blur but the pictures and feelings are vivid. Each survivor develops remarkable coping strategies to handle the persistent effects of the trauma. With good therapy and a support system, most will become highly functional adults. That doesn’t mean the scars are gone. What it does mean is that these survivors are brave in ways you can’t conceive.
· Abusers do NOT accept responsibility. When confronted with the specific incident(s), all abusers deny the woman’s experience and express outrage at the mere accusation. Gaslighting isn’t a strong enough description for the crazy making responses by these men. At every level the man is saying “you are making this up, you are nuts”. This is a painful but not unexpected reality for survivors. When it comes down to he said-she said, there is one woman but a chorus of angry men who will deny, deny, deny. The benefit is always given to the man never the woman, despite the ridiculously rare number of times that a man is falsely accused.
· Sexual abuse is about power and control. Because men DO have the power in our families, institutions and society, they can exert force without any care or thought about who will be harmed by their cruelty. Nor will they fear any repercussions. The overt and covert acceptance of abhorrent male behavior towards those with less power or strength (children, women, minorities, employees) is well ingrained in our culture.
· For survivors to be believed or treated fairly implies that men would lose something. They might be thrown into jail or lose a job or forfeit custody of their children. If women’s stories were the predominant and unquestioned truth, men would be held accountable for their actions. Men would be the ones who would need to account for inconsistencies in their stories or be grilled about their blanket denials. They would be the pariahs.
· Unless you (or someone you live with) is a survivor, it will be next to impossible to understand the extreme impact the abuse has on a child or woman. It is worse than anything you can imagine. It can never be tossed off as “so long ago” or “not that big of a deal”. Next time you see a ten-year-old girl, imagine a grown man’s penis shoved into her vagina. Now imagine that girl ever being okay. If that is too horrific, think of a twenty-year-old college woman waking up after being drugged, without any clothes on and bruising and sticky semen all over her legs and vaginal area. Now imagine her just walking into class the next day as if nothing happened.
The drama we saw unfold last week only gives credence to women’s concerns about coming forward: we won’t be believed, the testimony will re-victimize us, the men will play the wronged party and coming forward won’t change anything. The men will still prevail, their power intact.
I am pessimistic that this will be a watershed moment for #metoo or women speaking out or the comeuppance for angry white men. I think the traditional gender roles and power dynamics will hold. Women and people of color will not be given an inch of greater agency in this moment in our cultural evolution. Everything points to uncensored rage that is turning back the policy clock, stripping minorities and women of any gains.
The only way things change is for the good white men to yield. Support women’s veracity, share their power, accept responsibility for bad behavior, take their bros to task (including the president), accept the equality of all, examine and deal with their rage and need for constant control. Men, and male adolescents, need to have higher standards for themselves and they need to stop minimizing the impact of their aggressive and harmful behavior.
Until that day comes, is there any scientific/rational reason to accept a man’s word over a woman’s? Or is it just because he’s a man? Until one man’s reputation or future employment is genuinely more valuable than a survivor’s lifetime, I’m not buying the angry white man screed.