The Lifetime Impact of Sexual Assault
There is a unique group that I hope you never have the occasion to be a member of: sexual assault survivors. That said, if you are not a card carrying member you will never understand the experience and devastating consequences of the abuse. Further, if you are a man who isn’t quite sure if you crossed a line when in physical or sexual contact with another person, you will most certainly minimize or deny that anyone would have been hurt by your actions. At any age. Drunk or sober.
In this Kavanaugh-Ford drama, I am totally unsurprised that the focus is on the potential “suffering” of a judge who hasn’t spent one day feeling ashamed or guilty about any moment in his entire existence. Meantime, Dr. Ford has lived with actual suffering that members of this club know too well. She has already lost a great deal while he has climbed his chosen ladder without being held accountable for his behavior. And he may just win the prize he has been after all along.
As someone who spent many years treating sexual abuse survivors, training other therapists and writing a book on the subject, let me help all of the non-members understand the reality of these remarkable people (mostly women).
Ordinary development is disrupted. Think of yourself as a fifth grader or a high school sophomore. Remember how you understood the world, how you interacted with peers or your family. Envision what your body looked like and how you felt about it. Think about what your interests were. Now imagine that someone more powerful came along and violated you sexually. Regardless of events that transpire next, you are forever emotionally and cognitively frozen as a 10 or 15 year old. Now picture yourself trying to fit into the normal flow of life as you turn 20 or 35 with persistent intrusive thoughts that take you back to that life altering moment. Are you the adult or that frightened child? A little bit of both.
Clever coping mechanisms will be created. Children will do whatever is necessary to survive. Each survivor can tell you precisely what “quirks” they have brought into adulthood. For one it is obsessive washing. For another it is needing multiple exits. Hyper-alertness, constant placating, hiding, detailed contingency planning. If you have friends who have some unusual anxieties or coping mechanisms that they tell you have been there since childhood, chances are they suffered abuse.
Acting normal. Accent on acting. At the moment of the assault, any semblance of fitting into the mainstream is over. Feelings of shame, guilt, impotence and being exposed are intense and constant. Survivors feel this so strongly inside their beings that they assume it shows on the outside. Every effort is made to seem like nothing ever happened. Sure, they are newly quieter, more socially withdrawn, skittish and awkward but they go to great lengths to hide what happened. Even if those efforts are not too successful.
The quandary of how to feel safe, secure and trusting. If the abuser was known to the survivor, all sense of safety ends. Even if the abuser is not known this occurs but the double whammy of betrayal by a friend or family member or priest cannot be overstated. If these are the people in your life that you could trust and one of them violates you so egregiously, where does that leave you? How can you possible regain any sense that the world is a safe place and that others won’t harm you again?
And yet, these are not damaged people. Yes, these are unique struggles that non-members will never know or understand. However, you are working next to someone who is a survivor. Your physician is one too. Your child’s teacher, your next door neighbor, the PTO president and the volunteer at the animal shelter. And they are in your AA meetings and other counseling settings. Not all their coping mechanisms are healthy ones and a small fraction will go on to harm others. But an enormous majority of survivors never abuse a soul and go on to lead successful lives.
Survivors are phenomenal people who deserve the deepest respect. Despite the unthinkable violation(s) they endured as a young person, they have managed to face down their horrors and become productive, kind and generous people.
So I ask all of you who are not members of this club, just because you can’t see the scars why wouldn’t you treat a survivor with dignity? Rather than all the minimization and denial or denigration you direct her way, maybe you need to look in the mirror for a moment. Ask yourself, what if my 14 year old daughter was sexually assaulted? Would I just tell her to get over it or it probably didn’t happen the way she thinks it did or what’s the big deal? Or, worse, would you tell her not to destroy some college freshman’s future job prospects? Would you really defend the attacker? And for all you parents of boys, do you really want them to be so callous towards others that “boys being boys” is just harmless, youthful antics? Don’t you want them to be better than that?
As a country, we are unable to face down hard realities. We are ill-equipped to talk about children being sexually assaulted and what happens to them. We’d rather turn a blind eye. It’s just too awful to truly, deeply imagine if this is not your life experience. In the end, sexual assault is about overpowering and controlling someone more vulnerable. And focusing on poor Judge Kavanaugh is all in service of maintaining that power and control. Women and children be damned!