One Step at a Time: Shifting the Conversation About Sexual Assault

He Said, They Said

As the recent Me Too and Time’s Up movements have exposed predatory men in power and empowered women everywhere to tell their stories, society’s perpetuation of sexual harassment and assault has taken a spotlight in American media. From Bill Cosby and Louis CK to President Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, accusations have been levied against powerful people across all arenas. This surge in media coverage could lead one to believe that sexual assault has become a more pervasive problem than ever before, but this problem is not new and neither are the societally taught attitudes and behaviors that cause it. The rate of sexual assault and rape in the US has dropped 63 percent since 1993, but the majority of sexual assaults and rapes go unreported. These statistics together reveal the truth of the matter: it is not sexual crimes and rape culture that have changed, but how and how often the media reports on these incidences.  

When news broke of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky in 1998, the New York Post referred to Lewinsky as a “portly pepperpot.” The Wall Street Journal called her a “little tart.” Comedians and late-night hosts alike relentlessly used her as a punchline. She became a household name for all the wrong reasons, either a promiscuous villain or a dirty joke in the eyes of many Americans. At 22 years old, Monica Lewinsky was publically shamed on a massive scale while President Clinton enjoyed the highest job approval ratings of his presidency.

While Lewinsky has always maintained that the affair was consensual and did not constitute sexual assault, she and many others have pointed out that gender and power dynamics were at play. “Now, at 44, I’m beginning to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot,” Lewinsky wrote in an essay for Vanity Fair

As the Me Too and Time’s Up movements continue to expose sexually exploitative abusers of power, the American public has been forced to examine the way we talk about sexual harassment and assault. Comedians such as John Oliver and Bill Maher have expressed regret for making cruel jokes about Lewinsky and she has received notable public support since her re-emergence as an anti-bullying advocate. It is difficult to imagine a major news publication in 2019 calling someone in 22-year-old Lewinsky’s shoes a “little tart.” 

Despite this apparent progress in the media and the national conversation surrounding sexual assault and harassment, victim blaming has only been amplified by the internet and the vast majority of perpetrators never spend a day in prison. The current president of the United States has been accused of sexual misconduct by 23 different women, notoriously bragged about grabbing women’s genitals on tape and admitted to paying off a porn star. To say that American society has a long way to go in holding powerful men accountable would be an understatement. Nothing so clearly illustrates this lack of change as similarities between the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh.

In 1991, law professor Anita Hill came forward during Judge Thomas’s confirmation hearing with allegations of workplace sexual harassment. Throughout her testimony, Hill was forced to recount Thomas’s sexually explicit words and actions over and over again, as a panel of all men scrutinized her motives and mental stability. Senator Alan Simpson even suggested Hill may suffer from “a delusional disorder.” Despite Hill’s vivid and reliable testimony, as well as accusations by other women never called to testify, Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court by a slim margin. Many American women were outraged by this outcome and the way Anita Hill was treated by members of the Senate. The next year would come to be known as the “year of the woman” as a record number of women were elected to the Senate. 

Flash forward to 2018. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward with her account of being sexually assaulted by Judge Brett Kavanaugh at a party they both attended in high school. Eager to avoid the public criticism received for their treatment of Anita Hill, the Republicans of the senate judiciary committee hired outside litigator Rachel Mitchell to question Dr. Ford. Throughout the hearing, Dr. Ford remained a composed, respectful and reliable source even as she described her intimate personal trauma on a national scale and was forced to repeat key details multiple times. Judge Kavanaugh, on the other hand, had several angry outbursts and reacted to standard questions with hostility. He, much like Justice Thomas, was confirmed by a slim margin in spite of Dr. Ford’s testimony and the accusations of multiple other women who were not allowed to testify. Shortly after, a record number of women were elected to the House of Representatives. 

The similarities between these hearings are striking and suggest that, even though American society is making strides toward gender equality, there is still a long way to go. Media coverage of the Me Too and Time’s Up movements starkly contrast the large scale public ridicule Monica Lewinsky experienced. However, Dr. Blasey Ford received so many death threats in the wake of her accusations against Judge Kavanaugh that her family had to relocate from their home. Even though our culture is progressing in how sexual assault and harassment are discussed publicly, survivors are still deeply distrusted and powerful perpetrators still face little to no consequence for their behaviors. Change doesn’t happen overnight. There have been, through all stages of history, women who have fought to empower themselves and others. This same willpower and courage must continue in the rising generations. When injustice is present, one must never be satisfied with the status quo.

From Silence to Resilience

She’s sitting in the car; it’s black outside except for the procession of small cylinders of construction, orange and silver barricading each side of the highway.

Behind the CAT machines and yellow tape there is a seemingly endless dirt road, desolate except for his car. Nothing is moving. Only one repeated word: no; only one color: dark; only one feeling: him. Time is suspended and all she sees is a single light post outside the car window. He is deaf to the “no”s and eventually her objections fade into whispers and she grows silent, continually hypnotized by the dim glow of the lamp post exposing what he was doing to her.

“Mentally, I just felt very numb. It was kind of like an out of body experience…I mean, it was happening but I wasn’t really experiencing it at the moment…But I didn’t do anything. I just sat there. I was frozen,” she said.

Her name is Sam and this is her story.

Now she’s standing in the shower, her body clenching at the singe of the boiling hot water pelleting her back. She’s clawing at her body, tearing the skin with her nails and knuckles in an attempt to shred away the dirt, filth, and shame.

“I was really scared to break things off with him because after the sexual assault I didn’t do anything to protest. After that it was just kind of, he could do anything; so he just got really mean and I got really scared to broke up with him because he kind of took on this possessive and obsessive nature.”

She didn’t know what to do, so she did nothing. She bottled it up inside of her, keeping things stagnant in an attempt to normalize the internal and external consequences she was dealing with or prevent any major change.

“I didn’t pursue it because I didn’t want to believe that it happened. I wanted to brush it off. I didn’t want to get the police involved…If I told my parents I knew [they] would go to law enforcement and I just wasn’t ready to have a sign plastered on my forehead that [says] ‘I’ve been sexually assaulted’,” Sam said.

For a while, she said to herself, “It’s your fault. You should have done something. You’re worthless.”

Her relationship with him and these obsessive thoughts continued for a year, a year of negative self talk and justifying his words and actions. It was a year of blame, shame and guilt; it was a year of hiding and silence. She didn’t want to put a label on any of it. Rape. Victim. Sexual assault. Rapist. She was able to admit none of it outloud.

“It was kind of progressive. He’d do things to hurt me and kind of put me down mentally and sometimes he’d do things physically that would hurt…I didn’t think I deserved it but I would tell myself ‘he won’t do it again’ or ‘he told me he was sorry’,” Sam said.

After that year, she stopped all communication with him. Ignoring not only what he did to her, but now ignoring him. 

“Eventually he showed up at my house. Of course he knew where I lived. He was my boyfriend, but he stepped over a line showing up to my house in this–not so much in a rage but he was kind of agitated. And then he put me in the car and he drove us to the park in my neighborhood and that’s when I told him.”

Body trembling, voice shaking, avoiding eye contact, fidgeting thumbs and it all resulted in one thing for Sam: not a breakup, but a breakout. Sam had set herself free. She broke up with the guy that left her heart broken.

“It was really weird because I thought I was going to get hurt. I thought he was gonna try and kill me or something. I thought he was going to go crazy…he accepted it but he asked me if he could have one last kiss or one last hug and that’s when I realized what I had gotten myself into. I realized that he didn’t think he had done anything wrong,” she said.

Immediately afterward, Sam could not fully come to terms with everything that happened. Her boyfriend didn’t think that he was to blame. She was still holding onto all of that guilt and shame on her own. 

“Then I realized what had happened but I didn’t want to accept it. So for a while after we had broken up, it was almost like Stockholm syndrome. I did miss him, I missed being with him…It was this year that I realized how messed up the situation had been,” Sam said.

She never told anybody about the situation with the intention of reporting him. Just like many other victims of sexual assault, Sam had her reasons. 

“I didn’t want to be looked at differently or pitied by people in public or people in high school. I was used to being invisible; I did orchestra and ROTC and I was kind of the quiet person. Just kept my grades up and sat in the back of the class and I had maybe six close friends in high school. So I wasn’t the kind of person to put myself out there and I didn’t want that to change. I didn’t want to have the risk of being publicly outed. I realize now that was kind of dumb because I just didn’t want to be pitied, is what it was. At the time I was ashamed of myself,” she said.

Then came her freshman year at the College of Charleston, the year Sam was hit with a lot of harsh but healing truths. In one of her classes, Sam was assigned to write a paper about a painting that meant a lot to her. She wrote about “The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli, a painting of a woman in a white dress passed out with a demon sitting on her chest.

“I hadn’t told anybody about it, my parents, law enforcement, friends. I just kept it to myself and so putting it on paper or in words…To me the demon on her chest in the painting represents the weight of feeling like you’re alone in a situation, feeling helpless. So that’s what I wrote about and I feel like putting it into words made me finally realize what happened,” she said.

Ironically, it was writing that helped Sam come to terms with what happened, cope with it and become a better, healthier person.

“I really don’t like writing. I resent it. That’s why I’m a science major because I can’t write thesis papers or papers on a book or things like that. This paper was about something that I valued or a life experience, something that mattered to me. That’s why I think writing that paper gave me an epiphany because it wasn’t just like I was thinking in my head ‘It was ok. It wasn’t my fault.’ I was putting it out into the world. I wasn’t going to be ashamed of what happened anymore. I wouldn’t hide behind a smile or something. I was actually accepting it and I was okay with accepting it and moving on. So, it was the paper that oddly enough did it for me,” Sam said.

With that paper, Sam set herself free from her own imprisonment within her head, within her heart and within the labels and assumptions that come with the words rape and sexual assault.

“Throughout this situation, you feel like you’re worthless and helpless. You feel like it’s your fault. After I realized that it wasn’t, it kind of opened up things that I can do. My grades got better and I started pursuing astrophysics instead of teaching or working in an office job or something like that. I branched out a little bit more and realized that I don’t have to confine myself to one thing. You’re not confined to one thing. If you put your mind to it–or if you really want it and you try hard to get to where you want to be–then eventually you will but you have to put in the work. It opened up the possibility and realizing that the possibilities are limitless,” Sam said.

Realizing that the possibilities were limitless allowed Sam to not only accept herself and what had happened to her, but it also allowed for her to find others that had gone through similar experiences and find peace within the chaos.

“I had talked to some other people and I had signed up for some online hotline thing to let you talk to other sexual assault victims…and then realized that it’s not just me. There are other people. I don’t have to keep it to myself. It’s not something that I have to go through alone. There are other people that I can talk to,” she said.

Sam’s story is one of struggling and shame turned into a memory that fuels a life of self-love, happiness and peace. Sam continues to be open about her experience with sexual assault in hopes of inspiring others to seek help from any resource instead of trying to fight the emotional, mental and physical repercussions.

“It’s just comforting to know that someone else has gone through the same thing. As cheesy as it is, you’re not alone and there are people that can help you through it and talk you through it and as worthless and helpless as you feel right now, it wasn’t your fault and people aren’t going to hate you or resent you for being sexually assaulted. It’s not something you boast about but it’s not something that you hide or something you should be ashamed of…I’d just say reach out to your parents and reach out to law enforcement. Because the battle might be hard but people that do that to you or think that’s okay probably don’t deserve to walk among people that know that it not right. They deserve to be justly punished. So you don’t have to be afraid.”

Where You Can Go

“I want to believe it will be completely be eradicated….But it has always been and will always be,” said Charlane Marie Dwight, the victim assistance provider for the College’s Office of Victim Services, regarding sexual assault cases on college campuses.

When we hear about instances of sexual assault taking place in colleges, we tend to believe it only exists on any campus other than our own. As students, we want to feel safe in college. But reality maintains a different stance: sexual assault plagues higher learning institutions across the country, regardless of size, location, or student population—and The College of Charleston is no exception.

 According to the College’s Annual Security Report, which presents the number of reported crimes on campus from the beginning of 2015 to the end of 2017, 17 reports of forcible sex offenses occurred within the bounds of our campus. All but one incidence of sexual assault occurred in a residence hall. Although these are not necessarily staggering amounts, it should be understood that these figures only account for the cases that victims actually report to Charleston Police or Campus Security/Victim Services. 

Dwight is correct in saying that the existence of sexual assault on college campuses can never be fully eliminated. However Dwight and her colleagues at the Office of Victim Services expend sizeable efforts to combat the issue. Victim Services is, as Dwight says, “a one-stop resource entity….We deal with all victimizations. We deal with all students, regardless of gender, regardless of orientation.” 

The Office of Victim Services is not a substitute for medical care and they do not force victims to report to law enforcement, instead, they offer victims the tools and assistance necessary to handle any collateral damage inflicted by their victimization. Victim Services only adheres to the individual’s wishes, in order to minimize the fallout which tends to follow a crime. Dwight states, “our number one goal is to let them know their rights and options—that they have rights and options. It’s going to vary after that because they’re all individual.” 

Although the ugly truth remains, that the risk of sexual assault occurring within campus communities, including our own, can never be totally eradicated, it should be comforting to know the College does not take that fact lightly. Dwight noted that the Office of Victim Services was considered “cutting-edge” at its time of establishment over 25 years ago, when societal standards were not nearly as considerate of sexual assault victims as they are now.

Dwight believes “in order to combat any problem or any issue, that needs resolving, it can’t be looked at through one lense. You have to look at it in its entirety.” By maintaining this belief, College of Charleston students can be reassured that their victimizations will always be handled fully and will never define them.

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