I Ask

I’ve had to stop myself from becoming jaded to the allegations of sexual misconduct that pop up everywhere. And I mean everywhere. It’s almost too much to take in and it can make your mind weary. The court of public opinion (which seems like the only one that matters) has been loud and from what I can tell it’s a hung jury. But one thing I know……this behavior is nothing new….and we as a country have too often condoned it and silenced voices.

Thinking about this lately has taken me back to high school, when I was a state officer for the Future Business Leaders of America. We had to undergo all kinds of training on manners, and dealing with people in positions of authority, and how to handle ourselves in social situations. One session seemed to come out of the blue. At least to this naive girl. We were about to go to a large reception full of corporate people and politicians and our advisor gave the girls instruction on how to deal with hands-y men. Looking back I suspect that this came up because she was a bold woman who kept her eyes open and didn’t think that because someone wore a nice suit and gave money to high school programs, it meant they had pure motives. If one of these “gentlemen” came up to us and put his arm around us and didn’t immediately drop it, we were supposed to drop our hands down and step back….pushing off his back a bit if necessary.  A simple move that showed me I had power in these situations….and that if things made me uncomfortable it was not OK. Yes, possibly we were taught to be a bit too polite in handling it. But it was the first time it was confronted in my life. I found it worked, and for me it reinforced that I was in charge of my body and was not a powerless girl. (Most who know me realize that I would not have remained polite had the uncomfortable behavior continued. I wouldn’t have minded causing a scene.)

I’ve never been the overly sensitive type, and have usually been seen as someone who can hold her own, so truly I have not suffered much over the years with those handsy types and unwanted advances. Yes, they happened. Normally I dealt with it with humor and physically putting up distance and a loud and commanding voice. It has been more of a gnat on life for me than anything else. I know that just makes me lucky.

But I have way too many girlfriends who have suffered abuse. The number who have been molested and raped is staggering. In my sheltered world, these things just didn’t happen….until someone confided in me for the first time in college and I knew it was true. And then another did. And another. I have now lost count on the number of stories I have heard. I am sure that with as many who have shared their story with me, most have not. Many will never tell.

Of those who have told me their stories, some were naive, others simply duped. Some were highly intoxicated. Some downright attacked. Most of the stories would bring tears to your eyes if you heard them tell them. Most….yes most…..never prosecuted. There were various reasons why. Fear is a big one. Not just fear of the perpetrator ….though that sometimes existed….but fear of our legal system. Fear that they would be judged by a jury of their peers. Yeah I recognize they are not on trial, but we put them there, don’t we?And how do we not? We have to judge them as credible. So they are judged due to their wardrobe, their lifestyle, their behavior, the reputation of the perpetrator (because nice guys don’t do these things, do they?), their attractiveness (or lack thereof), the attractiveness of their perpetrator (because handsome guys don’t rape ugly girls, now, do they?), whether they drank that night and if so, how much. Read through the comments in almost any internet post about any person these days. Would you be comfortable having your lives judged by them?

I’ve told the story before of working in a children’s home as a housemother at age 21…..the girls I worked with were 14-18. About 90% of the girls had been sexually abused. Usually by their fathers, but sometimes by another family member or a neighbor. I remember a 15-year old, who had been abused by her much older neighbor, crying in my arms after the verdict in her trial was announced. He was pronounced guilty…..and his sentence was three years in jail. She said “He’s going to find me and do it again.” And this is another fear. You go against him, he comes back after you. When you know the violent side, how can you not fear? I tried to reassure her he would never hurt her again, but how could I know? How could I really promise her safety?

Another story from the chikdren’s home. A 15-year old boy walked in on his father molesting his 14-year old sister. Kudos to the kid….he beat the father up and called 911. His mother said it never happened and took the side of her husband. The daughter? Her feelings were complicated and confused. Yes, she agreed her father did it. But she thought it was wrong that he was in jail and she didn’t get to see him. Sometimes she resented her brother for breaking up the family. He was left pretty confused himself. It was heartbreaking.

Yes people are sometimes wrongly accused. I have known these people, too. It infuriates he, but I won’t say much about it now other than this…..you who falsely accuse people not only hurt your victim (sometimes for life because of that jury of public opinion), but you impact every person who comes forward to tell their truth. You put more doubt into the ears of those who hear the truth of others, because you lied. You are a match to kindling.

The thing about my friends who have been sexually abused….they are normal people. They are our friends. They are our family. Yes they carry scars, but many hide them well. But they are all around you. Some have done a lot of work to heal…..others still walk around in constant pain. Be kind. Be aware that you may not know everyone’s story and it may be the reason you don’t understand.

Today marks the start of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This year’s theme is I Ask (for consent.) Seems like something that would be natural, doesn’t it? But so often it isn’t. Let’s encourage open discussions instead of assumptions, encourage people to know the judgment of their partner is not impaired when they make sexual decisions and that they understand the concept of age of consent. Let’s reinforce that both sexes have the right to say “No” or “Not now” and have that respected. Be someone who asks….someone who respects….and someone who understands when someone is not able to give consent.

Some statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center:

  • One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives
  • In eight out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the perpetrator
  • Eight percent of rapes occur while the victim is at work
  • One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old 
  • 12.3% of women were age 10 or younger at the time of their first completed rape victimization
  • 27.8% of men were age 10 or younger at the time of their first completed rape victimization
  • 20% – 25% of college women and 15% of college men are victims of forced sex during their time in college
  • More than 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault

See why we need to pay attention? Don’t let yourself stay in the dark.

Victims, know that people do care. Know there are people to help you if you are suffering. Tell your stories, when you are able.

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