I thought the answer to this statement was obvious, but the national media’s handling of the Steubenville rape case has proved me wrong. I don’t want to hear one more word about how the two rapists lives have been ruined or the football careers they missed out on. What about the victim? How has her life and the lives of her family and friends been changed by the event? What struggles is she facing now and what will her future be like?
I feel like no one is speaking up for her, and as a fellow sexual assault survivor, I want her to know she has the full support of myself and the community of survivors I know. I also want all my readers to know that contrary to what the media has been reporting, what she could potentially face as a result of the crime is a far worse fate than Ma’Lik Richmond and Trent Mays’s 1-2 years in jail.
The following list of symptoms and problems suffered by sexual assault survivors is certainly not an exact account of what she is going to go through or what I experienced. They are merely reminders of what CAN happen, meant to counter balance the mass amounts of sympathy that have been regulated to the rapists over the last week.
For many survivors, the first issue they will face following an assault is self-blame. Some struggle with the thought that they could have done more to prevent the crime, while others feel that they themselves caused it. Self-blame leads quickly to guilt, shame, and self-hatred, a vicious cycle that is directly related to the prevalence of victim blaming associated with rape in this country. “She was drunk; she was known to be promiscuous and a liar; she was dressed immodestly” – these are statements made by various news sources this week, statements that take the blame away from the only two people at fault – Mays and Richmond, the two rapists who committed a crime.
Victim blaming is directly related to the next issue many survivors face, that is, a lack of social support. While we all may know that getting over an assault is an arduous process for the survivor, many people do not think about the pain suffered by a survivor’s friends and family. Sometimes people who were part of the survivor’s support system before the assault, maybe even their main support, choose to blame them for what happened or to believe that it did not happen at all. Being abandoned by those you love is an absolutely crippling emotion, and makes every other problem feel 100 times worse.
Some of us are lucky and find new support systems, but before that happens, there is often a period of depression – binge eating, not eating at all, insomnia, over-sleeping, crying, lack of interest, no motivation – the list goes on forever and is different for every person. Some sexual assault survivors are even diagnosed with PTSD, a disorder that many will scoff at and say, “Only soldiers get that.” It is actually known to affect survivors of traumatic events in general, and that includes being in a war zone AND being raped. Some survivors experience depression so bad that suicide becomes their answer – in fact, 33% of survivors have suicidal thoughts, while 13% will attempt it.
Addiction often starts as a way for survivors to deal with these various issues – they might need something to help them sleep and keep bad dreams away, calm their nerves, or help them forget. Cigarettes, ambien, antidepressants, marijuana, alcohol, the list just keeps getting worse. Often what starts out as one cigarette to chill out can lead to seven years of smoking – this I know from experience. According to the Mental Health Association, 75% of women in treatment for drugs or alcohol are survivors of sexual assault – it’s a prevalent problem, one that will lead to death in some cases.
Flashbacks and triggers can be yet another issue for survivors, one that can follow them throughout their life and crop up unexpectedly. A flashback can occur due to a number of triggers such as a smell, sound, feeling, sense of deja-vu, a story on the news, and more. Sometimes a flashback produces anxiety or tears, other times, a full-fledge panic attack. There is no knowing when or where this can hit.
The last problem I want to bring up is that of intimacy and trust issues. Contrary to popular belief, 2/3 of sexual assaults occur with someone the victim knew. Learning how to trust again can take a long time, as can wanting to engage in sexual activities, no matter how much a survivor loves and desires their partner.
I hope now that everyone can now see why getting raped is worse than missing football practice – and a special shout out to CNN who I think needs to hear this message most. For those of us who are survivors, getting over what happened can be a long and terrifying process, but we are not alone. 1 in 4 women in America is one of us. Let’s lift each other up and remember to speak up for one another when one of our voices is being overlooked or devalued. To the Steubenville survivor, I want to say that I admire your courage and support you fully. My voice isn’t as loud as the national media, but you are not forgotten.
If you are a sexual assault survivor or know someone who is, check out http://www.pandys.org/index.html. Pandora’s Project has many articles that help explain and come to terms with what you or your loved one is going through.