Updated: Apr 12, 2020
What is the issue?
Sexual Violence affects millions of Americans by the second. Every 73 seconds, another American is sexually assaulted. And though it is experienced by all genders, women and girls experience sexual assault at a much higher rate.
1 in every 4 women experiences some form of sexual assault in her lifetime.
This leaves many survivors struggling to make sense of their experience in a culture that does not prioritize their healing and safety. It often takes years for survivors to come to terms with the violence that has happened to them and the following path to recovery is not a smooth one. It is long-term, layered, unique and often met with countless u-turns, dead ends, and fear of the road left behind and what lies ahead. Research has shown the importance of social support in healing from trauma however many survivors report being met with guilt and shame with sharing their experience.
There are many crisis support services and hotlines, but what about the women who have been struggling alone for years, or are experiencing new signs of PTSD after entering a new relationship? These experiences are all too common and have led us to this challenge statement: We are working with female sexual assault survivors in New York City to better understand and support their long term recovery and healing needs.
Who is it a problem for?
Sexual trauma spans race, gender, and socio-economic class. The accessibility of healing from the trauma is dependent on various factors. However, the healing journey for lower-income groups and women of color has been found to be more complex and obstacle driven.
Healing from a traumatic experience cannot be confined to just survivors. The effects of trauma impact the survivor’s partner, family, and friends and even their interactions in the workplace.
What social/cultural factors shape this problem?
-Centuries of a patriarchal society that values the power of a man over the agency of a woman.
-Stigma, silence and shame about sexuality and sexual activity.
Western notions of independence and doing things on your own leads to people feeling like they must heal on their own. In Not that Bad, Roxanne Gay — almost all women find ways to cope with their trauma by thinking, “Well, it wasn’t that bad, it could have been worse.” My pain is not as significant as someone else’s. This is all tied to social negligence to women’s pains and the way they are taught to neglect crimes and injustices against them because their voice is less important than a man’s, their story less valid and their sole purpose is constrained within a man’s desire.
-Film and media’s role in strengthening toxic masculinity. Cinema also often uses sexual violence as a plot point or symbol, without fully exploring the lived realities and psychosocial impacts of sexual violation.
-Cultural or religious reasons. Cultural or religious beliefs may contribute to the survivors fear of punishment or ostracism. Cultural differences can also influence their trust in various institutions (such as law enforcement), as well as how a family deals with a crisis.
-Disbelief within the judicial system: Data indicates that fewer than 2% of reported incidents of sexual assault lead to successful prosecution of the perpetrator.
-Negative reactions to disclosure by family and friends.
-Fear of being victim-blamed. It is common for victims of sexual assault to face scrutiny regarding what they did to “cause” the incident, (e.g., what they were wearing, whether they were using drugs or alcohol, etc.) instead of focusing on their lack of consent.
-Trauma: Feeling shocked, dazed, confused, and/or not remembering some details of the event can be traumatic responses to the sexual assault. It may also be emotionally painful to remember and narrate the event multiple times. The survivor may also fear that no one will believe them if they do not remember all the details, or they may not want to think or talk about the painful event.
What evidence do you have that this is a significant problem?
Statistics, lived experience, the experience of countless friends, as well as the popularity of the “MeToo” movement all indicate that this is a significant problem.
Can you think of this problem in a different way? Reframe it?
“The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections. Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation. In her renewed connections with other people, the survivor re-creates the psychological faculties that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience. These faculties include the basic capacities for trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy. Just as these capabilities are originally formed in relationships with other people, they must be reformed in such relationships.” Excerpt From: Herman, Judith L.; “Trauma and Recovery.” iBooks.
The impacts of sexual abuse can be extremely difficult to understand, especially if they have not experienced abuse themselves. How might we aid interpersonal support systems (partners, family, friends, mentors) to build understanding around sexual assault and embody values of care and community in order to best support the victim in rebuilding connections.
More background information needed on:
Available support groups for sexual assault survivors in NYC.
Understanding what other resources are currently available for long term healing.
Understanding if current sexual assault services help the survivors existing network to support them in healing.
Experts we can speak to to learn more
Support Group Leader- GEMS
Arielle — Therapist with a focus on sexual violence — SVA Student Health and Counseling Services
Michelle Poella — Columbia Sexual Assault Support Center
Chanell — Tia Clinic