Addressing sexual assault is alot like cleaning a wound or removing a splinter. Ever been around a kid with a splinter or even had one yourself as an adult? The last thing anyone with a splinter wants is to go digging around in there to get it out. Understandable. Best just to cover it up and forget it….or so we want to tell ourselves but we know unfortunately, that isn’t actually true. It festers, it causes tenderness, restricted movement and pain. Out of sight isn’t necessarily out of mind.
The same is true for sexual violence. Sexual abuse, assault, harassment, exploitation, coercion, discrimination. These events fester, cause tenderness, restricted movement and pain, among other things. But how can advocacy or therapy help? Nothing can undone what has been done. Nothing can change what occurred. Many think “What is the point of thinking, feeling and talking about it?” It is true, nothing can undo the injury but oftentimes like a splinter, it is what lingers that continues to harm us. The pain, fear, shame, embarrassment that often must be acknowledged and felt before they can be let go. The thoughts that are too horrible to speak out loud. After a traumatic event happens we as humans try to make sense of it, integrate it, regain a sense of control. We are adaptive.
The problem is some things cannot be made sense of and are not in our control. Our brain does not like this and so it changes the story to fit its’ desire for control. It tells a victim they should have been able to stop the abuse if they had just been more outgoing, less outgoing, bigger, smaller, more confident, less confident, louder, smarter, braver, better…It is easy to say this isn’t so but, much harder to believe it. If avoidance is the primary coping strategy a victim can go years never confronting or challenging these beliefs. Research consistently shows that avoidance as a coping strategy contributes to the severity of PTSD and other trauma related symptoms. However, survivors do not come by avoidance on their own. We are a society of avoiders. “Put it behind you. Move on. Don’t get stuck in the past. Don’t dwell on it” are all common edicts to an individual’s and society’s trauma. Approaching, confronting and tolerating can be painful and so we don’t. But we as a society, then remain in the dark. “When it comes to raising public awareness about PTSD” (or sexual violence) Shalil Jane, MD says in Psychology Today, “avodiance is the enemy. The best way to overcome avoidance is to become a true trauma-informed society”1. This means being able to speak the unspeakable, outloud and to each other.
Have you ever asked your friends or family if they have heard of Rebuilding Hope-The Sexual Assault Center for Pierce County? The last time we did a survey less than 15% of Pierce County residents knew we existed– Pierce County’s only Community Sexual Assault Program, a program that has been continually operating for almost 50 years. Those who knew we existed spoke favorably about the help they received, but most don’t talk too openly to everyone or even anyone they know about an agency that served their family in such a dark time. People often don’t know we exist until they need to and even then, it can be a struggle. The community suffers from this avoidance as do sexual assault victims.
Sexual assault treatment can and does help reduce or eliminate PTSD symptoms for most survivors by reducing avoidance in a safe and supportive setting so that the wound can begin to heal. For a helpful and informative glimpse into one sort of treatment our agency often provides that helps reduce this advocacy, listen to 10 sessions on NPRs This American Life 2. In addition, do your best to lessen avoidance and when you can speak about the unspeakable. Rebuilding Hope is here 24 hours a day to offer survivors, their loved ones, community professionals and general community members information about sexual assault and abuse, confidential, person-centered and trauma-informed advocacy and support, access to a variety of services and general information and referral to a variety of community services across Pierce County.
We encourage you to share our information with someone you know who is struggling with their own experiences with sexual harassment, sexual abuse and sexual assault. If you have questions, reach out to us – we are here and happy to be a resource or support to you. You can reach us by phone at 253-474-7273, by confidential online chat and by email. In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April and in honor of all the survivors who – for too long – have avoided reaching out for the support they were due and deserved, let’s all do our part to lessen the community’s avoidance of this issue by leaning into your local sexual assault program as a safer place to learn about sexual violence in all its forms and to better understand all its impacts. We invite you to join us on April 20th for our Sisters Rising virtual fundraiser program on Tuesday, April 20th 2021 from 4-6pm to learn more from local experts about forms of sexual violence prevalent in our community and how you can help become part of the solution.