Feature: Painful Memories

#MeToo movement brings back past traumas for survivors of sexual abuse

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According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), one in six women has experienced a completed or attempted sexual assault, and roughly 60,000 children are sexually abused each year.

Love it or hate it, the #MeToo movement isn’t going anywhere soon.

Tarana Burke founded an activist organization fighting sexual assault called Me Too 12 years ago, but the hashtag erupted into 12 million social media posts in October after actress Alyssa Milano suggested that survivors of assault or harassment amplify their voices during the early days of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Between October and today, with recent allegations of the so-called less explicit sexual misconduct by comedian Aziz Ansari—and the countless op-eds supporting or decrying the movement—the internet is saturated with news of sexual trauma.

And so we’re clear, yes, #MeToo is absolutely about challenging the patriarchal system that has allowed this type of behavior to continue. And, yes, it is also about holding sexual predators accountable—even, in Dylan Farrow’s words about her father, Woody Allen, taking them down. “Why shouldn’t I want to bring him down?” she said in a recent interview with CBS This Morning. “Why shouldn’t I be angry?”

Some of the young women speaking out against—and directly to—Larry Nassar during his January sentencing for more than 180 counts of sexual abuse told him how much they hated him. Who can blame them? Being unheard and dismissed for years can breed resentment.

Yet as empowering as the #MeToo movement has been for the cause of amplifying and uniting women’s voices, the constant news cycle detailing violations against women and women’s bodies has also had an overwhelmingly painful impact on many survivors—an opening of old wounds, so to speak. And the retraumatizing didn’t surface overnight last October with Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd outing Harvey Weinstein for sexual misconduct.

The resurfacing of old traumas, for many, began with the detailed accounts of many of Bill Cosby’s 60 accusers growing increasingly vocal with their detailed testimony to the press. For others, it was the shock of former Stanford student Brock Turner being dealt a slap on the wrist for sexual assault during his 2016 trial (he served three months of his six-month sentence). For others, it was the election of Donald Trump, just weeks after his infamous audio tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women and get away with it that pushed survivors into tailspins of anxiety and fear, painful memories of past assaults bubbling to the surface.

This was the case for Sarah (all names of survivors have been changed in order to protect their identities). The Sonoma County–based sexual abuse and domestic violence survivor had two simultaneously triggering incidents occur in the fall of 2016; the first was the election of Trump.

“Just seeing this prick with a microphone in his hand and people listening to him, that he could be listened to and that he could be a fucking president,” Sarah says. “It’s like being raped all over again. It’s like being abused and stalked and minimized all over again.”

The second trigger was learning that a man new to her neighborhood, who displayed increasingly suspicious behavior, had several violent sexual assaults on his record.

“I have PTSD from domestic violence in the past, so it kind of created this environment, like a mental environment and a physical environment for me, that grew increasingly unbearable,” she says. “I would just get this immediate sick feeling in my stomach and was paralyzed with fear when I found the door unlocked. Every time [my husband] walked in the door, I was jumping through my skin. I was waking up in the middle of the night screaming.”

Sarah reached out to the YWCA for cognitive-behavioral therapy and began taking anti-anxiety medication to help her get through her resurfacing trauma.

Lauren, a Marin County resident and childhood sexual-abuse survivor, says her stress response manifested in the form of insomnia and burning sensations on her hands and feet. Concerned that she was experiencing a nerve problem, she made an appointment with her chiropractor, who found no physical reason for her symptoms. “I also started to feel like, ‘Am I losing my mind?’” Lauren says.

Lauren had volunteered at a rape-crisis center in the past, where she educated people about the motivations and behaviors of predators. Yet it wasn’t until she saw her therapist that she made a connection between the endless news cycle of sexual harassment and the emotional and physical impact it was having on her.

“The fires were happening too, but it was the #MeToo news that really strung me out more than anything,” Lauren says. “There was the constant news and having to see what we’d known and just how devastating it was.”

Lauren’s therapist reassured her that her reaction was normal and that several clients had approached her to discuss the impact that the sexual harassment stories had on them as well.

“It helped, too, that [my therapist] acknowledged that my past would make this a more difficult situation,” Lauren says.

“At first, [#MeToo] was really inspiring and kind of exciting to have some of the stigma lifting a little and having this community coming around it—like, it is a movement. We are all in this together,” says Heather, another survivor. “But then as my social media feeds got more and more clogged up with people sharing their stories—and of course they have the right to share their stories—but some people shared a lot of details and I started to find myself getting triggered, getting a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear response stuff coming up for me.”

Heather, who was already in therapy, began addressing childhood sexual trauma when the #MeToo stories flooded the internet in October. The 34-year-old Santa Rosa resident, who was also sexually assaulted in high school, says the combination of the news cycle and the work she’s doing in therapy has also affected her sex life with her husband.

“We’re in this place right now where I mostly don’t want physical affection,” Heather says, “and it totally sucks and I miss it, and when we start heading into that direction, I’m like, ‘OK, stop, stop, stop.’ But, yes, my sex life definitely sucks right now. I just don’t want to share. This is my body.”

Sarah, Lauren and Heather are far from alone in their experiences and reactions to the constant news.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), one in six women has experienced a completed or attempted sexual assault (90 percent of rape survivors are women, with Native American women at the highest risk), and roughly 60,000 children are sexually abused each year. Men and boys are sexually abused, too, and they, along with transgender students, are at the highest risk for assault when they are in college.

And these are just the reported cases. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report suggests that only 23 percent of sexual assaults and abuses are reported to authorities. Of those documented cases, RAINN statistics show that a staggering 70 percent of victims experience some form of extreme distress from the incident, and even with adequate therapy, constant news or images of graphic assault in movies can induce a stress response.

Looking at these stark numbers, it is fair to assume that if you haven’t been assaulted, you know someone who has. I have yet to meet a woman (including transgender women), who has not been sexually harassed. Our entire culture bears the weight of sexual abuse and harassment, whether there is a conscious awareness of it or not.

Chris Castillo, executive director of Verity, a Santa Rosa–based advocacy organization that works to both prevent sexual assault and support survivors, says that on a personal level, she feels that the #MeToo movement is a positive one. The resurfacing trauma might be rippling out in ways that no one ever expected, but survivors and their loved ones have, and are reaching out for, support.

“I see many doors opening for people who maybe thought they were closed,” Castillo says. “More people are speaking about it. Hopefully, it will become not the taboo subject to talk about, but the subject that families talk about with each other, families inform one another about safety and protection and what is good and what is not OK to do.”

Castillo says that the drop-in support group at Verity—just one of the many free bilingual supportive services that the organization offers to survivors of any gender identification—has seen an increase in attendance since the #MeToo movement picked up speed in October. “They finally feel safe to talk about what’s happened to them,” she says.

Tracy Lamb, executive director of NEWS Domestic Violence & Sexual Abuse Services in Napa and a board member with the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, agrees that, overall, #MeToo may have a long-lasting positive impact.

“As someone who has been part of the movement of domestic violence and sexual abuse for my whole entire career, which has now been probably 25 years, there is a sense of hope and possibility that this could mean truly real change,” Lamb says. “I have always felt like it’s been an uphill battle for survivors to feel like they’re heard, they’re believed, knowing that involvement in the system is going to be a trial, not only against the perpetrator, but also [a system that] sometimes puts them on trial. And the idea that there’s accountability in ways that I haven’t seen gives me some hope.

“And it does feel like there’s strength in numbers,” she adds.

Verity and NEWS have been advocating on behalf of survivors for decades. Verity serves more than 1,000 individuals each year through legal advocacy, phone crisis intervention and individual or group counseling services; NEWS serves 1,300 people, 300 of whom sought services because of sexual assault.

Both organizations have 24-hour crisis lines that Castillo and Lamb urge survivors to call when they need support. Both acknowledge that some people may just not be ready to make a phone call, though, and they recommend finding a healthy self-care routine to get through the stress of the bombardment of assault stories in the news.

“Be in nature if that’s grounding for you. Find a safe community, whether it has anything to do with being a survivor or not,” Lamb says. “And [do] things like yoga, meditation.”

It’s also crucial for loved ones to understand how to be a good support person, and the most important thing they can do, says Castillo, is to just be present.

“Don’t press the person, don’t ask questions. Just be a presence for them, because oftentimes that’s what people want,” she says. “They need to feel heard, and to feel honored by the fact that they have come forward and spoken about this and brought it forward.”

Another survivor, Niki, who lives in San Francisco, says that taking a self-defense class helped her process some of her resurfacing fear and stress.

“I’ve been a victim of harassment, assault and rape,” she says. “Taking a self-defense class made me feel empowered in ways I never expected.”

Santa Rosa resident Jade de la Cruz has been teaching self-defense classes for women for 25 years, and says there is definitely a correlation between the news cycle and the number of women seeking classes to protect themselves.

“Unfortunately, when there’s a higher level of fear and vulnerability, that’s when women reach out and start to seek self-defense classes,” de la Cruz says. Aside from counseling, taking self-defense classes, avoiding abuse-related headlines and leaning on supportive family or friends, many female survivors wonder why men aren’t more active in speaking out against assault, why women are still responsible for their own safety and how the #MeToo movement might help survivors who aren’t celebrities.

“Reese Witherspoon can share her story, and she’s fancy and famous. Women in that industry can show they are all beautiful and white and magical unicorns, but if one of the administrators at my [work] slapped me on the ass, then who the fuck cares?” Heather says. “And why should I have to revisit memories of rape over and over and over so that somebody somewhere believes the accusers of Danny Masterson and Harvey Weinstein, and does it mean that anyone will believe me? Why are women responsible for gender equality? Why are women responsible for ending assault? Don’t we carry enough already?”

Although the Time’s Up call to action sprang up in response to questions about everyday people like Heather, #MeToo has brought forth a rush of vital discussions about sexuality, race, class, privilege, consent, power dynamics and, unfortunately, some very defensive and dismissive men. And the wide spectrum of what defines sexual assault or abuse has made these crucial discussions more complex.

“Honestly, with this whole Aziz Ansari story, it’s super disturbing that we don’t have the language to talk about the nuances that we need to talk about in order to suss out: What about that interaction was unfortunate and what about that interaction was sexual assault?” Lauren says. “In my opinion, both things happened in that interaction. And it’s not that anyone’s even thinking she’s lying. It’s just they’re thinking it was fine.”

Every woman I’ve spoken to feels the same. In 2018, it seems wildly bizarre (and enraging) that anything less than enthusiastic, consensual sexual interactions are acceptable.

“There are a lot of hard things in life, but I think that being a woman who wants to be in a relationship with a man is hard. It brings a lot up on a super personal and interpersonal level,” Lauren says. “Even if some men haven’t behaved in those ways, they’ve probably been around it, colluded with it, and when I think how far-reaching it is, it is really depressing.”

She’s surprised that there hasn’t been a mobilization of men addressing issues of “toxic” or harmful masculinity, she says. The tired “boys will be boys” defense in cases of harassment gives all men a bad rap; we all know plenty of men who can keep their hands to themselves, yet there are no local or regional groups led by men to specifically address or prevent sexual harassment or assault.

A Google search turns up roughly a dozen men-led organizations working to prevent assault, and most of them are on East Coast college campuses. It’s a start, at least, but our culture has a long way to go to tear apart the power dynamics that make this type of behavior OK and to really start believing survivors and their stories.

“We live in a patriarchal society, and we’re trying to change that,” Castillo says. “And you know, some people are going to get a little uptight about it, but what they can do is be part of the support systems, so that we’re all supporting one another in the healing.”

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