Sexual Assault Survivors Are Telling Their Stories—Are We Listening?

Sexual Assault Survivors Are Telling Their Stories—Are We Listening?

Sexual Assault Survivors Are Telling Their Stories—Are We Listening?

As the military finally tackles its sexual assault problem, our society as a whole needs to do the same.


The documentary The Invisible War profiles survivors like Ariana Klay, who was raped in the Marines. (Courtesy of The Invisible War).

"So, what's it like to be sitting in a room with so many people who have been sexually assaulted?" My friend was asking because yesterday, I spoke at the Service Women's Action Network conference, the Truth and Justice Summit on Military Sexual Trauma. I scoffed grimly and texted him back: "Look around the room you're in now, and ask yourself the same question."

It wasn't an unreasonable question he'd asked. There is something bone chilling about sitting in a hotel ballroom at full capacity and knowing that almost every person in that room is a survivor of sexual violence. It's nauseating to remember that most of that violence was inflicted while they were serving their country, and that it was inflicted not by the enemy, but by one of their own. A conservative estimate of the proportion of women in the Armed Forces who have been sexually assaulted is 20 percent. For men, the sheer number of assaults is higher than it is for women. We are talking hundreds of thousands of men and women, in all branches of the military. This week, several hundred of them gathered in Washington, D.C. to talk about their experiences, to discuss policy, and to visit Capitol Hill for a day of lobbying. There were moments in that ballroom, when survivors were talking about how they had suffered, first at the hands of their assailants and then from the military’s efforts to sweep what had happened under the rug, or from the VA’s failure to provide them with care, when you could hear a pin drop. There were moments when the pain, the betrayal and the anger, were almost palpable.    

Of course, it’s rare, unless you do sexual violence prevention work, to find yourself in such a room. But statistically speaking, in America, if you’re in a room that contains six women, or a room that contains thirty men, one of them is a survivor of sexual assault. The difference between the ballroom I was in yesterday and almost any other room in this country is that in the ballroom, we actually acknowledged the statistics. We were thinking about them. And most importantly of all, we were talking about the problem.    

The workshop I was there to teach was about the various ways survivors can tell their stories of assault in public, be it in print, online, through photography, or in other media. Some of that storytelling work has already begun: the documentary The Invisible War, about servicewomen and men who have been assaulted and attempted to seek justice through the deeply flawed military justice system, is a spectacular piece of storytelling. But there are literally thousands more stories to be told, and to tell them can be an act of personal catharsis as well as a powerful political strategy.

To speak openly about sexual assault in the military is to run myriad risks. Many survivors have been punished for telling the truth about what happened to them: attacked further, threatened with discharge, actually discharged, cast out of their professional community and then of their wider communities, their stories questioned repeatedly and the blame for what was done to them laid at their feet. No wonder that 20 percent figure is considered a conservative one: many survivors never say a word to anyone. The risks are simply too great.    

In the civilian world, it’s rare to find oneself in a room that contains so many survivors of sexual violence. But they’re all around us nonetheless, and they should take the courage of the servicemen and women as a model. We, as their would-be interlocutors, should take the institutional cruelty of the military as a model how not to behave when they do come forward.    

At the moment, we are failing in that mission. True, law enforcement procedures and legal practice have changed since the days when yesterday’s keynote speaker Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill was a prosecutor. In the 1970s, when McCaskill was the only woman assistant district attorney, sexual assault cases were ignored and laughed at. Yesterday, McCaskill recalled one case that her office almost passed on because the victim in question had an IUD. That she used birth control made her claim of rape incredible, in the eyes of those ADAs. Thankfully, Rush Limbaugh and his ilk notwithstanding, Americans don’t think that way any more. But we don’t listen the way we should, and we don’t treat sexual violence with anything approaching the seriousness it deserves. Our failure to listen when survivors of sexual violence tell their stories is fatal: in the last month alone, two such survivors have committed suicide because of how the people around them responded when they spoke out about what happened to them. And those are just the two we know about.    

“The movement,” as my fellow presenter and Nation contributor Mychal Denzel Smith said yesterday, “needs a narrative.” Sexual violence happens in every community in America. It’s not just the military. It’s not just the football team, or the frat. It’s the chess team and the gymnastics squad and the mathletes. It’s parties all over America. It’s houses of worship all over America. It’s homes all over America. All those stories need to be told, until they can no longer be dismissed as one-offs, as the actions of a few bad apples. Every story we hear makes us more likely to hear and honour the next one. That is how movements work.    

The onus, though, cannot be solely on the storytellers. It is also on the rest of us, the other five women in the room or the other twenty-nine men. It is true that there is enormous political power in telling your story. But only if someone is listening.

First suspension, later stop-and-frisk: The lifelong cycle of discriminatory treatment starts in our schools, Chloe Angyal writes.

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