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.