Content warning: this piece includes discussions of sexual abuse and assault.
On the day of her testimony against Justice Brett Kavanaugh in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford said: “Once he was selected and it seemed like he was popular, and it was a sure vote, I was calculating daily the risk/benefit for me of coming forward, and wondering whether I would just be jumping in front of a train that was headed to where it was headed anyway and that I would just be personally annihilated.”
Blasey-Ford, while she made her own choices to come forward, was in the end, tied to the railroad tracks.
When a survivor comes forward about their experience, no matter their level of willingness, there is always pain. Trauma invades every aspect of their memories and discussing those memories is an immediate trigger for anxiety, fear, vulnerability, and for some, PTSD. Healing does eventually come with the right care and assistance, but having been assaulted is not a one-time event. It happens—at least in the mind—over and over again.
I’m not in the business of justifying why people might question the integrity of survivors, what the “ulterior motives” of survivors might be, or confront the “what if he’s innocent and called a rapist for the rest of his life?” crowd. I understand that all of these situations are areas of concern for many people, but in most instances the main concern should be the health and safety of the survivor of assault or abuse–-not the other way around.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.
I say this with the caveat that Blasey-Ford is very privileged and has been receiving donations via a GoFundMe page from supporters. She has access to safety measures that many people don’t receive when they report their assaults. That being said, no person who speaks the truth and defends themselves deserves to live a lesser life. There should be no consequence against honest testimony; even if that consequence is simple and more luxurious than that of many other survivors.
No survival story of rape or sexual assault is the same. While some have relatively happy endings and a variety of individuals have access to amazing resources, to even begin to understand how to truly support survivors in a trauma-informed way, we need to learn what their lives are like now—after they’ve come forward.
In fact, it also helps to know why some people don’t report, in order to develop services that are more catered to the authentic and untethering experiences of survivors.
Katie Corzine, a member of the Omaha community, recalls a mixed bag of reactions when she told her loved ones about her assault. She said some friends and family members were in disbelief when she told them after almost five years of silence. She experienced apathy and anger and one family member even said she was “playing the victim.” Her father, who works in law enforcement, want to move the process along quickly, but after years of carrying this experience Corzine only knew one thing: she needed support.
“I genuinely don’t blame anyone in my life for the way they reacted,” Corzine said. “I understand their skepticism after five years of silence, but I wish people would understand that it’s not fun or trendy to talk about this. It’s not some cute hashtag; it’s a club that I never asked to join and I am still trying to figure out a way to feel ‘okay’ and come to terms with it myself.”
However, it was through this pain and isolation that she began to understand the deep impact of a trusted confidant.
“The trade-off for breaking my silence was admitting that something happened to me, and that was an extremely hard pill to swallow,” Corzine said. “On the other hand, I have found peace in telling my story. I have felt the impact of bearing witness to the stories of others out there like me. I have been validated in my feelings and most of all, I have slowly started to heal. My boyfriend has been my rock throughout this entire process. He has never tried to rewrite my past or ask me to get over it, he simply reminds me not to unpack and live there.”
University of Nebraska at Omaha student Bri Jensen also understands the value of services and of the people dedicated to helping survivors. It wasn’t until she was reading about sexual assault in a class that she realized, in a “tsunami of emotions,” that she had been raped at an earlier time in life.
Following such a realization, she spoke with her loved ones and therapist, and made the informed choice to visit with a sexual assault survivor advocate on UNO’s campus. (Information for access to this office is listed at the end of this article.)
“After reporting it, I did not feel suddenly freed from the pain it had left on me but I did feel empowered,” Jensen said. “I didn’t feel so small anymore on a campus where my assailant was walking around. I felt a certain type of strength I hadn’t felt before. I was able to vocalize and understand that what happened to my body wasn’t okay.”
With the assistance of trained professionals, Jensen felt confident in the help she received and could feel more at ease through her college career. But she admits that reporting isn’t always the key to healing.
“I am able to understand that there is no single right way to navigate the aftermath of sexual assault,” Jensen said. “Everyone deals with it differently and reporting it may not be the best option for everyone. I encourage survivors to take the path that empowers them.”
Most survivors have a choice to report or come forward with their stories, but they don’t have a say in how people interpret those stories. Like we’ve seen time and time again in our culture, the stories of survivors—often the stories of women—are misunderstood and misused to create a narrative that perpetuates and sympathizes with abusers.
While coming forward may be empowering to some, silence can be much safer. We owe survivors more–a GoFundMe page alone won’t do the trick.
The train is on its way; will we untie her?
UNO Victim/Survivor Advocates