It has been almost a month since #MeToo flooded social media. Since then, almost a daily parade of new sexual harassment, abuse, or assault allegations are being brought to light about accused perpetrators like Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Charlie Sheen, Louis C.K., Ed Westwick, Roy Moore, and Kevin Spacey. The responses by the accused have varied from silence, to deflection, to admission, to outright denial.
Some statements have puzzled people, wondering how could they not know what they were doing was wrong or would upset someone else? Sadly, this relates to a concept frequently found in my therapy practice, in which many victims are astounded when they realize that their rapist doesn't know he is a rapist. After the assault the perpetrator may act casual, inviting them for breakfast, acting affectionate, kiss them, or invite them on another date. They behave as though what had occurred was completely consensual despite the fact that moments or hours before they were holding the victim down, whispering threats in the victim's ear, ignoring the victim's cries of pain or profound lack of interest or engagement, or ignored the fact the victim was intoxicated, passed out, or vomiting and while they pursued sex.
Sometimes the victim will run into the perpetrator months or years later and be astounded at how "normal" they act. They may approach them like friendly, long lost friends seeking to engage in polite conversation. They may reach out to the victim over social media with casual "hellos" and "how have you beens?" The victims may react in paralysis, fear, or rage and are additionally astounded when they see the look of confusion reflected in their perpetrator's face.
The victim/survivor comes into my office begging the question: Is it possible that my rapist does not know he raped me? Sadly, in some instances, the answer may be yes. For those that lack empathy, awareness of others boundaries or feelings may not exist. The default is: if this benefits me, my actions are ok. Lack of empathy can be the bi-product of someone in a status of power or privilege, "Just boys being boys," "locker room talk," or "old school." For other sexual violence perpetrators, they may have a sense, if not clearly know what they did was wrong, but use elements of denial, minimization, deflecting blame, or manipulation to escape any form of personal accountability to seep into their conscious awareness.
Is it possible that some of these celebrities really did not know that what they were doing was wrong? Well, since they kept the secret and did not exhibit those behaviors in public, then probably on some level they did know. I would argue that they probably were in a position that did not serve them well to think it was wrong. "He/she really wants this," "They deserve this," "I deserve this," "They like how it feels," "Everybody does it" are all arguments used to justify sexual violence. Think of it this way: if you were about to step on an ant and crush it, you would probably tell yourself that have good reason to do so, that it won't matter, that they cannot feel anything, that you are really being helpful...but you can do this because essentially you see the ant as significantly less powerful and less important than yourself. At least if you think about killing a shark you may still justify the kill, but you will still probably worry about the consequences to yourself because the shark is inherently more powerful. Power, control, status, privilege, and lack of empathy play important roles in supporting rape culture. When way are so inundated in rape culture, like a lobster in pot slowly brought to a boil, we may not even realize we are in danger of becoming the next meal because the environment around us was already so unhealthy in the first place.
Recently, we have seen a flurry of news scandals relating to sexual harassment and sexual assault such as with several prominent politicians, Bill O'Reilly, Bill Cosby, the DJ in the Taylor Swift case, Kesha's producer, and now Harvey Weinstein. In the wake of the Weinstein scandal, when daily claims of different celebrities and other aspiring actresses being sexually harassed and assault mounted, the #MeToo was popularized by Alyssa Milano as a means for individuals to speak out about sexual harassment and sexual assault so that people could get an understanding of the depth of the problem.
As a sexual trauma specialist, people have asked me my thoughts about #MeToo, in some cases in hopes that I would support their disapproval. I have heard the controversy that it should only be for men. I have heard people claim that the movement minimizes "real" trauma experiences. I have heard the criticism that it shames people for not speaking out or that people are being judged for not using #metoo, and in some cases there has even been a backlash of #notme in response.
Sexual violence continues to exist because of the silence and the complicity of silence that surrounds it in the culture. Survivors do not feel safe sharing their secrets, because the culture does not allow them to feel safe enough to do it. Often the most severe symptoms people experience in relation to their traumatic experiences dissipate once survivors speak out about their victimization and are able to let go of the burden of secrecy. Secrets tend to be a source of shame. I celebrate with those that are able to speak out and simultaneously my heart hurts for those who may be in very real circumstances that keep them from safely sharing their stories. They may not have had choice over their victimization, but they do get to choose when and to whom they share.
Women and Men speaking out with the #metoo breaks the silence that surrounds and sustains sexual violence. It allows women and men to see that they are not alone. It is empowering to those that bravely share their stories and receive the support of a community of other survivors, who are then inspired to share their own stories. Watching the newsheadlines break of Ashley Judd, Rosanna Arquette, Kate Beckinsale, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mira Sorvino, Claire Forlani, Heather Graham, Angelina Jolie, Rose McGowan, Terry Crews, James VanderBeek, America Ferrera, Reese Witherspoone, Jennifer Lawrence, McKayla Maroney and many others was both heartbreaking and inspiring to see what a watershed moment this was. The damn was broken. The possibility for change and the promise of healing awaits. Indeed, Reese Witherspoone gave a speech at Elle Women awards this week and was quoted as saying "I felt less alone this week that I have ever felt."
It does not matter whether a person experienced sexual harassment or assault or rape, the point of #metoo is that no one should have to experience any of those things. Every form of sexual violence is "real." It impacts one's self esteem, confidence, sense of safety, identity formation, their beliefs about themselves, and their overall health. I recall a professor once who gave the account of being french kissed as a teenager by parent that was taking her home after a babysitting job. She polled the classroom and asked the class is we thought this was sexual abuse (It is). A few of us uncomfortably raised our hands. She stated that she did not think it was because it was disrespectful to other survivors who had it worse. Today, when I am going through worksheet with definitions of child sexual abuse with clients, my awareness of tongue kissing on the same list with vaginal penetration takes me back to the memory of that moment in class when I saw a woman struggling so much to come to terms with her own trauma, that she felt compelled to poll her classroom to tell her she was not a victim. I see this all the time as a therapist, new clients who are struggling to come to terms with their own victimization will often enter my office telling me that they do not think they "belong there," that they are taking up the space of someone who had it "much worse" than them, but in truth these are all just ways of minimizing their own experience. What they are really saying is " I do not want to see myself as a victim." To realize that means you admit you were powerless at the time of your victimization, which implies that you cannot control everything. This, in turn, is scary knowing that the world is an unpredictable place and that bad things can happen to good people. Shaking someone's worldview is tough. Helping someone transition from seeing themselves as Victim, to Survivor, to Thriver is ultimately our goal. It helps to remind people that trauma is trauma, it does not matter what form of sexual violence happens to someone, or how one perceives it, none of it is ok.
To critics that suggest that #MeToo is only for women, remind them that 1 in 6 men experience sexual violence before they are 18. Although women are at higher risk of sexual violence throughout their lifespan, arguably men face even more stigma around speaking out due to cultural beliefs about masculinity and myths about sexual orientation. Men experience the same trauma symptoms as women. Bottom line: Sexual violence is never OK. Any movement that gives people the courage to share and get support and validation, should be praised. We cannot change a problem in our culture until we acknowledge that a problem exists. There are people in powerful positions preying on other people and they need to stop. This week we took a step forward by bringing the secrets of the perpetrators' wrongdoing to light.
Megan Garza, MA, LMFT 2011011850 MO
Sexual Trauma Therapist
SPECIAL ISSUE on Trauma Informed Care of
The Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma (JAMT)
Guest Editors: Megan Garza, Susan Omilian, and Karen Rich
CALL FOR PAPERS!
The Journal of Aggression Maltreatment and Trauma is calling for papers that focus on experiences in implementing a trauma-informed approach in all sectors and systems that affect people across the life span. These systems and sectors include schools, colleges, primary health care, hospitals, child welfare, human services, mental health services, civil, criminal, and family courts as well as the criminal justice system (e.g., law enforcement, prosecutors, adult corrections and juvenile facilities). In fully acknowledging the trauma caused by current or past victimization and the impact on the victims and their families, the systems can respond in a manner that is more fully supportive, whole person-centered, and avoids re-traumatization.
With traumatic events having an adverse effect on an individual’s functioning and physical, emotional and/or spiritual well-being, trauma-informed care is grounded in an understanding of the neurological, biological, psychological, and social impact of trauma on the person as well as the heavy burden those effects can have on individuals, families, and communities. A program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed creates a contextual milieu and a culture of delivering care and services to people impacted by trauma in a way that realizes the impacts of trauma, understands potential paths for recovery, and recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma and vicarious trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system. It responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices and seeks to actively mitigate re-traumatization and encourage self-care.
A trauma-informed approach is distinct from trauma-specific interventions or treatments that are designed specifically to address the consequences of trauma and to facilitate healing. The emphasis of this special issue is to present research, practice and policies in implementing such care in the various systems noted above.
Papers should fall into one of the following general categories: (1) theoretical/ research based, with concluding recommendations for best practice protocols that benefit both practitioners and the clients served; (2) examples of existing model programs that have implemented the Adverse Childhood Experiences ACEs) research and/or trauma informed care principles, including how the program was “sold” to the sponsoring institution, and, (3) where there is little or no research on implementing trauma-informed care for a given population, a theoretical paper on why trauma- informed procedures need to be developed and examples.
We are especially interested in papers that include how funding was accessed, training was conducted, and issues of diversity (racial, ethnic, religious, ability-based, etc.) were addressed among the populations served.
Potential contributors should submit proposals in the form of a detailed abstract (500-700 words) highlighting the type of article and an overview of substantive content. They should be sent no later than July 1, 2017 to Guest Editors Megan Garza (email@example.com); Susan Omilian (firstname.lastname@example.org), or Karen Rich (email@example.com). Please copy firstname.lastname@example.org on all communication. Decisions will be disseminated within 30 days.
Full manuscripts are due by October 15, 2017. Once manuscripts are approved for the Special Issue, they must be submitted electronically to the Journal via the JAMT website. These articles will receive anonymous double blind peer review by the reviewers and the editorial board of the journal.
Preparing manuscripts for submission: All manuscripts need to follow 6th edition APA format. This include 12 pt Times New Roman font and 1 inch margins. The title page should also include the author(s) address and contact information for correspondence, affiliation, and 8 key words or phrases for abstracting. Headings must follow APA format with bold, italics, and indentation as appropriate. Each article should be summarized in an abstract of not more than 120 words. Articles should not exceed 30 double-spaced pages inclusive of text, references, and tables. References, citations, and general style of manuscripts should be prepared in accordance with the most recent APA Publication Manual. All references in the text should be cited in the references section, and vice versa. These should be double checked before submission. Cite in the text by author and date (Smith, 2008) and include an alphabetical list at the end of the article.
A common misconception is that rapes must happen by force. People often visualize a bloody, battered victim who yelled and tried to fight back against a stranger who pulled them into the bushes. This is a very unlikely scenario for a variety of reasons, one being that 75-85% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, not a stranger. Often, the perpetrator is a friend or a loved one, possibly even a spouse or partner. Definitions of Sexual assault/abuse/rape all can include "lack of consent". When someone is drugged, unconscious, asleep, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, disabled and unable to understand the situation, or too young, or in a situation where they are compromised and unable to make a reasonable decision, they lack they ability to consent to sex. No resistance is necessary. Federal rape law is: "Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim."
State laws vary.
Unfortunately, many people who are sexually abused are "frozen" with fear or dissociated at the time of their assault and are unable to fight, yell, or struggle. This sadly leads them to inappropriately blame themselves or for others to blame them for the abuse instead of the one truly at fault, the perpetrator.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness month
Depending on one's experience and perspective, many people will say either "sexual assault is rare. I don't really know anyone personally that it has happened to" or "Everybody gets sexually assaulted. It's not a big deal."
Neither are true. It doesn't happen to everyone, but it does happen to a significant minority of people.
About 20-35% of women experience sexual assault. Most meta-analytic research is on the higher end of this figure. You may see lower "1 in 5" stats coming out of more recent research from NCVS, (which though a robust study, has limitations in how it is done and tends to leave off the most vulnerable.) What we can glean from NCVS data is that sexual assault rates appear to be declining (this study is conducted at regular intervals). People are speaking up about it more. Other studies show men's views about sexual assault and related behaviors have changed considerably in recent decades and that abusive things that men once commonly did without guilt or shame is no longer the case. It is pretty remarkable to see the generational difference between what millenials versus boomers express in terms of misogyny. Both values and behaviors have changed about sexual assault as the public has become more educated and more brave people have opened up about it, reducing the shame that kept it a secret.
Sometimes reporting rates increase when we get better at accurately defining and measuring it ( I.e. Sweden, military, St. Louis police) but that does not mean the rates of the crimes actually increase.
The lifetime prevalence rate from the CDC & office for victims of crime showed about 43% of women are sexually abused at some point in their life. This takes into account both child and adult sexual victimization.
1 in 6 men are sexually abused before the age of 18. It is rarely talked about. Men often minimize the experience and will say it wasn't abuse or "it wasn't that bad" because a part of them experienced sexual pleasure from the event, but yet they may find themselves acting out in ways similar to most trauma survivors later on.
For reference, about 55-70% of people have experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime. 5% of men and 10% of women will meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD at some point.
If you want to know more on prevalence rates, look up David Finkelhor. If you want to know more about changing views, look up Mary Koss.
If you really want to understand trauma and risk, Take the ACE survey.
April is sexual assault awareness month
The number one predictor of how well survivors do in the long run is their level of social support.
How can you be of the most help? Listen. Believe them. Check in on them, even if you worry it will upset them (thinking no one cares upsets them more. They are likely already thinking about it anyway.) Tell them it is not their fault.
Don't align with the abuser. Don't interrogate them. Don't tell them what they should or should not have done or what you would have done.
Don't tell them to just "Get Over It" this message will set back their recovery a long ways and likely disrupt your relationship with them.
Remember healing is a process, not a race. There is no end point that a person can speed toward to be "done." Recovery may take months, years, or decades, and healing will likely be a lifelong process of integration. Be patient. Be kind.
Related to my recent post, Huffington Post just published an article on survivors speaking out on how they were impacted by the election and how it mirrored their trauma experience. Worth a read.
Given all the talk about sexual assault and trauma survivors coming forward about past allegations of abuse, the presidential election has shown a spotlight once again onto sexual abuse and the ill treatment of survivors.
Although there is a benefit to increasing the national conversation on sexual assault towards the goal of improving treatment for survivors and reducing overall victimization rates, there is a profound impact on trauma survivors who find their PTSD symptoms retriggered.
In the weeks leading up to the election there was increased reports of trauma survivors calling crisis lines like RAINN and therapists who treat trauma survivors were reporting high levels of distress and increased PTSD symptoms among clients who were previously doing better. Survivors reported experiencing an increase in flashbacks, resurgence in nightmares, recalling aspects of the trauma at unwanted times in intrusive ways, heightened levels of fear, discomfort with leaving the house, and reminders of shame/guilt/and inappropriate self-blame prompted by victim blaming talk in the media.
There was even discussion of how the election was triggering perpetrators as well, resulting in the possibility of people being retraumatized.
Whether evidence truly supports the connection between the election and victimization rates or symptom rates, it is clear to people on the ground level that the election and post-election has sent a wave of aftershocks through the sexual trauma world and women in general. Since 43% of women experience sexual abuse or assault at some time in their life according to the Office fir Victims of Crime and CDC, then it is imperative that the public be aware of how trauma survivors across the world may be impacted by, sometimes unknowingly by current events.h
Thanks to social media, the public finally gets a glimpse of what sexual trauma looks like. A survivor of campus sexual assault, who was found unconscious behind a dumpster with her dress pushed up over her shoulder and her underwear and bra removed , while her attacker fled and was pinned by two good summaritans who had caught him in the act has now spoken about her experience in a very moving impact statement. There are so many tragedies in the situation, one being that had it not been for the witnesses this case would likely never have gone to trial, and a brutal rapist would have gone free to harm others. She or he would be blamed for drinking too much. Their sexual behavior would be called into question and just as in her case, it would be reframed as a consensual act. That she was never notified of what was happening in her case or what even happened to her while she was unconscious and had to learn about it online truly breaks my heart. The fact that the man was only given 6 months prison time may seem awful, but most victims will never see justice. The perpetrators often go unpunished, the crimes left univestigated, or unprosecuted, or the sentences are merely probation. The fact that the perpetrators father defends his violence as "20 minutes of action" that should be ameliorated with him giving lectures on the dangers of alcohol and promiscuity ( as if alcohol made people into savage rapers of the unconscious) only adds insult to injury and perfectly encapsulates the blinding of rape culture. This case is no anomally. It just highlighted the true brokenness of our society and its justice system.
This week was the National YWCA Week Without Violence that recognized the committment of our programs to end violence and educate the public about different types of community violence. I participated as a speaker and panel discussion with my colleagues. This week was also the Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence Annual conference wher I also presented a workshop on "What Sexual Trauma Survivors Wish You Knew." Between the two events I hadthe privilege of meeting many survivors and committed professionals who are working to end sexual a use and revuse the traumatic impact on survivors. I am honored to be among so many unsung heroes as they work for social change.
Megan Garza, MA, LMFT is a certified Specialist in Treating Trauma at a Supervisory level and is Licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist. She specializes in work with sexual abuse survivors.