I Am Someone: a Documentary on Sexual Violence03/08/11 Dawn Morgan Elliott
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Happy International Women’s Day! I’m Dawn Morgan Elliott, a six-year volunteer with WMNF, with five years in the newsroom telling other people’s stories.
For this International Women’s Day, I want to raise the noise level on sexual abuse and violence against women, traumatic experiences that often have a silencing effect on its victims.
I’ll get personal, asking 54-year-old Baltimore native Lepena Reid to talk about the terrible attack she endured on the city streets when she was just 13, an attack that kept her in denial for decades.
"I haven’t been saying the word rape but for about 6 years now. That was something I choked up as it came to the tip of my tongue. Rape."
29-year old Marilyn Bray talks about her journey from victim to survivor.
"Every day I was just surviving, trying to make it through the day. Where eating and showering were the major activities and that was brutal. I was consumed with so much anguish and shame and guilt and feelings of being violated. My whole foundation was ripped away from me."
Lisa Braxton suffered from sexual abuse numerous times, from her childhood on.
“I was molested as a child growing up. I was also raped by a stranger at 17. I was also raped again in college by a stranger who broke into my apartment. Two other times. They were very random. One of those things that I blamed myself for because it kept happening over and over again."
And then there’s my own story. I’m 32, and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I wasn’t able to deal with my own trauma until a couple of years ago.
I recently learned that the chronic depression and anxiety that I suffered throughout my childhood and early adulthood, and further victimization later in my late teens and 20’s, were caused by not having dealt with that initial childhood trauma.
Even though each individual reacts to trauma differently, abuse gives each victim something in common. Here’s Dr. Leslie Kille, director of trauma recovery services at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, to explain:
"Imagine that we’re a cup of water. We’re smart enough as that if the cup physically, and the cup is empty and we’re thirsty, we’ll go fill it back up. But if that cup is our spiritual or emotional strength, and what happens when we are abused or victimized, we pour half that glass of water on the ground and forget to fill it up. And we walk around, navigating the world and our relationships feeling empty inside and we may not know why we’re afraid or angry. We have a huge startle reflex if someone tries to wake us up or comes behind us and tries to gently touch us on the shoulder."
In 1969, Lepena Reid was about to turn 14 years old. The only thing on her mind was her romantic interest.
"I thought it was going to be one of those beautiful days. This young man that I had kind of liked and he liked me. And we had a summer affair together. He had invited me to a church movie that evening. He was going to a Christian school, and all of us teenagers were driven to the movie to the church, and upon getting out of the car, a young woman came up to him, and said “What’s happening? You’re suppose to be with me!” and all this teenage stuff.
"Being young and insecure, low self esteem, not having the confidence, the thought patterns that age brings to you, I just became terribly upset. I walked away from the area in a community that was a dangerous area. And I left. I didn’t know where I was walking and along comes a gang of teenage boys.
"I was gang attacked and raped by six boys. The last boy had said to me said they’re planning to kill you. I’m going to help you as much as I can to get out and you run for your life. I was driven home by a taxi driver who saw me running frantically along the way when I got out."
So what kind of care did you receive after the attack?
"The others were young like me. 14, 15. The gang leader was 19. He was the only one who received time for the case, the others dismissed. I went through several trials really very difficult.
"There was no counseling. Everything pretty much happened that evening. The examination in the police precinct. Just the (pause) feeling of being accused, of being victimized already once that evening. And then again, the questioning and lie detector test, and the jury, the adults that set there and watched me in the court room. It was all just an experience I wanted to forget and I did for many, many years."
Tampa native Lisa Braxton was molested throughout her childhood, and raped multiple times as an adult. With the help of friends, she got into therapy and support groups.
"When I got to group, I was very ashamed and embarrassed. Thought every situation was my fault in some way. I think it’s easy for a lot of survivors to go that route. Because it’s so much easier to blame yourself. What I did was see a lot of people in that group smiling. With happier lives. They were doing things that I wanted to see. And when I saw that, it’s like, I’m gonna follow what they did. Spend a lot of time with them and do what they did. It moved me forward a little bit."
Marilyn Bray first stepped foot into the Crisis Center in 2006.
"I walked through the doors of the sexual assaulted program, just being raped and assaulted by a neighbor who lived in my apartment complex.
“SV is the only crime where the victim almost has to prove they were victimized. If I was in a car accident, immediately the community, my family and my friends would come together to support me. They might bring gifts and cards and maybe even send money to help me cover the cost of medical expenses. When I was raped my family didn’t know what to do, my friends were uncertain how to support me. And at that point, there wasn’t even an automatic community response of where I would go to get help, counseling.”
But at the Crisis Center, Bray did receive counseling and more.
"That night, I will never forget, cause when I walked through the doors of the Crisis Center, I was greeted with kindness, compassion, a sense of security again. And that I wasn’t alone. There were individuals willing to help me, help regain my sense of strength again. That was what gave me a mustard seed of hope, that I wasn’t always going to feel that way. And I went into counseling and group therapy and support groups.
"And there was layers and layers of recovery that I was given the opportunity to work through. At that point I yearned for it. I wanted to break free from the bondage of fear. Of being victimized. So with almost every opportunity that came my way, I almost embraced it, as an opportunity to be free, to reclaim my life."
After a couple of years, Bray started working for the Crisis center. Currently she’s the outreach and education coordinator, and raises awareness and teaches prevention techniques around the community.
"And still to this day, I can’t give what I don’t have. So it’s very important for me doing this work that I’m constantly taking care of myself. That I’m honoring my own experience and journey. And even though it’s very important for me to reach out to others who are suffering, that I have to constantly refill my own cup.”
Lisa Braxton, another victim who once lost her voice because of numerous attacks, also used therapy to reclaim her life.
"In my experience, talking has been my biggest help. My secrets had me really bound. I didn’t think I would live if I kept my mouth quiet another day. Now I can share and the secret didn’t help me. I think when I was very small it played a role in keeping me alive. But now that I’m talking about it, it’s really helped. Find a support group, people you can relate with. I highly recommend individual counseling. Letting it out helps a lot."
Braxton is an artist and uses her art to further heal herself.
"I do painting sculptures, carving. I used that to combat things that might have held me back. Painted utensils, in the dark, things I was scared of. Builds me up personally, so I’m not so held back."
Lepena Reid was in her 40’s when she moved to Tampa. During her routine annual well woman exam, she told her doctor of the attack she suffered as a young teen, and was finally referred to therapy.
"But I called eventually. I called and I inquired and they gave me the dates and times for the groups. And I just walked into the door. And like I said, it just had to be the right group of people. We bonded. I heard stories that sounded like mine, that I wasn’t alone all of those years even though you heard stories in the news. I still felt disconnected. I was in a denial. That had happened to other people. It put me in a place where I realized it had happened to me and it had happened to others, the women here also. We can do something about it. To first off heal ourselves and take that healing and add hope and support. And just the knowingness that life can go on. What’s happened to you was extremely awful, difficult, painful. But if you are still here, you deserve to have a good life. And when I walked into the door, one of the girls in the group said, “I’ve been waiting for you to come.” There were 6 women. We sat there with such force and energy to heal. We weren’t going leave there until we got what we needed. And I guess this woman kind of knew what was coming and we came with force and power."
As you became an adult, did you find that what happened in your childhood affected decisions? Did it come bubbling back? Were you able to trust?
"The trust factor becomes very difficult for any victim of any type of assault. So, no, I wasn’t able at all to trust in many situations. Not at all. That’s just something I believe through counseling, whether one on one or – for me, again, I’m just so glad I moved here to Tampa when I did, even at the age point I did, to bring about healing."
Reid flourished in the support group, then, like Braxton, also began volunteering as a victim’s advocate at the Crisis Center. Currently she’s the chair of the Empowerment committee for the Sexual Violence Task Force of Tampa Bay. And that young man she had a crush on back before her attack in 1969?
"Some 28 years later a cousin called me and said, “Do you remember…” and said his name. And I had really put that out of my mind too. It’s easy for a survivor to get amnesia, to pack away hurtful, painful experiences.
"He called in 1996, through the avenue of a relative. This was the relative that I would attend this church with. We reconnected got married. Unbelievable faith, how the road of life can lead you to more positive outcomes. So we’ll be celebrating our 15th anniversary this year."
Therapy plays a huge part in this story. Individual or group therapy, or both, are at the beginning of each victims journey toward healing, including my own. In my case, I had tried to open up to many different therapists over the years, but some seemed to do more harm than good. I always quit after one or two sessions. Luckily I finally did find one that I trusted, and I found healing after 13 months of weekly sessions.
Angela Claudio Torres is 28, and has been a therapist for 4 years at the Crisis Center. She’s been working with survivors since she was a student at the University of South Florida.
"Once I started volunteering with survivors, and just being involved with this healing process with survivors, I knew that was what I wanted to do and to continue to do. Sexual assault can cause a survivor to have flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, depression, anxiety, and several other symptoms that can be worked through and hopefully helped through therapy."
"When it comes to talking about issues. DIY, solve the issue, pull yourself by your bootstraps, may not be the first thing that comes to mind for someone."
What is it like in the room with you when someone comes to you?
"We try to make them feel welcome, brave for just showing up. Some leave try again and come back. We don’t have to start off with them, just let the survivor share. The first part is getting to know each other, what therapy is, a time for us to share and help with whatever’s going on."
"There is no time limit, restriction. Healing varies with each person."
"The community needs to know the importance of supporting survivors. At the CC, for every survivor voice, there is a listening ear."
Before therapy and healing, however, a police report should immediately follow any attack. It’s difficult, as Lt. Diane Hobley-Burney knows. She’s been with the Tampa police department for 23 years.
"Utmost importance because a lot of times with the victims, there’s an embarrassment A lot of times they feel as if why did this happen to me, in relation to it only happens on tv. So it’s hard for them to have that courage to do that. So I applaud all victims that come forward b/c normally, if the individual has rapes someone, the possibility that it could occur to someone else, it also no only protecting themselves, but also protecting other possible victims."
Hobley-Burney criticizes television for making justice neat and clean and achievable in just under an hour, and says portrayals are just not realistic.
"Even when I’m watching these shows, I go,”Wow, within an hour time, they found the individual, arrest that person and put them in jail.” Sometimes justice is not as swift. We do our best to investigate everything through the entire process and it takes far longer than that hour. I assure you. And people must understand that."
But the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN, would like to change the media’s reputation for inaccurate portrayals of sexual assault and violence against women. This season RAINN has been working with ABC’s medical drama Private Practice. RAINN”s Katherine Hull:
"Currently we’re working on a really exciting project with ABC’s hit show Private Practice. We’ve been working with their writers over there and the actress KaDee Strickland to really give an accurate portrayal of what happens in the aftermath of a sexual assault."
clip of "Private Practice" courtesy of ABC Studios:
Dr. Charlotte King: “You ever been violated? Anybody rape you lately?”
Dr. Addison Montgomery: “I’m trying to help.”
CK: “Hey, let me tell you what it’s like. You know those made for tv movies when some woman’s always crouched down naked in a shower, holding her knees and sobbing? Cause when she closes her eyes she can still feel the guy’s hands on her? And when they show the attack, and the woman’s eyes go all blank and still. She goes to some other place in her mind just to deal with the horror of what’s happenin’ to her. And some Lilith Fair song plays.
It is nothing like that. It’s dirty. And sweaty. And he licks your face. And he wipes himself off in your hair. And when you try to scream he punches you so hard you see God. And then he goes at you again. Ripping stuff you didn’t know you had. Cause he enjoyed it so much the first time.
I know you’re trying to help. But if helping me means that everyone, that Cooper, is gonna be looking at me the way you’re looking at me now. Please. Do not. Help me.”
Since it’s just a tv show, why is it important to have that accuracy?
"It’s incredibly important to have accuracy in television shows because more and more Americans hear several messages about health news from television shows. And it’s a great way to educate viewers because it’s not direct, clinical education, but it’s incorporating accurate messages into entertainment they’re already consuming. It’s absolutely vital that we work with the enter industry in their portrayals of sexual violence to get those key messages out to the audience.
According to Hull, a spokesperson for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every two minutes. It affects all socioeconomic groups, ages, and genders, but girls and young women are especially at risk.
"1 in 6 women will become a victim in her lifetime and over 10% of victims are men. This is a crime that really disproportionately affects young folks. Almost half of all victims are under the age of 18, and 80% are under 30."
Dr. Leslie Kille, of the Crisis Center, presents more statistics:
"One of every 4 little girls has been sexually assaulted or abused. One in 6 boys or men. 93% of them know their offenders. Contrary to popular belief, 35% offenses are bio fathers. Rest can be neighbors, youth pleaders pastors. Be careful check where your kids are going. In the midst of keeping parents and children safe, keep self safe too. State of FL for human sexual trafficking. 80% are women under the age of 25. Not speaking the language. We need everyone to create change."
One person actively making change is feminist author and anti-violence activist Jaclyn Friedman. In 2008, she and feminist blogger Jessica Valenti co-edited a book called Yes Means Yes!
"'Yes Means Yes!' is about is a principle we’re calling enthusiastic consent or affirmative consent. And what that means is that every partner to a sexual interaction is responsible to make sure that their partner is not just not saying no, not just laying there not objecting, or that you wore them down. But is actively, enthusiastically consenting to what’s happening. Basically you have to be sure that you are only having sex with people who are excited to have sex with you. And if you can’t tell, you have to ask. And who wouldn’t want to have sex with someone who wasn’t excited to be there?
"It’s pretty clear that the rates of rape have not gone down in the last 20 years and there is some small indication that they may have gone up. What that signals is that we need a new approach.
"And so 'Yes Means Yes' is an attempt to shift the conversation and create a new approach. A lot of rape prevention has historically focused on No Means No. Which is so important in terms people understanding that if someone says no, you have to stop. And that was not always the case. And a lot of people did a lot of hard work to get no means no into the common vernacular. And to get it to be something understand that principle. But the problem is when you stop there, when that’s all you have, is that is doesn’t do anything to undo the idea that women are responsible for being sexual gatekeepers, that men always want sex, that sort of reinforces a lot of sexual stereotypes that we have and it doesn’t go far enough."
Why is it important to put Yes Means Yes out there in the conversation?
"We have to talk about the world that we’re fighting to get to. And that is a world in which women are free to be as sexual as we want to be on our own terms without shame or violence. So we have to be working towards something. And the vision of Yes Means Yes is about what we want to work towards. We want to work toward a world where women have full access to the range of possible sexualities and to be agents on behalf of our own sexualities whatever that is.
"Without fear of violence or being blamed for that violence if that happens. So that’s one, but also, it really does change the conversation in a way that puts responsibility on those perpetrating the violence. So if we stop blaming women for being sexual and making that an excuse to get away with rape, it shines a light on the people actually perpetrating the violence. It removes those excuses.
"We have to stop telling women to not walk alone at night, don’t wear that, don’t flirt, all these things we tell women from knee high to a grass hopper, in order to prevent someone from committing a felony violent crime against us. In reality, the only risk factor to women for being raped is being in the presence of a rapist.
"And what 'Yes Means Yes!' is trying to do is say that women should be free to do whatever we want. It’s the rapist whose activities need to be curtailed."
Locally, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay is also speaking up. Every year they celebrate the journey survivor’s take to healing with an event called Take Back the Night. Again, Marilyn Bray:
"The community Take Back the Night is really a celebration of a survivor’s recovery from sexual violence, their transformation from the pain and suffering endured to empowerment and courage and recovery. And really taking the pain through services through the support network. Transforming it into something beautiful and strong and empowered. Just because I was victimized by sexual violence doesn’t mean I will be silenced, it doesn’t mean I will live a life of guilt and shame. That I can really own my own freedom in the fact that I was a victim."
Take Back the Night is on Saturday, April 16th beginning at 5 p.m. in Hyde Park Village
The clip Private Practice is Courtesy of ABC Studios.
Music provided by Brigid Oxshorn, Kate Bush, and the Crystals.
Many thanks to the men, women and supporters of news and public affairs on WMNF 88.5. In honor of all survivors, silent or loud, Happy International Women’s Day. I’m Dawn Morgan Elliott.