Oftentimes when we discuss sexual violence, we fail to address the most important part: how society reacts and treats the victims after their assault. There is a programmed response immediately after an assault from law enforcement and other government entities. After the initial response, however, victims are often expected to be healed or feel better if they decide to report the crimes to the police. It seems that there is an expected timeline for healing for the victims of sexual violence, and that they are expected to act certain ways about their experiences. If they fail to meet these expectations of how they should react to these situations they are blamed and many times not taken seriously.
Because of the way society and judicial system treat victims, I decided to conduct interviews to find out what changes after an assault. It is especially important to note that more than the initial assault changes the victims — their experiences with authority figures, their families, and institutions also affects them. The survivors interviewed also wanted to share their story by getting images painted on their backs. They told me what to paint: the image that best represented how their experiences made them feel; what they remembered most about their assaults. After painting them, I allowed them to pose together however they felt represented their struggles best, and I photographed them. The darker of the back pieces is a distorted hallway, representing where the assault took place. The other piece is a cross, representing the religious beliefs of the attacker; the words “you know you like it so quit fighting me” were spoken by the attacker during the assault.
The two survivors/victims that volunteered for this interview requested that their identities not be revealed, so they will be referred to as Interviewee A and B throughout.
How old were you when you first experienced sexual violence?
A: My earliest experience was when I was twenty, when I first met my ex-boyfriend.
B: My first experience was when I turned fourteen.
How did you cope with your experiences, during and after?
A: I didn’t cope during; I only coped after the experience when I was able to recognize it was wrong. It’s not something that society talks about happening in relationships. I cut myself off from society and stopped dating. I went back to a previous bad habit, being angry with men – this was something I had done before because of a bad relationship with my father.
B: I shut down during the experience both mentally and physically. I shut everything out after, for eight months. It was like a bad dream that I would wake up from someday. Until I talked about the experience, it remained unreal. When it finally hit me I became very self-destructive; I drowned myself in alcohol and drugs. I turned to self-harm, and I stopped caring about anything – including myself and my body. I slept with anyone and everyone – all I could feel was pain and disgust, and I was just adding to that feeling with my actions. On top of the abuse I endured from my father, I wasn’t able to handle it. How is somebody supposed to cope with that?
It’s a lot harder for me to talk about the coping than the attack because I talked about my attack more. I repeated it to make it feel real… because the experience was all too real.
Who was the first person you told about what happened?
A: I accidentally mentioned it to my step-father – he had asked me about dating, and I told him that I was uncomfortable with men because my ex-boyfriend used to force me to do things. It took me months to be able to tell him, even in the indirect way that I did.
B: My mom forced it out of me, after eight months, because she could tell something was wrong. She immediately called my aunt, a survivor of a serial rapist, to have her talk to me. My aunt called me and bombarded me with questions like: “did you keep your underwear?” This made me feel guilty – I felt like I had done a terrible thing by throwing those clothes away. I had thrown them in the dumpster that night because I couldn’t have that reminder. I felt so ashamed and guilty for doing the “wrong” thing.
What made you hesitate/wait to talk about it?
A: I needed time to realize that it was actually abuse because it was my first serious relationship. I was still a virgin when I met him so I wasn’t really aware of what abuse was at the time.
B: All I could feel was shame and disgust for myself – and I didn’t want to believe it happened. I was terrified of having to realize I was a victim. Having to admit to other people and myself that I was a victim was the hardest part. I couldn’t believe that I was now part of this group of people who had suffered from sexual violence.
When you told your step-father, how did he react?
A: He was shocked because he didn’t know, and asked if he could tell my mother. After the initial shock he didn’t really care, or get emotional about it.
When your mother found out, how did she react?
A: She was upset and had always hoped something like this would never happen to me.
B: She didn’t know how to react, which is why she immediately called my aunt. All I could do was beg my mom not to tell my dad, I would scream, cry, and beg on my knees for her not tell him. When it set in, she was amazing. She’s the only reason I could start processing. She made me talk about it and she held me when I cried. And I’m really lucky to have had her support, not many people have what I do.
Did anything change in your relationships with your family?
A: I became closer with my mother. I feel as if my father and I are more distant now as a result of him not seeming to care.
B: They gave me support, and the relationships changed because I was more of an adult after my experience. My aunt told me her story, about her surviving a brutal attack, in vivid, graphic detail. That changed a lot, and there was a lot more understanding and empathy in our relationship.
Did you tell anyone else?
A: A close friend, my counselor, my current boyfriend, and now you. I refuse to tell my grandparents because my grandfather would probably shoot my ex-boyfriend.
B: Yes, eight years later I am finally able to talk about it. Everyone that’s close to me knows. I didn’t go to the police because I wouldn’t have been able to identify my attacker. I couldn’t make a case – the police and the courts wouldn’t have been able to do anything for me. I did talk to the Rape Crisis Center in my city though, several times.
Did anyone push you to report to the police?
A: Yes, my mother. I didn’t report because I’ve heard stories about how things don’t get fixed. It just seems like a lot of paperwork and effort for nothing.
B: Yes, of course. My aunt pushed me the most because she had lived through a similar experience, and had gone to trial. She had to see his face again, and was threatened, and that’s part of what I didn’t want to go through. My mom didn’t push me – because if she were to try I would scream at her until she stopped bringing it up. When my dad found out he didn’t believe me because I hadn’t reported it to the police.
How do you feel about the reporting system and how the police handle these types of sexual violence?
A: I feel like the police don’t take sexual abuse in relationships seriously. Especially when the attacker is an “upstanding” or seemingly law-abiding citizen, like my ex-boyfriend was.
B: I feel disgusted and angered with how they handle sexual violence cases. I’m even more disgusted with how the judicial system handles it – they let these people walk too often. How can you let someone that sick be free?
Has your view of society, the police, or any other institutions changed because of your experiences? How so?
A: I understand the concept of victim blaming better now, which is a big part of why I didn’t tell very many people or report. I feel I have a stronger connection with women, like a sisterhood. Especially with other survivors of these types of situations.
B: It has changed forever – I have no respect for the police. The police has never helped me and I have never felt able to trust them. They seem like they’re only a fear tactic to enforce order in society – but I have yet to experience them helping anyone. They don’t make me feel safe; in fact, with everything, the police make me feel less safe in a lot of situations. I don’t want to say I hate cops, but I distrust them. I have disdain for cops and the judicial system.
Did you feel that anyone treated you differently after you told them?
A: My current boyfriend is more sensitive about things like cat-calling because he knows. My parents were/are more nervous about me dating again, but I refuse to let the actions of that idiot control the rest of my life. I refuse to be afraid forever.
B: Not necessarily – because when I told the people close to me it made sense to them. My actions and certain aspects of my personality made more sense to them after I told them – so there may have been more understanding, but not much else changed.
How do you think society treats victims/survivors? Do you think that any improvements need to be made? If so, what improvements?
A: Our society continues to resort to victim-blaming in most cases of sexual violence. Questions like: “what did you wear?” “What did you say?” And statements like: “You probably had it coming…” are all things victims will likely hear if they talk about their attacks. Firstly, we need to get rid of victim blaming so that people are more comfortable with coming forward. I think less sexual violence would happen if attackers were caught and prosecuted more often. Because so many people don’t say who their attacker was, or report in general, not very many cases end with sentencing. On top of that, the fear and shame associated with being blamed for being attacked stops people from reporting. I feel like it would have been worse for me if I had reported because his family was very religious and seemed like good people, but they would have made my life hell. I didn’t want many people to know what happened because I didn’t want pity and I was afraid of being blamed. I also felt like it is expected that a woman would her husband or boyfriend sex whenever he wants, especially because of my ex-boyfriend’s religious beliefs.
B: There is a lot of victim blaming in our society – “it’s their fault,” never the attacker’s. Society needs to understand that it is never the victim’s fault. Everything in our society, including opinions need to be changed – no one deserves anyone else’s body or life for any reason. Sexual violence is an absolutely horrible thing to go through – society needs to understand the extent of the damage that happens because of it. I think more medical professionals, law enforcement, parents, and just society in general need to be more aware of the psychological motivators of perpetrators.
How do you feel different or changed because of your experiences?
A: I’m less confident, especially with my body and sexuality. I’m not comfortable being naked. My ex-boyfriend did his damage by wanting me to dress more conservatively, and saying that “if we have a daughter I would be horrified if she dressed like you.” He also never complimented me, so when my current boyfriend compliments me I never believe him. I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD from my experiences. I’m paranoid all the time, and scared when I go out – even if I’m with people. I’m hyperaware which is exhausting and it makes it really difficult for me to leave my house. I also had a lot of nightmares about the experiences, where I’d wake up screaming, crying, and panicking because it was too real. I actually focused more on school, which was a coping mechanism. I also built better relationships with my classmates. I used to be a lot more confident – I really struggle with that now in school when I have to do presentations, and when I have to do professional interviews. This makes me really angry because I had really built myself up before met him. Now I feel like I’m back to square one.
B: I don’t know how to put how changed my entire being was into words. I have radar now that detects men I think are creepy or possibly dangerous. It also became my dream to be a forensic scientist and FBI profiler. Though I’ve always been fascinated with the human body, I became more interested in psychology after my attack – because I wanted to know what motivates people to commit horrific acts. I became more aware of my surroundings, and more paranoid. I did find myself again though, which made me aware of how I’ve changed in every single way. Being completely broken changes everything. It also made me want to spread awareness for sexual violence, as well as for why it happens. I just became a grim person – I became extremely morbid. I had to come back from being broken – and I did that by studying and trying to understand the unknowns of our world. I became angry – and my presence with people became dull. A lot of my faith in humanity was lost. That night marked when everything in the world stopped making sense; I lost faith, and I still don’t have it. I’m not proud to admit that, but that’s the truth. I don’t believe in religion anymore – just science and energy – that’s a permanent change. I just became a darker person.
Is there anything you would like to say to other survivors/victims of sexual violence? Or to society in general?
A: The first thing I want to say, to everyone, is that if you’re not comfortable with something you can say no, regardless of people trying to make you feel guilty. It’s your body, and you don’t ever owe it to anyone. Don’t change yourself completely for someone who says that they love you. One of the things that helped me was my art – I really put myself into my art. Find a way to release your emotions. And be honest with yourself about your emotions. There really should be more awareness about sexual violence in relationships, because rape is so often viewed by our society as something that happens to a drunk girl in a bar, and the attacker is a stranger. People don’t think it could be someone you know, someone that you would call your significant other.
B: That you’re not alone – so far we’ve stood united and that’s something to be proud of. Do your best to find a true support system because they do exist. I can’t stress enough how important a support system is. We’re the only change that exists in our society, so when we can – we should use our experiences to help make that change happen. Know that you are loved. I want to stress to society that people who carry out these crimes are truly sick and we need to find answers. There needs to be more understanding of mental health in our society in order to find solutions to these types of problems. More people need to understand the severity of this problem, in all cultures, because sexual violence is a serious, life changing experience.
What would you say to other victims/survivors of sexual violence?
A: That you’re not alone – so far we’ve stood united and that’s something to be proud of. Do your best to find a true support system because they do exist. I can’t stress enough how important a support system is. We’re the only change that exists in our society, so when we can – we should use our experiences to help make that change happen. Know that you are loved.
B: I want to stress to society that people who carry out these crimes are truly sick and we need to find answers. There needs to be more understanding of mental health in our society in order to find solutions to these types of problems. More people need to understand the severity of this problem, in all cultures, because sexual violence is a serious, life changing experience.
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Emma Saxby is an egalitarian, activist, freelance writer, photographer, and artist residing in the United States. She studies nuclear engineering, plasma physics, international politics and culture. She spends a lot of time hiking, geeking out about Star Wars and keeping up with current events. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.