The other day, I sat down at a diner with one of my bosses. It had been one hell of a day, and I was running on empty and so was she. This was a typical feeling for us, working in the non-profit industry. But sometimes I wonder, how she deals with it all? She has two children and a husband, and yet every single day, she comes to work with a smile on her face and a cape on her back ready to help survivors of sexual assault.
I have been working on staff for about 2 months by the time we sat down for this dinner, but I was lucky enough to be an intern at this agency for about a year and a half prior. During my time as an intern, I worked with many clients who were survivors of sexual assault. It never failed to amaze me how strong these women, and men because yes men are survivors too, were as they recounted what they would describe as one of the worst experiences in their lifetime thus far. Here I am, a stranger to them. They have no idea where I have been, what my experience is working with this specific trauma, and yet they graciously shared their tears with me. I felt fortunate to be in a position to hold them.
We were sitting at the diner, and my boss started asking me how I have been adjusting to the job. In my new position, I am no longer working just as a therapist. I work also as a Sexual Assault Outreach Educator. It has been quite an adjustment from just being a therapist, to say the least. When I told my boss that I live about an hour away from the office though, she looked at me like I had 7 heads. “I know why you would want to stay here, but why did you take the job?”
I did not really have the words for her in that moment, at least not the words that I wanted to say. I believe I said something along the lines of how the agency’s mission truly meant a lot to me, which is true I suppose. But there is more to it than that, as there is for most people who go into the helping profession.
When I was 16, one of my best friends in high school threw a party. He used to throw them all the time, and since we were so close, I was so unbelievably comfortable in my surroundings... probably too comfortable. I was the typical high school teenager. I liked to hang out with my friends and have fun, and this particular night, I will be the first to admit that I probably drank too much. By the end of the night, I was not the only one who had too much to drink. If I really think about it, there was not a sober person in sight. I remember a group of us sitting in the living room, trying to keep the walls from spinning around us. We decided to watch a movie, and wind down the night. I was sitting on the couch with some people, as others stumbled into the room to join us. Though, there was not enough room on the couch for everyone. “You can sit on my lap Steph,” he said to me. I did not think anything of it. It was innocent: we were all friends here, right? Somewhere during the movie, I fell asleep. At some point, I woke up, and when I did, I remembered this weird feeling. It felt like spiders crawling on me, but no, those where his hands. Inside me. Without my permission. I remember not knowing what to do. I was in a room full of people, and I did not want to start screaming and making a fuss, so quietly, I got up and left the room. I went and found someone, and I told her what happened. This “friend” went on to tell the entire school what happened to me. That Monday, people I had never spoken to came up to me and asked me if I was okay. I heard rumors that he was denying that this ever happened, and that he had no idea what I was talking about. Never again would I share my story with anyone I told myself.
As I write this, I can hear my supervisor in the back of my mind asking me, “What impact does sharing this have on you now?” Well, for starters, this is the first time in almost 10 years I have talked about this, but I think about it all the time. It plays out in every relationship I am in, or try to get into. I am very careful not to get too close to people, and when I do, I am careful not to let go. It is difficult for me to be completely vulnerable with others, and if you know the inner workings of my brain, consider yourself one of the lucky ones. What happened to me could have been a lot worse, and that is also hard for me to grasp too. It is difficult for me to grasp what could have happened, and it is hard for me not to blame myself. I should not have drunk so much. Maybe I should have worn something different that night. I definitely should not have sat on his lap. I should have been more careful. Why wasn’t I more careful?
When I am honest with myself though, none of this was my fault. The sad reality of the world is, I am far from alone. In the United States, according to RAINN, someone is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds. In New Jersey, there are 1.8 million survivors of sexual violence. 1 out of every 6 women has been a victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, whereas 1 out of every 33 men have experience an attempted or completed rape.
If you think those numbers are scary, look at the numbers for minority groups according to the CDC. Almost half (49.5% of multiracial women and over 45% of American Indian/Alaska Native women) were subjected to some form of sexual contact in their lifetime. 13% of lesbian women and 46% of bisexual women have been raped in their lifetime. 40% of gay men and 47% of bisexual men have had some sort of sexual violence other than rape in their lifetime, though research from the NIH suggest that many instances of men victimized of rape are vastly underreported and are misconstrued as non-rape offenses due to stigmatization, biases, regressive gender assumptions, and non-federal laws. Among transgender people, 47% have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
This. Has. To. STOP. So, the answer to my boss’ question at the diner is, I do this because it means a lot to me. It means a lot for me to know that every day I show up to work, I am doing something to make a difference in the world. As a therapist, I can help survivors cultivate a voice when they feel like their voice has been stolen from them. As an advocate, I can stand alongside a survivor, and be there for them during some of the most traumatic experiences of their lives. As a person, I can fight this system of injustice that allows for sexual assault to even happen.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but we should care every day, not just this month. Any lack of a YES means NO.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault, there is help out there.
SAVE of Essex County 24/7 Hotline: 1(877)-733-2273
New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NJCASA) 24/7 Hotline: 1(800)-601-7200
RAINN 24/7 Resource Hotline: 1(800)-656-4673
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 Hotline: 1(800)-273-TALK
Sources of data: