One in four women, age 16 to 24, and one in 10 men of that same age can expect someone they know to rape or attempt to rape them.
One in three women and one in seven men will be sexually abused before age 18.
These statistics shock us, and may seem unbelievable, but for the scores of victims these numbers represent, the trauma of sexual victimization is undeniable.
They are not numbers; they are children whose innocence is torn from them, adults whose lives are forever altered by the experience of a violent crime, the repercussions of which will be felt for the rest of their lives.
Many victims will never disclose their abuse; some will become abusers themselves. Either way, the pain of the experience is too great, the fear of being misunderstood, or being blamed for their victimization is too much of a gamble to risk reaching out.
If a thief broke into your home and stole your valuables, you would surely report the intrusion and rightfully expect that an investigation would be mounted and every attempt would be made to recover the possessions.
A rape victim cannot expect the same response. When an intrusion ever so much more personal, so much more traumatizing has occurred, many victims fear coming forward because of the social stigmatization that might follow. Instead of a sympathetic response from friends and coworkers, or the understanding of family or friends, they are often met with suspicion, ostracism or hostility. And they can never expect what was stolen to be returned.
We as a community must not be left so numb or calloused by these introductory statistics that we let the reality overwhelm us into inaction and we succumb to an evil over which we can have power.
Over the past eight years, I have presented educational programming on issues of sexual violence, focusing primarily on acquaintance rape, or “date rape” prevention, to thousands of high school and university students at schools and conferences across the country. I have heard the stories of countless victims, stories full of self-blame, of shame and of deep, deep sadness.
Many of these young people, and many of the children and adult survivors of sexual abuse I have known, fear being misunderstood, blamed or simply ignored. Listen to one of them:
Dear Mr. Davis,
I am writing this letter to thank you. I heard you speak last month at school. That day was the most emotional and draining day I have ever had. That day also set off a chain reaction of events that leads to why I am writing.
I sat in the front watching and listening to you literally describing what had happened to me in May. You made me think. You made me realize that what happened wasn’t my fault. What you did made me realize that I was raped.
I want you to know what part of your speech made me leave. You started saying, “What if …?” “What if Mark had just asked Jen if he could make love to her? What if he had taken her resistance to mean that she wasn’t interested instead of assuming that she was playing hard to get?” I’ve asked all of the “what if’s?” What if I just didn’t see him? What if I just pushed a little harder? screamed a little louder? Now I’ve begun to ask, “What now?”
I guess I’m thanking you because you made me angry enough to talk. You made me think and finally tell someone. You made me realize that I am not at fault. You made me realize that I was violated. I wish I didn’t have to thank you for that, but I do.
We as a community need to assure sex abuse survivors that their victimization was not their fault. Whether they were blindly innocent to a dangerous environment, trapped in an abusive relationship or perhaps made poor or naive choices, no one “asks” to be raped.
We must assure them that we as a community will hear them without suspicion, that we will support them without expectation and that we will assist and empower them in their healing. Only with that kind of compassionate response can we call ourselves a civilized culture. Then and only then will we begin to dismantle the cycle of violence.