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This week, whether you’ve been logged on to the Internet, watching the news on TV, listening to the radio, or reading the paper, you’ve been deluged with updates and opinions about the sexual abuse allegations women have made against Bill Cosby.
The first entry on my facebook newsfeed yesterday was a clever one where author/activist Jessica Valenti introduced the article Shifting Attitudes at Play in Cosby Allegations by Jocelyn Noveck (www.abcnews.go.com), with this attention-grabber:
America: Where you can sexually assault 16 women and still get a standing ovation.”
According to the latest entry on the home page of the Rape & Incest National Network (RAINN) website (www.rainn.org), that number is now up to 17. The daily Cosby count add-on continues, as do reports of sexual assaults on college campuses.
This morning there’s an article in the New York Times about the situation at the University of Virginia, where all fraternities have been suspended indefinitely after gang rape allegations were mishandled. The Board of Visitors that governs the University is having an unprecedented meeting today to discuss the situation. I’ll be interested in learning what will be implemented as a result of this meeting.
As a survivor of sexual assault (incest) myself, and as a family therapist, this week I’ve often thought about the impact of all this media attention on adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. My sense is that the impact is mixed and determined largely by what stage of healing a survivor is in, but certainly carries with it the potential to encourage a survivor’s healing. Yes, it can trigger memories long forgotten, sometimes in the form of flashbacks, along with symptoms like anxiety, depression, nightmares, phobias, sudden bursts of anger and/or grief, but when this happens it’s important to reach out for support. Call the hotline at the end of this blog or speak to a spouse, friend, or counselor. Get into therapy with a therapist trained in working with sexual abuse survivors, one who can help you to overcome the torments of your experiences of abuse.
Katherine Hull Fliflet, RAINN’s vice president of communications, reports on their website that the recent publicity has led to a 50% increase in usage of their hotline. “Hearing from someone who has survived a similar experience can be incredibly encouraging to those who have yet to come forward,” she said. Roberta Dolan, author of the recently released book, Say It Out Loud: Revealing and Healing the Scars of Sexual Abuse agrees with her. Roberta was sexually abused by her parents until she was 13 years old. At the age of 48, as the memories emerged, she began a six-year healing journey with the help of a therapist and her devoted husband. She wrote Say It Out Loud because there were strategies for healing that she wanted to share, along with the message of hope. Roberta understands the emotional pain a survivor endures and the courage it takes to break the silence.
Breaking the silence is exactly what is needed, not only individually, but collectively. In Noveck’s article cited above Scott Berkowitz, President of RAINN, recalls RAINN’s 1994 efforts to engage TV networks in airing public service announcements for its sex assault hotline. Fearful that the word “rape” would result in complaints, they declined. Later, when NBC agreed and no complaints were forthcoming but there were “thank-you’s” instead, the other networks followed suit.
Berkowitz says that “in the last decade we’ve all been developing a greater awareness of just how common these crimes are.” Another RAINN spokesperson, Jen Marsh, oversees the hotline (phone and online) and says “There is definitely a sea change of sorts…” But she also points out that it’s still very difficult to report sexual assault, “particularly if the perpetrator is well-known, or powerful, or well-liked, whether it’s a principal in a local community or a famous football coach.” Or a famous comedian, like Bill Cosby? When I read what Bill Cosby’s lawyer, Martin Singer said last week, I was disgusted:
These brand new claims about alleged decades-old events are becoming increasingly ridiculous, and it is completely illogical that so many people would have said nothing, done nothing, and made no reports to law enforcement or asserted civil claims if they thought that they had been assaulted over a span of so many years.”
Roberta Dolan and I connected over email today and she shared my reaction of disgust. Then she went on to write that “Singer is obviously ignorant to the harmful effects of sexual assault on the victim. Fear,shame and manipulation are just a few of the reasons people don’t speak out and Singer is using those same tactics to keep additional victims silent. Accusing a victim of lying, which is what Singer suggests, re-victimizes the person and reinforces the fear; if I tell, no one will believe me. The only thing “ridiculous” and “illogical” is Singer’s comments.” Thank you for your perspective, Roberta, and I wholeheartedly agree.
Author: Catherine McCall Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and author of Never Tell: A True Story of Overcoming a Terrifying Childhood.