safe center

For the last month, I’ve been training to become an advocate for victim-survivors of sexual assault. As part of the Sexual Assault Response Team, my job is to show up at the hospital, police station, or courtroom, and be the one person in the room who doesn’t require anything from the client. My job is to make sure that the client is making decisions regarding the outcome of procedures, from the evidence collection exam, to the police interviews, to the courtroom interviews. One of the first things I learned, and something that really stuck with me, is that nowadays the premise is that the victim-survivor had their choice taken away, and the first priority is to restore that ability to make decisions and to have choice in their life again, as this does the most towards allowing recovery and emotional healing. I was so happy to hear nurses saying in response to concerned family and friends, “The most important thing you can do right now is BELIEVE and SUPPORT the victim-survivor.”

This belief is a welcome change from my own situation, back in 1990. I wasn’t expecting it to be the case, but doing this training has made me an advocate for the little girl I was, back then. I feel so much anger at the way she was immediately disbelieved, made to feel ashamed and dirty, and isolated by family and community, as if her only worth as a human was tied up in her presumed virginity (which as an abused toddler had already been lost years prior). A year later, when the brother-in-law attempted rape, her parents determined it wasn’t an issue for the police since “the damage (loss of virginity) had already been done.” She was made to understand that she must have done something terrible to lose some supposed spiritual protection that would never allow her to be raped–completely the wrong way to go about taking care of a child who’d experienced sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, and then experienced rape on top of everything else. Completely the right way to nearly destroy the mind and heart of a child, however. Rape violates the very center of a person. How can you feel safe, when the very heart of you has been opened and splayed for everyone to see? I’d fought, but eventually ran out of strength, and that was seen as proof of my compliance, and I was ‘marked’ as a bad person in the eyes of god and everybody. I felt unsafe in my own skin for years, as a result. This body that had betrayed me and not protected me was a disgusting husk I longed to shed.

All I can say is, I’m glad I had a small seed of stubbornness, a small voice inside that said these people were wrong. My rebellious streak saved my life, as I contemplated suicide so many times, only to tell myself that I needed to wait just a little longer. I had the plan in place, and the plan was enough to calm that part of me. I held on to the “someday hope” of suicide for so long, and oddly enough it tamped down the desire to carry it out. I was finally able to run away from that toxic environment and create a new life for myself. But the “lessons” I learned from those years stayed with me. I always felt like I had to excuse every decision I’d made up until the rape happened, I even regretted the A’s on my school report-card that had allowed me a free pass to the pool that day. I internalized the messages from my family and community and still felt ashamed and isolated and unworthy. It wasn’t until I took criminal law and criminal investigation classes that I understood that rape is an act of aggression, not seduction, that I had not seduced anybody, as a toddler or as a brand-new teenager, and somehow brought  those horrific acts on myself. Rape is hardly ever just the stranger in the bushes–more often it’s the friend of a friend, it’s the trusted community member, it’s the family member you must live with. Rape victims range in age from from infants to people in their 90s, hardly sexual objects in most people’s minds. The one thing in common is vulnerability.

I can’t go back in time and undo what was done to me, but I can stand up for others. It’s what I feel compelled to do the most, besides writing. I am learning so many GOOD lessons, this time around. I can feel myself getting stronger, the better to protect and advocate for people who find themselves feeling violated, vulnerable, and lost. I can’t change how the story started, but I can make the ending better than I was told. If I can save one life, then it’s worth it.

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