The Senate Judiciary hearings on the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice, including the televised testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, in September 2018, returned the #MeToo issues of sexual assault survivors and those who have endured sexual harassment to the glare of the public spotlight. This testimony reactivated memories and trauma for many people, both men and women, sexual assault survivors and perpetrators.
The hearings and testimony forced many people to rethink their past actions and the fallout of these actions on others. They led to discussions about drinking and the difference between passing out and blacking out. And about the importance of consent.
Anita Hill’s testimony in Clarence Thomas’s confirmation proceedings brought sexual harassment in the workplace to the nation’s collective attention. And the 2018 proceedings have brought the effects of trauma into public discussion. This discussion has highlighted the differences in how individuals remember and respond to traumatic situations.
Traumatic events are remembered…
Some survivors of trauma have every detail of the event seared into memory. Others have little to no memory of the event. Some have detailed memories of parts of the event, and sketchy memories of other parts.
…and coped with differently
Sexual assault survivors differ in how they cope. Some sexual assault survivors pursue a plethora of activities to stay so busy they can’t think about the trauma. Others lose interest in pleasurable activities and can’t find the energy to pursue anything other than a constant mental replaying of the event. They retraumatize themselves in the process. Some resort to cutting themselves or other forms of self-harming behavior. Others resort to the comfort of food and gain large amounts of weight as a conscious or unconscious attempt at “armor” to ward off further sexual attention. Still others may restrict their food as an attempt to exercise control in a world that feels out of control or to return to a presexual body.
Maya Angelou’s reactions as a survivor of sexual assault…
You may have read Maya Angelou’s moving autobiographical series, the first of which is entitled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which includes her account of her rape at age eight by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her mother, and the rapist was arrested and convicted.
Shortly after he was released, he was found beaten to death, most likely by Maya’s family members. She believed she had caused his death because she spoke up, so she stopped speaking for several years. This was her immediate reaction to a complex trauma, which was piggybacked onto a young life already filled with multiple traumas.
She had been repeatedly abandoned by her beautiful young mother who was trying to sort out her own life and romantic relationships. Each time her mother abandoned her, Maya and her older brother, Bailey, were put on a train without an adult and sent cross country to their paternal grandmother in Arkansas. And when their mother wanted them back, they’d be uprooted from their stable life with their grandmother and uncle and sent cross country again by themselves on a train to her.
When Maya and Bailey were not living with their mother and her latest boyfriend, they were dealing with life as black children in racially tense Stamps, Arkansas, where their beloved and crippled uncle had to hide on the many occasions that marauding white men rode to the black part of town looking for black men to lynch.
…differ from her brother’s reactions to trauma
Maya and Bailey dealt with their traumatic lives differently, though Bailey wasn’t sexually assaulted, as far as we know. Maya Angelou collected life experiences as a teenage mother, a prostitute, a brothel madam, a singer, composer, dancer, actor, activist, director, writer, poet, professor, and inspirational speaker. At Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, she read a poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” she composed for the occasion.
Bailey Johnson Jr. dealt with the trauma of repeated abandonment by running away to find his mother, and he was incarcerated as an adult for a period of time. Fortunately he eventually straightened out his life.
Different pre- and post-trauma circumstances lead to different outcomes
It makes sense that survivors of sexual assault are affected in different ways. They are individuals and they had different life experiences before the assault that shaped their psychology and contributed to their resilience or lack thereof. Someone who experienced sexual assault as a child will respond to the trauma differently than someone who experienced it as an adult. A child who told an adult and was believed and supported will have a different experience than one who wasn’t believed or one who was blamed. A child who was sexually assaulted by someone he or she knew and trusted will have a different experience than someone who was assaulted by a stranger.
An adult who reported the assault and went through the criminal justice system to press charges and participate in a trial may feel empowered if the assailant was convicted and sentenced to prison. An adult who reported the assault, endured aggressive and demeaning questioning by the defense lawyer that delved into the survivor’s sex life and essentially put the survivor on trial, may feel assaulted and retraumatized by the system, especially if the assailant gets a sentence of probation and community service or is not found guilty.
According to the RAINN website (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), every 98 seconds someone is sexually assaulted in the U.S.; one out of every six women in the U.S. has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime; and one in 33 men in the U.S. has experienced attempted or completed rape in his lifetime. These statistics don’t include other forms of sexual assault, such as being groped on the subway or at a bar.
And if we talk about sexual harassment, the incidence is much, much greater.
Perpetrators of sexual assault and sexual harassment
People who behaved poorly in the past may be consumed with guilt as they realize the pain they have caused others. Some may own up to their behavior, attempt to make amends to the person they wronged, and live better going forward. Others may never admit their misconduct. Still others may brag about it.
How have you dealt with sexual harassment?
How does all of this affect you? Have you experienced sexual harassment on or off the job? Did you uncomfortably laugh it off to protect your job or professional relationship with a mentor? Or did you tell the person to stop because it’s inappropriate and makes you uncomfortable? Did you report it? Do you have regrets about the way you handled it—or are currently handling it?
How have you dealt with sexual assault?
Are you a survivor of sexual assault? Did you get help to deal with it at the time? Have you dealt with the assault through the criminal justice system? Is that something you’d like help sorting out and getting support for whatever decision you make in that regard? How do you decide whom to tell and when to tell? Did you tell someone important to you? Did they believe you and support you, or deny your experience and otherwise negate you? Have you been able to have a satisfying sex life? Is anxiety getting in the way? Do you blame yourself for the assault? Have others blamed you? How have you dealt with the aftermath? Are your ways of coping working, or are your coping mechanisms creating more problems?
Therapy with a warm, caring, compassionate professional can make a world of difference in your life. You can learn to put the traumatic experience squarely in the past, and move on in making a satisfying life and sex life today.