Improving our collective response to allegations of abuse will help individual survivors — as well as our community — heal and move forward.
WASHINGTON state leads the nation on public policies and resources to help victims of sexual assault come forward, get the help they need and stop abusers. Just this year, our organizations worked to improve laws surrounding Sexual Assault Protection Orders, freeing victims from the ordeal of facing the person who assaulted them and retelling their story every two years to get their orders renewed.
Seattle again found itself in the national spotlight when five men came forward to report they had been sexually abused as teens years ago by a man who held a trusted position in their lives, and whom we had trusted to lead our city.
Like others who have reported sexual assaults by those with power and public credibility — from members of the clergy to entertainers and sports figures — these five men found themselves subject to a public examination of character. Their lives and their motivations for reporting were scrutinized and maligned.
While it’s true that unsubstantiated allegations of sexual assault have been used to promote hateful social and political agendas, especially against LGBTQ people and people of color, false reports, in fact, make up just a small fraction of all sexual-assault reports. It is vital to remember offenders choose targets in part based on a belief their victim’s story will be discounted. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that most sexual assaults are never reported.
We all share in the responsibility to create a community that operates with values of fairness, consent, mutuality, respect and equity. The best way for the city to heal and regain its leadership is to encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward, regardless of the circumstances of the assault. We must be able to assure them that they will be treated with respect and dignity, and that services are available when they do.
We can prevent sexual violence, and we must. When sexual assault is minimized and normalized, when survivor reports are dismissed, or when offenders are not held accountable, we protect abusers and further traumatize victims. Denigrating victims publicly discourages all victims from coming forward. But when we empower victims to report their experience, we not only increase the odds they can heal, we learn more about the nature of sexual assault. That knowledge informs treatment, advocacy and prevention.
A community’s response to reports of assault or abuse can also be informed and improved by understanding that trauma associated with sexual assault can have both immediate and lasting effects on survivors’ lives, and on the lives of those around them. The effects of trauma can include negative physical and mental-health impacts, and increased vulnerability to drug and alcohol misuse. For children and youth, the effects of trauma can disrupt learning and emotional development, leading to relationship difficulties that impact families and workplaces.
Understanding trauma can lead us to better support people who speak out about their abuse, even when their behavior differs from ours.
Those of us who work directly with survivors know they are resilient and can reclaim their lives with the right support. They deserve to be believed, and we need to be willing to hold offenders accountable, whoever they are. Improving our collective response to allegations of abuse will help individual survivors — as well as our community — heal and move forward.
King County Sexual Assault Resource Center and Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence programs exist to help victims and their families recover and reclaim their lives. If you have experienced sexual assault and need support, or if you would like more information about sexual violence, call King County Sexual Assault Resource Center’s 24-hour Resource Line at 888-99-VOICE or visit endgv.org/local-services.