Over the past week or so, numerous articles and think pieces have dissected and debated a campaign ad released by Seattle mayoral candidate M. Lorena González, which used a white rape survivor to attack opponent Bruce Harrell for what she called a “troubling” record of responding to rape and sexual assault allegations against former Mayor Ed Murray and others.

The ad was decried by some Black community leaders as playing into persistent and longstanding racist tropes, and was ultimately pulled from the airwaves the week prior to the election.

Meanwhile, sexual assault survivors took to social media to express their own disgust at how they felt their voices were not being heard, yet again. 

The whole sorry episode left me feeling disheartened.

By the time this column appears, the voting deadline will have passed, so I’m not here to pass judgment on any particular candidate. But I will say this: Regardless of the outcome of this election, it is long past time that voices of survivors are centered, rather than relegated to a sideshow in some political drama. 

Even after the #MeToo movement supposedly opened our eyes to the pervasiveness of sexual violence, we still struggle to acknowledge survivors and their experiences.

According to the CDC, more than 1 in 3 women experience sexual assault in their lifetimes and nearly 1 in 4 men. For multiple marginalized groups like trans people and Indigenous people, for example, the numbers are even worse. 

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The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that nearly half of transgender people reported being sexually assaulted some time in their life.

And in Seattle, a 2010 survey of Native women released in 2018 by the Urban Indian Health Institute and the CDC, found that nearly all of the 148 respondents reported being raped or coerced into sex at some point in their lives. Nearly all.

Most women, gender diverse and queer people I know have experienced some kind of sexual violence in their lives. I have as well. But part of the reason we are bad at addressing it is that our culture has so accepted the normalcy of sexual violence that often we don’t even know it is happening to us when it’s happening.

According to The Guardian, a 2016 analysis of 28 studies of 6,000 women and girls who had survived sexual violence found that 60% did not label their experience as “rape.” Instead, many downplayed their own experiences.

This phenomenon — what Guardian writer Rachel Thompson called “unacknowledged rape” — often stems from a perception that what the survivor has experienced was “not as bad” as what others have gone through. Despite the fact that 8 of 10 rape survivors know their attacker, there is still a belief that an attack by a stranger on the street is what constitutes “real” rape.

This self doubt and sometimes self blame that sexual assault survivors experience is a core part of our society’s rape culture. According to UN Women, rape culture “is the social environment that allows sexual violence to be normalized and justified, fueled by the persistent gender inequalities and attitudes about gender and sexuality. Naming it is the first step to dismantling rape culture.”

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If you need help

News reports of sexual-assault allegations could be a trigger for victims and survivors of abuse. Here are some resources:
  • The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center offers a 24-hour resource line (888-998-6423). Additionally, KCSARC can help connect people with therapy, legal advocates and family services (kcsarc.org/gethelp).
  • UW Medicine’s Center for Sexual Assault & Traumatic Stress (depts.washington.edu/hcsats) offers resources, including counseling and medical care. For immediate help, call 206-744-1600.
  • For readers outside King County, the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs lists 38 Washington state providers that offer free services. (wcsap.org/find-help)
  • RAINN: Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network provides a free, confidential hotline (800-656-4673) and online chat (hotline.rainn.org) with trained staff members.

Rape culture is everywhere. You can find it in those handy social media tip sheets that tell women what they should do to avoid being raped, versus telling men to not rape. Rape culture is asking someone “What were you wearing?” or “Were you drinking?” when someone talks about a sexual assault or harassment. 

And acceptance of rape culture is part of what has led to a massive backlog of rape kits waiting to be tested, which in Washington state was up to nearly 10,000 in 2015. Things are improving with a goal of December 2021 to clear the backlog, but this is all within the context that only about 30% of rape incidents are ever reported and less than 6% lead to an arrest.

Plus, we know we can’t prosecute or punish our way out of rape culture. The pervasiveness of it means that survivors and those who have caused harm are all around us. Talking about the impact of sexual violence and how it affects us honestly and openly can help create accountability and transformation and break the cycles of harm.

But that openness often comes at a huge price for survivors.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talked about her own experience with sexual assault and the impact of stigma for survivors earlier this year, voicing an experience many can relate to. 

“There’s the trauma of going through what you went through, and then there’s the trauma afterward with people not believing you or trying to publicly humiliate you or trying to embarrass you,” she said.

We can change this cycle. The next administration needs to not just talk about how we support sexual assault survivors but also show up in the concrete actions we take to dismantle rape culture. In fact we must, because the next generation — the one that will determine what our future world will look like — is watching us and following our lead.