Experts say talking about sexual assault and abuse, even when it happened many years ago, can provide a sense of release knowing someone has heard you and believed you.
Karen Taylor’s introduction to sexual predators began in a workplace: her elementary school in Seattle, where the janitor on duty coaxed her and a kindergarten classmate into a janitorial closet, exposed himself and then gave them candy.
Another janitor at a different school raped her twice, she says, and other men preyed on her at the places where she lived. She stayed quiet, not understanding that she could tell, until she was 15 and told on a male relative who had looked down her shirt. The response: He was probably just playing with her.
By then, Taylor says, any expectation of personal safety was long gone. “It plants a seed that you’re nothing,’’ she says.
Taylor’s anger built into rage and, at 16, she served the first of six prison sentences, several stemming from a crack addiction. The last one ended 13 years ago. Now, at 53 years old, she reflects on her life through a different lens, one focused on others who have no voice.
Confronting sexual harassment and abuseThe #MeToo movement has sparked a national conversation about sexual harassment and assault. From actors in Hollywood to security guards at the Seattle Public Library, more people are coming forward with painful and intimate stories of abuse, casting new light on behavior that for too long has been dealt with in whispers, secret settlements or not at all. So where do we go from here? The Seattle Times' occasional series explores that and other questions as we move forward in this changed landscape.
“I had a horrific life,’’ she says. “I want to give hope back to people like me who feel hopeless. I didn’t get what I should have gotten, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want somebody else to.”
Taylor says she found solace and a sense of safety by knowing Jesus, but her journey toward healing is rooted in telling and building friendships with women who know her story and remind her that she matters.
“There should be no secrets,’’ she says.
Telling, for her, is freedom.
“A sense of restitution”
It’s called the #MeToo movement, but it could just as well be named The Telling.
Everywhere, women are talking about the sexual harassment and abuse they encountered in their lives, and their workplaces. What were once secrets are now offered willingly, shared with the phrase “me too,” or in detail with little prompting.
Each telling seems to create space for another woman to be heard. Experts say it’s an important step in coming to terms with lingering pain from experiences that happened decades ago.
“Just being able to talk about it, finally, after all those years. Just to release it,” says LueRachelle Brim-Atkins, a consultant who has more than 30 years working with employers over workplace issues related to discrimination and harassment. “It provides a sense of restitution when you feel that someone has heard you and believed you and takes you seriously.”
That’s true whether the incident involves assault or harassment, Brim-Atkins says.
Still, she says, “Some people get to resolve it, and some people don’t.” Some women, particularly women of color, have been telling for decades, and no one believed them, she says. Others feel they have too much to lose.
“Telling is an important part of it, but you can’t expect everyone to tell because not everyone has the courage or the message that says it’s OK to tell. Some people told and were punished,’’ says Brim-Atkins, who founded Brim-Donahoe & Associates and has conducted trainings at workplaces as diverse as universities and manufacturers.
“These things weren’t talked about”
The effects of sexual traumas, including harassment, are well documented in studies: depression and anxiety. Post-traumatic stress disorder. A host of physical ailments, including headaches, bowel problems, even high blood pressure.
The enduring effects can manifest in myriad ways for decades, even in the absence of assault, said Debra Borys, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who treats trauma. Time may heal wounds, but for many women, time opens new space for different kinds of wounds.
“That’s particularly true of women who are older now. Most kids these days know a little about the kind of injustices in the world pretty early on,” she says, and many women of color experience those injustices firsthand when they’re young.
“Women who are now senior citizens, when they were teenagers, a lot of these things weren’t talked about, or they may have thought they were things that would never happen to them.”
When they do happen, women often feel a sense of powerlessness, she says. “They cope by looking for things they could have done to protect themselves. Psychologists call it ‘undoing,’ whereby they take an image or scenario where you could do something different. It gives you the illusion that it will help you be safer and protected.”
Previous sexual trauma complicates the picture and makes the effects more severe, Borys says.
Borys acknowledges that not all women feel safe to speak openly about their experiences. But she says that women can try to resolve lingering issues by talking about what happened to them and their feelings about it, either online in anonymous forums or chat groups, or with a trusted friend.
They also can move toward resolving painful feelings by posting news stories on social media, commenting on posts that resonate with them or getting involved in political action or movements for change, Borys says.
Brim-Atkins agrees. Telling is helpful, she says, so too is action.
“I’m always hopeful,’’ she says. “My hope comes from putting teeth in the law.”