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Grace Mattern: Sexual assault and the path to healing

  • Christine Blasey Ford (center) is flanked by attorneys Debra Katz and Michael Bromwich during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court. AP

  • Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, makes remarks during the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. AP



For the Monitor
Sunday, October 07, 2018

Whatever your opinion of the truthfulness of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, or the actions of protesters, supporters and senators, there’s no denying our society has a long history of ignoring and discounting the trauma of sexual violation that far too many women live with.

The last two weeks have made the collective pain of women around me so palpable I’ve actually felt sick to my stomach at times. Tears surprised me again and again, and I considered canceling out of a monthly gathering with writer friends that I cherish. I couldn’t stop crying and I didn’t want to leave the house.

I’m not among the one in five women who’ve been raped in their lifetimes (19.3 percent in a national study; 19.5 percent is a N.H. study). I am in the close to half of women (43.9 percent) who’ve been sexually assaulted in other ways.

Nothing that happened to me, while chargeable under a criminal statute, would have made any sense to report. The assault didn’t harm me in any significant way, it was just part of being female in the world. A friend I never expected to be among the guys who’d cop a feel did, and I was shocked and angry. I never socialized with him again, though I did still have to work with him.

Still, the pain is there.

The women in Washington “harassing” senators, as Mitch McConnell characterizes it, are largely survivors. They want their voices to be heard, they want to be seen and acknowledged, because mostly they’ve been silenced and sidelined. They see that happening to Dr. Blasey Ford as her widely hailed “credible” testimony is put aside without a real attempt to understand what happened. Our president turned to taunts and some senators began to discredit her.

Women are afraid the recent opening to tell stories of abuse and harassment and be believed is closing. At least in this instance, at least at this moment in our history.

But the women asking senators to look at them, listen to them, acknowledge the reality of sexual harm, are only part of what’s making me sad. It’s also the women I know who are not in Washington. One young woman at a knitting class told the group of us sitting and chatting that she’s a survivor. The last two years have been difficult, living in a world that elected a president who brags about assaulting women. The last two weeks have been brutal.

I know a young woman who’s been unable to leave her house. She canceled appointments with her doctor and therapist. Her trauma history is so heavy she hasn’t yet figured out how to navigate her life again. She doesn’t feel safe in the world.

Friends and relatives have been on social media, telling their own stories of assault and violation, and #whyididntreport. They describe fractured memories like Blasey Ford and a belief that they were to blame. They most often were young when they were assaulted, which is consistent with research; girls between the ages of 15 and 24 are the most at risk for sexual assault. Research also tells us that is a very vulnerable age in brain development. Girls are scarred in ways that make it difficult to heal.

The most powerful story I’ve heard in the last two weeks is from Caitlin Flanagan. I heard her on The Daily podcast from the New York Times and she’s also written about her experience in The Atlantic.

She was a depressed teenager looking for a way to make friends when she moved across the country her senior year of high school. She accepted a ride home from a boy one day, excited to think she might finally start to know some other students. Instead the boy drove her to a deserted beach and tried to rape her. She fought back and he stopped and took her home.

She didn’t tell anyone for all the reasons women and girls don’t tell anyone about being sexually assaulted. It was her fault. She got into a car alone with a boy. She wasn’t an attractive girl, the kind you want to take to parties, just the kind you want to pressure into sex. She tried to commit suicide.

But Flanagan has not been haunted by this assault and there’s a reason why. The boy who assaulted her apologized. He told her what happened was not her fault, that the “blame rests on my shoulders.” He signed her yearbook with his first apology and than approached her again two years later. He repeated that he was sorry for what he’d done, said it was his fault, and asked for her forgiveness.

She forgave him. She no longer blamed herself for what happened.

Powerful men turning their backs on women who are trying to be seen, heard and believed as survivors of assault causes more harm. Pretending to listen to Blasey Ford and then not allowing a full investigation into what really happened can thrust women back into the disregarded and degraded space they’ve always occupied as victims.

Why can’t all men own up to the harm that a minority of men cause? If a teenager can do it, a teenager who was himself a perpetrator, then U.S. senators can do it too. Acknowledge that women have a reason to be angry and a right to insist that the reality of sexual assault in our lives – the prevalence, effects and consequences – be affirmed. Insist that men who harm women be accountable.

Then maybe we can all begin to heal.

(Grace Mattern is a poet and writer who lives in Northwood. She blogs at gracemattern.com.)