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Cindy Beal & Lynne Marie Wanamaker: It’s never too late to report sexual assault



Monday, December 01, 2014
EASTHAMPTON — We were appalled to see a misinformed opinion piece by Christine Flowers in the Nov. 21 Gazette. Christine Flowers’ guest essay — “Cosby accusers waited too long” — stands as a worst-case example of what not to say when someone takes the courageous step of disclosing a violation.

Experts in sexual violence, trauma and recovery know that it is never too late to tell. Experts also know that how we respond to survivors can have a profound influence on their resilience and recovery. In the words of trauma expert Judith Herman, our compassionate witness can fulfill “the hope that restorative love may still be found in the world.” These are some things survivors of sexual and domestic violence need — and deserve — to hear: It was not your fault. If someone made the reprehensible choice to hurt you, that was their fault. No matter how many times you think about what happened or how, it was not your fault.

You can and should tell anyone you want. No matter if it is an hour after you were hurt or a hundred years.

Truth is truth, and you have the right to speak yours. It might start out as a wail, but after that the words will come.

There are many of us who will listen to you, who will hear you, who are sorry that it happened to you. Some of us because it happened to us, too. Some of us because we are people with big hearts and open eyes who see and feel truths that are so painful about our culture that lets this happen over and over again.

Know this: We are in your houses of worship and nursery schools and shopping centers. We are at Safe Passage: On the hotline, in supportive services, and running and cheering at the Hot Chocolate Run to promote freedom from violence in Hampshire County. And we are in your adult ed classes, your kid’s basketball camp, the auto repair shop. You are surrounded by people who will listen and believe you.

We understand that there are hundreds of reasons someone might not tell the story of a sexual assault right away. Some of them are rooted in the neurobiology of trauma: The things that happen in our brains and bodies when we are overwhelmed by violations.

Some of us didn’t tell because we were afraid of hurting the people we loved. Or we were afraid that the people who loved us — our dads, our mothers — might kill the people who had hurt us. Some of us didn’t tell because we were afraid we would be killed.

Some of us did tell, but we were not believed. Or we were blamed. Or we were asked many questions to which we did not have answers. And it was a long time before we tried telling again.

Some of us didn’t tell because we needed help to find the words. Sometimes that help came from people who loved and believed us. Sometimes it came from skilled professionals who understand how trauma works and how humans heal.

Some of us didn’t tell because we could not bear to bring the scrutiny of a victim-blaming culture into our most vulnerable moment.

Whenever we talk about violence, survivors are listening. The Centers for Disease Control tell us that one in two U.S. women has experienced a sexual assault that was not a rape, and one in five has experienced rape.

Studies show that 27 percent of women and 16 percent of men have experienced childhood sexual abuse.

If we say publicly that one survivor waited “too long” to tell, we tell those who have not yet disclosed that we will not stand with them when they are ready. In so doing, we become an obstacle to healing. We collude with the perpetrators and become part of the culture of violence.

We disavow this. We stand with and for survivors. It is never too late to tell.

Cindy Beal runs Justice and Peace Consulting in Easthampton and Lynne Marie Wanamaker is a violence prevention educator in Easthampton.