Child sexual abuse, I have learned as a survivor of it myself and as a special victims prosecutor for most of my career, is not a tragic but rare event. Instead, it is a part of the human condition so common as to be threatened with mundanity. And perhaps it would be, were it not for the tiny universe in each, individual child that it shatters. What that shattering produces, though, is most often the same effect as the falling tree in the lifeless woods. Traditionally, we've had little to nothing to say to our children about sexual abuse as it most often appears. And so our children, as well, have remained largely mute as the abuse passes through their lives.
There are many reasons for the silence that pervades this experience. For most of us, it visits not like a clutching hand from the margins of our nightmares but rather a comforting caress that one day begins to linger. Usually the caresser is one we've learned to love or at least been taught to obey. Sometimes what we feel -- certainly at first -- isn't unpleasant at all. Or if it is, or becomes so, it's just another experience; a chore before us like so many we learn to endure as the path before us becomes rockier, darker and more steep.
We also remain silent about the sexual violence we endure in adolescence and adulthood as well, now not for a lack of language, but the burden of context, namely shame and guilt. This is because, to the extent sexual assault is discussed at all, it's presented as simply avoidable. Correct behavior, we're told, will keep us safe. Regular hours. Abstention from alcohol. Chastity. Avoiding behaviors readily listed by one source or another; whatever our environment or culture dictates.
This is not victim blaming, we're told. Rather, it's "common sense," as if meticulous adherence to a set of rules will protect us, and thus leave us ultimately to blame if we "get ourselves raped" anyway. Even when we are believed, we may well find at best compromised compassion, and an often unintentional but no less cruel admonition to accept responsibility for whatever rule breaking ultimately cost us our physical integrity, and so much more. The desire for a just world, and most especially a manageable, predictable one, drives many to distance themselves from the horrors visited upon others by distancing themselves from their supposed choices.
And so the most natural choice for a victim of sexual violence is to remain silent. It's better to grieve internally than to risk cold disbelief or head-shaking disdain. Silence is the best protection from the deep sting of a negative response. But tragically, silence is also the greatest weapon of those who make the choice to rape us.
Sexual Assault Awareness Month, observed in April and resonating its theme of spring renewal, is a time for reflection on the reality and pervasiveness of sexual violence. But it should only highlight a year-round effort to combat it, first and foremost with compassion and supportiveness toward the survivors among us.
My organization, End Violence Against Women, International, recently created a campaign called "Start By Believing" which asks no more than its name suggests: An initial, supportive response to a person who gathers the wherewithal or succumbs to the pain and discloses to us that they've been sexually violated. Every one of us is a potential responder who may either help begin the healing process or reinforce the silence that furthers the cycle of pain and misery, and also cloaks the perpetrators.
We will not soon rid ourselves of the phenomenon of sexual violence. But the adage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is worth echoing again as we continue to engage a world that is changing, for the better, before our eyes and because of our efforts. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
This month, let it bend a bit more.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Read all posts in the series here.
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