4 Things We Can Do To Help Heal And End Sexual Violence

We cannot go on as business as usual.
10/30/2016 08:13 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2016
Sonya Shah

Trigger warning

My Top “Locker Room” Incidents of 2016

Eleven months ago, I received a piece of hate mail at my work address. It was an old smelly sweatshirt with the name of the college where I teach on it and, taped to it, the handwritten words “Indian Whore.” It was anonymous. To this day, I have no idea who it was from. It was sent from across town in San Francisco. Someone took the time to mail me a piece of hate mail and I have no idea who they are, whether it’s a colleague down the hall or someone I met once.

Six months ago, a co-worker in one of my work locations, an older married man, was trolling me on Facebook, making me have meetings with him that I didn’t need to have, and stalling approval of my project so he could barrage me with inappropriate comments and endless questions about why I didn’t have a boyfriend and “I wonder what you’d be like if we got some alcohol in you.”

When he found out I was a survivor of child sexual abuse he said, “I knew something was different about you.” He told me that survivors are the type of people who have sex with everyone. I knew that if I said anything to his supervisor, I’d be blamed for it and then not allowed back. I made the decision to withdraw my project because I couldn’t bear the idea of having to interact with him.

Four months ago, I was walking through the Mission in San Francisco late at night, and some man followed me. He offered me $250 to have sex with him. I started walking faster, he started walking faster and chased me to my car. I fumbled for my keys while a montage of movie images of what happens to women who drop their keys flashed through me. I got in and drove away. My first thought, after a burst of tears, was that I shouldn’t have been walking alone so late at night, not that he shouldn’t have chased me.

A few weeks ago, a man I know said, “There is more than one way to get a woman to have sex with you. I’ve done a lot of different things in my life to manipulate women.” It was said so casually in the middle of a conversation to a group of people. We all kept talking, while internally my mouth dropped, like, did he really say that? I froze, and wondered if anyone would address it, but no one did. Neither did I.

Those are my top four “locker room” incidents of 2016.

Why I Often Haven’t Spoken Up

As Trump’s sexual harassment videos emerged, I had two responses: avoid all public discourse on them and obsessively watch them. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the casualness of Trump’s groping was triggering me as a survivor of sexual harm.

The videos didn’t take me back to experiencing the sexual abuse in my childhood or the rape when I was 23, but to this year. I posted a list on Facebook of the recent sexual harassment I’ve experienced because we have to out how pervasive it is and build skillful dialog about where we go from here. I hope people feel the way Michelle Obama does, as she said this October in her New Hampshire speech, “It has shaken me to my core in the way I couldn’t have predicted... This is not something that we can ignore.” We cannot go on as business as usual.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the casualness of Trump’s groping was triggering me as a survivor of sexual harm.

There are so many personal, financial, social, cultural and historical reasons why I’ve rarely mentioned these things. #Whywomendontreport offers an entry into the millions of reasons why silence is still the pervasive collective response to a violation of sexual boundaries. In each violation, the reasons to remain silent vary from victim-blaming, to protecting family members, to a real threat to financial resources, to shame. These tweets hit me at my core: “Because breaking silence makes it real,” “Because a presidential candidate just accused women who are reporting sexual assault of wanting attention,” and “Because this is nothing compared to what our mothers, grandmothers, and ancestors endure.” Together, these thousands of one-liners are a gateway into an invisible world of a collective silence.

My greatest fear is not to be believed. In fact, when I posted this list, my initial instinct was to post pictures of the sweatshirt and screenshots of my co-worker’s comments to me. Then I tripped out on thinking that my Facebook friends might think I engineered it,or poke at the severity of the screenshots, because maybe out of context they don’t look that harmful. I triple-checked the date of each incident and made sure not to exaggerate.

I worried that I would sound arrogant. I fretted that there were too many incidents to be believable. I justified that maybe it is happening more because I’m out in the world after being divorced. I minimized it with it’s not a big deal, this happens to everyone I know. I even victi- blamed myself thinking—what was I doing walking alone at midnight? I bit my nails thinking people would ask why I didn’t write about childhood sexual abuse instead since it had a great impact on me.

Why do I fear not being believed? My friend Ed Howard who is a lobbyist in Sacramento told me a story about the public’s reaction to the sexual harassment of Anita Hill by Clarence Thomas in 1991—that the question everyone asked was, “Do you believe her?”

That’s my biggest nightmare: to have everyone I know scrutinizing whether I should be believed or not. Having to prove it, being victim blamed, having the impact minimized, are societal tools that perpetuate silence and send the message that sexual boundary crossing is status quo and not to be questioned. Unconsciously, I internalize these messages and minimize, justify and doubt my own experiences. This is genius social control to maintaining the current order of things. This is what people mean when they say “rape culture,” which is a complex set of beliefs that normalize male sexual violence and aggression and blame the victim.

Here is what being shoved into silence feels like in my body: My go-to place is to feel numbness—a malaise of non-feeling. My throat clenches tightly. The words are bursting at the seams but that fear of not being believed creates the battle between my throat trying to protect me from societal stigma and my voice asking for healing and recognition. Shame feeds on this mess, and grows stronger day by day. And shame is one of the trickiest of emotions. It craves secrecy and, as the shame researcher Brené Brown says, “Derives its power from being unspeakable.”

My colleague Maegan Willam, who is a therapist, recently made this connection, “When we feel shame the very thing that would ease it, human connection, is the very thing that we avoid.” Shame needs voice and human connection to heal, but we avoid it at all costs.

Lady Gaga sang, “Til It Happens To You” at the 2016 Oscars about rape on college campuses, and survivors stood in solidarity and silence around her—it was a piercing metaphor of the paradox of visibility/healing and shame/silence. Shame has made me want to abandon this piece 100 times, while healing is forcing me to write it and post it.

Speaking the unspeakable is an important component in the movement to end sexual violence. Public survivorship shifts rape culture, creates a culture of believability and diffuses shame. We find safety and acceptance by acknowledging each other’s pain without waiting for anyone else’s acceptance. In doing so, we heal in community and hopefully the voices become loud and collective enough that it starts to tip some consciousness in the broader culture. This is why speaks outs are a component of sexual awareness weeks. This is why there are hashtags like #whywomendontreport and #itsnotokay. Most of the work has been built through decades of public actions and tireless work being done by love warriors on the ground, too many to name.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

1. We need to become a supportive and empathic culture.

I work with people who have committed extreme violence and have experienced extreme harm. Mostly, I work in the realm of sexual harm. “Sexual harm” is a term those of us in this field use to refer to the spectrum of harm from sexual harassment to rape and child sexual abuse. “Survivors” is a term we use to refer to someone who has experienced harm.

If there is one thing I have learned it is that survivors of sexual harm (including sexual harassment) want to be heard, understood and not judged. Giving the violation a space to breathe, listening to survivors, and asking them what they need and how they feel is a good place to start. Offering empathy and support is our job as sisters, brothers and friends. It’s a way to walk with someone on their journey towards healing, which could include dismantling their own shame and speaking the unspeakable.

Following a survivor’s lead is most important. Survivors need to have agency and power over their healing. A survivor might not want to talk about it, they might want to scream about it, they might push you away even if you are the closest person in their lives, they might stay quiet for years and then one day bring it up. It took me 10 years to say the word “rape” and another 15 to tell the full story. All of that is okay and up to the survivor. Their violation has nothing to do with you as the listener, what you believe, or how you feel. It has to do with them, and no two healing journeys look the same. Healing is not linear, and it is deeply personal.

Most importantly, if you are having thoughts about what you heard, if it’s confronting your own belief system, if you need to process your own pain or confusion, then you should be able to talk to someone else who can hold your needs, and you should give yourself as much space as you need to do that. When we can listen for what’s needed and offer understanding, this is how we become a supportive and empathic community.

There are so many things that keep us from being present to listening to someone else’s pain in an open and nonjudgmental way. Over the years of doing this work, here are some things I’ve noticed that get in our way:

  • We haven’t been socialized to nurture and care for each other.

  • We didn’t grow up to understand our own or others’ emotions.

  • It is difficult to listen to things outside of our belief system.

  • Our trauma is too present to be able to engage in another’s pain, meaning we haven’t been seen and heard enough in our lives so it is hard for us to see and hear others.

  • Our desire to fix and want to help or offer solutions.

  • We are used to debating as a form of communication, or being in conflict or communicating through argument.

  • We aren’t used to acknowledging pain and suffering as a part of life.

  • We fail to live in a culture that holds empathy and compassion as a core fundamental value.

Naming and reflecting on what can get in the way can help us remove these barriers to listening with compassion to each other.

While this piece is oriented towards survivors, we need to become an empathic and supportive society in general.

2. Violence is not outside of our day-to-day lives. We should understand how it happens and that there is no singular solution to ending violence.

Another component of my work is with people in prison who have committed sexual harm. Maegan Willam and I sit together in a restorative justice based, non-hierarchical community process with some men who have committed sexual harm to engage the causative reasons why they hurt someone sexually, and to heal their own wounds. We have a common saying in restorative justice practices, that “hurt people, hurt people” meaning that there is relationship between the harm someone has experienced and the violence that they caused to others. Exploring this relationship is helpful for understanding root causes, healing, and ceasing harmful acts.

Selves are not separate from society. We’re conditioned to believe that acts of violence are isolated incidences rooted in the personal, in the individuals who are doing the harming. This is not true. People are intertwined in a complex web of interpersonal and systemic influences; from family, school and neighborhood, to large systems, institutions, history, racism and poverty. All of these things can cause harm, trauma or violence to a person, and can be factors in why someone then commits an act of violence upon another.

A man who committed child sexual abuse and was chronically sexually abused as a child recently said, “The day I understood that I was trying to steal the boy’s childhood because I so violently had mine taken from me, was the day I knew I wouldn’t do it again. This was a paradigmatic shift for me when I understood that connection.” This was confirmed by three other men who committed child sexual abuse, two of whom were also survivors of it—that the feelings of wanting revenge or deeply envying the happiness and safety enjoyed by a child, coupled with “hitting rock bottom” and feeling like “my next act was suicidal,” along with the opportunity of being close to a young boy or girl in their lives, triggered their violating that child.

I imagine some readers might feel sick to their stomach about the above paragraph. At the same I wonder how many readers have considered this connection before. I didn’t until I heard it reiterated four times, and I work in this field. We have to learn how to end sexual violence from survivors and from people who have committed the harm—because people with direct experience of sexual violence have an essential role in ending it. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to interrupting sexual violence. Understanding the root causes of a violation is not excusing it, it’s a key component to real transformation.

There is no one reason why sexual violence happened and there are different nuanced factors when we are talking about rape, child sexual abuse or sexual assault. Each person has to understand the complex factors in their lives that lead to a sexual violation — this is just one interpersonal approach to ending it. The research confirms that there isn’t a singular motivating factor, and the reasons vary greatly. A few of the most common “causes” discussed in our society are around the harmer’s need for power and control. Another can arise if the harmer was a survivor of child sexual abuse, and sex and care were conflated for them as a child. A third cause, because of a systemic culture of violence against women, misogynistic male socialization and male dominance. These are just three possible factors amidst many other. We tend to want to simplify and think root causes are independent from the context and not multi-layered with other causes. This is also not true. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to interrupting sexual violence.

Understanding the root causes of a violation is not excusing it, it’s a key component to real transformation. Locking people up and telling them that they are bad terrible monsters isn’t a transformative process and won’t end sexual violence. There’s no getting rid of a problem by sticking people in prison. Holding empathy and non-judgment at the core of this process is essential. A person who has committed a sexual harm, who is ready to look at it, needs to be able to say the worse, craziest, most shameful thing without being judged. When judgment rears its head, the doors shut and the process of opening to deeper connections stops. And if someone can’t get to the root causes and make their own connections, their actions and behaviors don’t change. Self-awareness and reflection can create insights, insights bring changes in how we act, and this is where deeper accountability lives. This process is something that everyone needs to do out here in the world because we harm each other all day long, and don’t take the time to understand root causes.

We demonize people convicted of sexual harm because it is deeply painful that it’s pervasive in our communities. It is easier to make a small percentage of “thems” in prison out to be deviant monstrous sexual predators because its too painful to see that it is much closer than that—to say it was my boss, it was my supervisor, it was my father, it was my aunt, it was my cousin, it was my... It is time to turn the mirror inward. Ninety percent or so of sexual crime isn’t reported. There are 42 million survivors of sexual abuse in the United States, so the focus is on us.

Trump allegedly sexually assaulted women. Clarence Thomas allegedly sexually harassed Anita Hill. Brock Turner raped his victim. Men in power and wealthy white young men don’t get called sexual predators because of power and white supremacy. Lets just say that out loud. I do not believe anyone should be called a sexual predator. That is not the point. The point is that by calling men in prison sexual predators we don’t own the role that power, racism and male supremacy play in the normalization of sexual violence. Focusing on demonizing a very small percentage of men as predatory monsters is another genius tool of social control to normalize sexual violence and male dominance in our culture.

Changing culture requires that we have our fists in the air, and have compassion for all parties, even the one that is doing the most harm. It’s useful to separate the action from the person. A terrible act is not terrible person. We were not born with malice in our hearts. It is not who we are. Perhaps knowing this allows us to see each other’s core humanity even when we experience acts of dehumanization.

As a woman of color who grew up in this country, I know what it feels like to feel dehumanized, invisible and like an object. My instincts are to fight for justice while being grounded in empathy and compassion. This is where restorative justice practices and the movement to end sexual violence can lean into each others’ strengths: the sexual violence movement in dismantling systemic patriarchy, restorative justice processes in offering a compassionate container for all parties while keeping the needs of victim at the center, together with the context and causes of why harm happened to begin with, and a process to address and heal the harm in the context of community.

I have just as much compassion for Trump and Brock Turner as I do for those men in prison. I have more respect for the men in prison I know because they are accountable and self-reflective. What if men in positions of power, who abuse it had to go through a process of developing self-awareness, building insight, and understanding relationships between how they were socialized and the acts they committed? Would they find a connection between internalized white supremacy and dominance to the acts of sexual violence they did to others? What if they showed an iota of remorse or accountability? What kind of fine men would they be if they were willing to take a good hard look at themselves?

3. We need to radically shift gender socialization.

In The Will To Change, Bell Hooks writes:

The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence towards women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self esteem.

I know many men who’ve said that they weren’t allowed to feel sad or scared when they were younger because it was a sign of weakness—a display of emotion or vulnerability was followed by disapproval or a beating. I’ve heard men talk about hyper-masculinity—this sense of adopting an overly masculine false identity because they don’t feel like it’s safe to access what’s really in there. A component of upholding that image is coercion of other men and aggression towards men and women. This is on the more extreme end, and there are so many more overt and subtle societal messages that tell men that they are only allowed to exist within a very narrow social construct. Boys and men are cut off from a whole range of healthy emotions, and need access to the full beautiful spectrum of who they are and gender expression without the stigma of not being a man.

On the flip side, I was acculturated into compliance and nurturance and acceptance of most male behavior. At 43, I have been dating for two years and I’m dumfounded at how flexible I am, often against what I really want. I perpetuate my own powerlessness by trying to be easy and flexible, while men I’ve dated tend to express what they want with ease. Unconsciously, we reinforce reliance on my nurturance and uphold their entitlement to have what they want.

Often I feel unable to figure out and express what I know and what I want because of how I have been socialized. My mother, aunts’ and grandmothers’ anxiety and not-knowing are far worse than mine. I notice I’m doing the same thing to my daughter. I’ve told her to be flexible when the boys don’t want to play her game, and stayed quiet when it’s the opposite. It is so unconscious I barely notice it. A few hours later when I ask her what she wants to do, and she says, “I don’t know” or “whatever they want,” I am devastated. I am participating in breeding her sense of knowing out of her. While this is just one example from my family, socialization happens on all levels from the interpersonal to the systemic. I am surprised at how many women of color in my classes have a hard time speaking, believing they have wisdom, and identifying what they already know.

What do the more subtle forms of gender socialization have to do with sexual harassment, let alone rape or child sexual abuse? It is a continuum, with subtle gender socialization on the lowest end of the spectrum, sexual harassment in the middle, and rape and child sexual abuse on the other end of the spectrum. It is not to say that one leads to the other, it is to point out that there is a relationship between an over-allowance of male behavior and entitlement that when coupled with other factors can become sexual aggression.

Sexual abuse, assault and harassment impacts us all and in our most intimate spaces. In the end, we all suffer.

We need to hold with great care and tenderness the socialization of men, women, and transpeople that allows freedom and range of gender and emotional expression of all that we can be, and without pitting ourselves in an US and THEM, because if we don’t we’ll all continue to suffer. I have experienced and witnessed so many men and women in my cohort of peers work daily against the levels of socialization, and work through expectations put upon them so we can cultivate the most authentic connection to one another. Let’s continue to work towards this personal and interdependent liberation.

4. We should be celebrating healthy sexuality.

My son and daughter like to have long chats before bed. When in one of them I asked them about crushes, my daughter shut it down and didn’t want to talk about it; my son was more willing to engage. I asked, “How do you know someone has a crush on you? How do you know you like them? What does it feel like in your body?” I reaffirmed that it is healthy and wonderful to have those feelings in an age-appropriate way. As they grow up, I want them to know that healthy sexuality makes sex, attraction and intimacy feel good, and that we need to respect it as a life force.

I once facilitated a powerful circle dialogue with people who were survivors of sexual assault and rape, and people who’d been partnered with survivors of rape and child sexual abuse. I was moved by how partners were expressing the impact of sexual abuse on their sense of relationships. This is true for me, and my ex-husband certainly underwent the brunt of my trying to figure out a positive, healthy, present relationship to sex in my more unhealed years. It impacted him significantly. To the point, sexual abuse, assault and harassment impacts us all and in our most intimate spaces. In the end, we all suffer, our relationships suffer, and intimacy and sex as a beautiful life force suffers. Don’t we want to be in love, in connection, feel belonging and intimacy with each other?

In the end, I feel gratitude to Trump. His presidential candidacy has opened our eyes to the pervasiveness and normalization of sexual harm. Trump is a metaphor who showed up at the right time to show us what is wrong with our culture. It feels as though our ears are open to sexual violence in a way that they haven’t been before. Let’s keep them open.




Images From 'Surviving In Numbers' -- A Project Highlighting Sexual Assault Survivors' Experiences